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Monday, May 21, 2012

Is LeBron's Historic Performance a Preview of Coming Attractions?

LeBron James became just the second player in NBA playoff history to tally 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists (Elgin Baylor posted exactly the same numbers in each of those categories in a 1961 playoff game) and he led the Miami Heat to a 101-93 road victory over the Indiana Pacers in a must win game four; the Heat tied the series at 2-2, regaining home court advantage. James' tag team partner Dwyane Wade once again struggled early in the game but after James spoonfed Wade for a couple of point blank shots Wade came alive in the second half and finished with 30 points, nine rebounds and six assists.

Even though the Heat are without the services of the injured Chris Bosh and even though their supporting cast is much criticized, it is obvious that since the Heat have the two best players in this series--including the best player in the entire league--they have more than enough talent to win provided that James and Wade both play the right way at the same time: that means that the ball must primarily be in James' hands and that both players must attack the hoop relentlessly on offense and play very energetically on defense. James cannot stand in the corner awaiting future developments and Wade cannot dribble the air out of the ball before jacking up wild long range jumpers. James did not attempt a single three pointer in game four, while Wade took just two (making both); in game three James and Wade combined to shoot 1-6 from three point range and neither player attacked the hoop the way that they both attacked the hoop in game four.

James cannot be expected to put up 40-18-9 on a nightly basis. That had only happened once before in NBA playoff history and it may never happen again--but, as a three-time MVP who is almost universally acknowledged to be the best player in the league, James should absolutely be expected to play with great energy and aggression every time he takes the court. Kobe Bryant is much older than LeBron James and at this stage of Bryant's career he is much less athletic than James but Bryant is still attacking the hoop and drawing fouls (in his past two playoff games, Bryant has attempted 35 free throws while taking just three shots behind the arc).

Even without Bosh, the Heat should be able to win this series now; a best out of three set with two games at home (if necessary) should favor the team that has the two best players. The sad thing about James is that we really have no idea which James we will see in games five and six. In the second round of the 2010 playoffs, James authored a masterful game three performance versus Boston (38 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, one turnover, 14-22 field goal shooting) to lift his Cleveland Cavaliers to a 2-1 series lead but the Cavs then lost three straight games, with the low point coming at home in game five as James quit during a Celtics rout. James shot 2-3 from three point range in the game three win but he shot 2-13 from three point range in the next three games; he drifted passively around the court for large stretches of those games and he looked disinterested during timeouts.

I do not lightly throw around the word "quit"; I know firsthand what it means to compete and I know that a person can try his very best and still fall short of victory--but a masterful performance like the one James just authored paints a vivid, indelible, three dimensional picture of exactly what it looks like when James is really trying. This is not about numbers but rather about giving maximum effort, about doing everything on the court with great conviction and purpose: James and Wade both displayed maximum effort in everything that they did, so even if they had missed shots on offense or given up miracle shots despite playing tenacious defense no one could reasonably question or doubt that they left everything on the court. It is obvious what James looks like when he is really trying, so when he stands passively in the corner it is equally obvious that he is not trying very hard. Forget the nonsensical justifications that center around James being a pass first player; in game four James poured in 40 points without forcing any shots and he still delivered nine assists. Giving up the ball without attacking the hoop and thus putting pressure on a less talented teammate to take a lower quality shot is not being unselfish; it is making a bad basketball play and--in light of what we have seen that James is capable of doing--it must be described as quitting.

It is possible that the scintillating James-Wade game four performance versus Indiana will propel the Heat into the Eastern Conference Finals and perhaps even all the way to winning an NBA title--but it is also possible that James will be passive in games five and six as the Pacers eliminate the Heat just like the underdog Celtics took out James' Cavaliers in 2010 and the underdog Dallas Mavericks defeated James' Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals.

I have no idea whether or not James will quit in the next two games. I have no idea why he quit in the 2010 and 2011 playoffs, so I consider this quitting phenomenon inexplicable and thus impossible to predict--but the fact that it is even conceivable that he will do so (and every NBA observer who is honest and objective knows that it is at least possible that James will spend the next two games aimlessly drifting around the perimeter) is a very sad commentary about James, something that cannot be wiped out even by his great game four performance. One could argue that even winning a championship will not excuse or justify James' previous quitting episodes but we all know that if James wins a title his previous failures will be largely forgiven and forgotten--if one Super Bowl ring made the media forget that Ray Lewis obstructed justice (at the very least) in a still unsolved double murder then one NBA championship ring will surely make the media forget James' 2010 and 2011 playoff failures.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:03 AM

6 comments

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6 Comments:

At Monday, May 21, 2012 5:23:00 PM, Blogger Ben said...

Interesting how dominant Lebron can be when he wants to be, then shrink when the spotlight is the greatest. It is one thing to lose firing away bricks and another to lose without even trying. Time to face the pressure like every other young star has, especially Kevin Durant.

If he ever gets over this mental hurdle, look out.

 
At Monday, May 21, 2012 5:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

i said for the longest and i never wavered i believe in lebron james he is by far best player in basketball. alot of people hate because of cleveland and the fact he not one a ring. i said this is lebron james time he delivered a lengendary performance when team look dead he that good though. wade was big i think this game propel them too title. long as lebron and wade move and cut without ball and con tinue to go to post. they will beat every team in the league. and bosh should be back in a couple weeks. u stephen a smith and skip bayless have been very critcal of lebron james. i like this article u gave james proper due when he played well like u should do u cant hav e it both ways no excuses if het win title i don t want to hear about 2011 and 2010 anymore those mean nothing u questioned if he could lead a team to title if he does he should get his proper due.

 
At Monday, May 21, 2012 5:36:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

Yes, you have said those things for the longest time--and so far James has not won a single championship. In other words, so far you have been wrong. If James is going to win "not one, not two, not three, not four, not five" championships then he will have to start winning them this year and keep winning them past the age when even Kobe's athletic skills declined, so good luck with that.

James has had great playoff performances before and, as I documented in this article, he has followed up those performances by quitting. We'll see what he does this time.

Please don't compare me in any way to "Screaming" A. Smith or Skip "Biased." I have always given James--and every other player whose game I have analyzed--"proper due." I have written about James' accelerated growth curve and I have stated without hesitation that he should have won the last four regular season MVPs. However, there is no getting around the fact that he has quit in each of the last two postseasons when the going got tough against elite teams.

If James plays like he should play--i.e., if he does not quit--and if he leads the Heat to the NBA title then I will give him proper credit for that accomplishment. When he went to Miami I said that he could lead Miami to a championship but it also could turn out that his best chances to win a title came in Cleveland--and I fully stand by both parts of that statement.

 
At Monday, May 21, 2012 5:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

I have never questioned if James is capable of leading a team to a championship; he clearly is capable of doing so and in fact I expected him to do so in both 2009 and 2010. What I have questioned is whether or not James will play up to his capabilities in key moments against top level competition; in the past two years he has quit in such situations. We'll see what he does now. As you said, "no excuses": the Heat clearly can beat the Pacers even without Bosh if James maximizes his talents so if the Pacers eliminate the Heat then I don't want to hear any excuses from you--you will have to admit that this would be James' third failure in three years against opponents that he should have defeated.

 
At Tuesday, May 22, 2012 11:01:00 AM, Anonymous Haifeng said...

David,

I have been a longtime fan of your post. This might be off-topic, but I would like to have your opinion.

Watching Miami this season, is it just me or do you get a sense that Dwayne Wade's game has actually regressed? It seems that the only way Wade can score is to get to the basket or shoot in the close range. And even in the close range his shots are quite unorthodox, hence unsustainable. His mid-range shot is as unreliable and undisciplined as ever, much less the 3-point shots. Thus he is most frequently complaining about getting fouled.

Comparing to James Harden, they both utilize the euro-step to zig-zag into the lane, but Harden has a much better outside shot. Even though Harden is less athletic, he still gets to the rim very efficiently. Both of them have all-NBA teammates at their side, so it's a non-excuse to say Wade draws the most attention of the defense.

At this rate, it won't be 2 years that Wade will just be an very average player. Your thoughts please.

 
At Tuesday, May 22, 2012 6:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Haifeng:

I agree with your observations about Wade; in a recent article I said many of the same things about him:

"I don't know if Wade has suddenly gotten older--something that often happens to players who rely primarily on explosiveness, such as NFL cornerbacks--or if he is letting himself be mentally affected by the kind of nagging injuries that did not slow Bryant down at a similar age when Bryant led the Lakers to championships but it is stunning how ineffective Wade is at both ends of the court when he cannot simply jump over everyone and/or explode around people. Wade has an inconsistent midrange game, no three point game and a limited arsenal of footwork/fakes to get open or at least draw fouls; during Miami's series against Indiana, Wade has been reduced to delivering cheap shots, fussing at his coach and bricking shots from all angles. Wade may be turning into the George McGinnis of shooting guards right before our eyes: as a 28 year old, McGinnis was a 22.6 ppg All-Star but the next season his scoring average plummeted by more than 7 ppg and two years later his career was over. As soon as McGinnis' athleticism declined, he rapidly descended from All-Star status to bench warmer. I am not predicting quite as steep or fast of a slide for Wade but Wade looks like the kind of player whose effectiveness will dramatically decrease with even a marginal loss of athleticism simply because Wade relies so much on explosiveness. If LeBron James does not add some more tools to his game then within the next three-four years his effectiveness will also decrease as his athleticism wanes, though James will always have the advantage of his height and strength. It will be very interesting in a few years to compare Wade at 33 and then James at 33 with the 2012 season that Bryant had as a 33 year old."

 

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