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Friday, June 08, 2012

Brilliant LeBron James Performance Lifts Heat over Celtics

Many adjectives could be used to describe LeBron James' 45 point, 15 rebound, five assist performance in Miami's 98-79 victory at Boston in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals but it is difficult to fully describe just how well James played. Here is one way to spell it out:

Laudable
Energetic
Breathtaking
Remarkable
Overpowering
Necessary

Those words are carefully chosen: James deserves praise for the energetic way that he played, some of the shots he made were breathtaking and remarkable and he overpowered Boston's efforts to stop him--but the most important word is the last one: James' performance was necessary. James joins Wilt Chamberlain as the only two players in NBA playoff history to ring up a 45-15-5 stat line (the closest ABA playoff stat line that I know of is Julius Erving's 48-14-8 in game two of the 1976 ABA Finals)--but this is not about hitting specific statistical targets: it is about playing with such energy, force and commitment that you inspire your teammates and deflate the other team.

Early in ESPN's game six telecast, Mike Breen wondered why some people are so critical of James. I cannot speak for other people but as someone who has both praised James as a worthy MVP--I even declared that James should have been the first player in NBA history to win four straight MVPs--and criticized James for quitting against Boston in the 2010 playoffs and for quitting against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals, my stance on James has not wavered (unlike the Cleveland media members who breathlessly praised James and now relentlessly bash him): James is a great player who has worked hard to improve his skill set weaknesses but he does not consistently display the mindset of a champion and he does not consistently play with high energy against elite teams. Again, this is not about stats; it is about impacting the game and willing your team to victory. The way that James played in game six is the way that he should play all of the time; it will not always result in 45-15-5 numbers but if he played that energetically all of the time then he would surely lead the Heat to a championship. The reason that since 2010 I have questioned if James will ever win a title is that I am not certain that he has it within him to consistently play with that kind of energy. It is so ironic that the supposed justification for James leaving Cleveland was that he needed more help to win a title but in the Heat's most important 2012 playoff game so far he had to have a signature individual performance for his team to win; there is simply no way for James to escape the reality that it is his responsibility to play at a very high level regardless of who his teammates are. As Magic Johnson said before the game, that is why James is paid the big money and receives the big endorsements--and that is why in his day Magic was paid big money and received big endorsements. You simply cannot take the money and the endorsements and then passively stand in the corner before complaining that your teammates are not getting the job done; you have to lead the way and get your teammates to follow--only then is it legitimate to complain about going into gun battles with butter knives.

ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy declared, "James has an every night pressure that no one else has." With all due respect--and I very much respect Van Gundy's basketball knowledge--that is a ridiculous statement. Here is a partial list of players who faced/have faced at least as much pressure/scrutiny as LeBron James AND withstood that pressure/scrutiny to win multiple championships:
  1. Wilt Chamberlain was--and, in some cases, still is--pilloried by the media for putting up gaudy stats but supposedly never winning the big game; Chamberlain silenced at least some of his critics by leading two of the greatest single season championship teams in the sport's history, the 1967 76ers and the 1972 Lakers.
  2. Magic Johnson faced tremendous pressure and scrutiny after his Lakers lost in the first round of the 1981 playoffs and that pressure/scrutiny increased when the team fired Coach Paul Westhead early in the 1982 season after Johnson loudly complained about Westhead's methods. The media did not cut Johnson much slack even though he had already led the Lakers to a championship in 1980 with one of the greatest single game performances in NBA Finals history. The Lakers then won the 1982 title but despite winning two rings in his first three seasons Johnson was called "Tragic" instead of Magic after committing several gaffes in the 1984 NBA Finals.
  3. Many critics contended that Michael Jordan would never win a championship because he was too focused on chasing scoring titles. Jordan eventually led the Bulls to six championships, winning the scoring title in each of those seasons.
  4. Kobe Bryant's shot selection endlessly fascinates self-proclaimed basketball experts who annually lecture Bryant about the importance of "trusting his teammates" even though Bryant has been the Lakers' primary playmaker for the bulk of his career, winning five championships along the way.
James receives an appropriate amount of scrutiny and criticism based on his talent level, the blatant lack of effort he displayed in the 2010 and 2011 postseasons when his teams were bounced from the playoffs and the fact that is he the only three-time MVP in league history who has not won a championship. James put more pressure on himself with his ridiculous comments about how "easy" it would be to win multiple titles while playing alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; those comments are evidence of James' hubris and his lack of understanding/respect for the difficult process of becoming a champion.

Van Gundy is right about one thing, though: no one's game six story is going to focus on Paul Pierce's 4-18 field goal shooting or Dwyane Wade's 6-17 field goal shooting. That is why it is so foolish when media members and/or "stat gurus" try to compare guys like that to players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Kobe Bryant; James, Durant and Bryant are expected to score at least 25-30 points every single game while also rebounding, passing and defending. It is never acceptable for any of them to score less than that unless they are having an absolutely phenomenal game in one or more of the other categories (or unless their team wins so easily that they can sit out the entire fourth quarter). There is a big difference between being a legit MVP level player who can carry a team and "merely" being a perennial All-Star. James, Durant and Bryant are expected to be consistently dominant, while Wade, Pierce and most of the league's other All-Stars are expected to be consistently very good and occasionally dominant (Dwight Howard is expected to be consistently dominant on defense and as a rebounder but not as a big time scorer).

James' remarkable performance should put to rest two myths:

1) Contrary to what so many people have written/said, James is not a "pass first" player; he is a prodigious scorer who is also a gifted passer. Magic Johnson was a "pass first" player and it was major news when he scored more than 40 points, a plateau he only reached six times in his regular season career (three times hitting exactly that number) and four times in his playoff career; James has scored at least 40 points 48 times in the regular season (including nine 50 point games, seventh on the all-time list) and 11 times in the playoffs. It is understandably confusing to James' teammates (and outside observers) when he spends the first three quarters of a game looking like one of the greatest scorers in NBA history and then spends the final 12 minutes standing in the corner; that is not being unselfish or being a "pass first" player: that is failing to accept the responsibility associated with being an MVP level player and that is worthy of criticism, regardless of what Mike Breen or Jeff Van Gundy say.

2) The Miami Heat are not in any shape, form or fashion Dwyane Wade's team. Wade is not the Heat's best player, best closer or best anything; James is the best player on the team and the quality of his play is the single biggest factor determining how well the team does.

We know that James is the best player on his team, the best player in the league and a dynamic scorer who can also impact a game with his rebounding, passing and defense--but any intelligent person knew all of these things before game six, because we have seen James play at a high level on many occasions; he dominated the Celtics in game three of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals only to come up empty in the next three games. If James comes up empty in game seven at home this time around, he rightly will receive heavy criticism; James deserves much praise for his game six performance but let's not put up any "Mission Accomplished" banners until James puts up at least one championship banner in Miami.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:49 AM

16 comments

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16 Comments:

At Friday, June 08, 2012 7:31:00 AM, Anonymous Frankfurter said...

Great analysis - I've only just discovered this blog but will make sure I'm a regular visitor. I particularly appreciate your effort to be as objective as possible with your analysis.

The stat I can't get over in this game is the fact that he shot 73% from the field!

 
At Friday, June 08, 2012 10:15:00 AM, Blogger Ben said...

And this is the intrigue that is Lebron James. If he were so single-minded that he played with this type of intensity and focus, he would have had at least one ring by now.

Due to his history of quitting, I never expected him to dominate Game 6 wire to wire. Lebron at his best makes everyone else look like they are playing in slow motion.

Of course this builds the drama for Game 7 and gives sportswriters oodles of material to work with. I'm hoping the Heat pull it out as Durant vs. Lebron would make for a great matchup. And a worthy first championship for whoever takes it in the end.

 
At Friday, June 08, 2012 11:15:00 AM, Blogger Matt said...

"ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy declared, "James has an every night pressure that no one else has." With all due respect--and I very much respect Van Gundy's basketball knowledge--that is a ridiculous statement."

I suspect Van Gundy's statements were referring to the pervasive media coverage and the proliferation of social media. Only Kobe had to deal with it at that level and not until after he'd already been in the league for a while.

The critics who were after Wilt, Magic and MJ are still out there plus now there is Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, where know-nothings can critique your every move in real-time. Back in the day, Skip Bayless was only Dallas' village idiot; now he has a global platform.

Look at Jordan's reactions to the Jordan Rules -a rather innocuous book all things considered- and the reports of his gambling (not to mention speculation about its links to the death of his father.) It remains to be seen whether Lebron has the fortitude of those players mentioned but I don't think it's outrageous to think he has been subjected to more scrutiny than those other players if only because of his era, much in the same way Dr. J and Kareem are often overlooked because of theirs.

 
At Friday, June 08, 2012 8:19:00 PM, Blogger Dodgerblue15 said...

David,

I read your site whenever you post something new (check it at least three times a day, because you have a lot of excellent commentary in your responses as well as quite a few intelligent readers). I know you’ve talked at length about “making players better” and about the nebulous nature of assists regarding that very subject.

I, like you, believe that both of Lebron James’ Cavs teams (09 and 10) were perfectly designed to maximize Lebron’s skills and cushion his weaknesses (well, except for his inability to quit in key moments). They were defensive juggernauts, that lead the league in rebounding thanks to a huge, hard-nosed frontline—Varejao, Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Shaq, Big Z, JJ Hickson. They also had a bevy of the league’s finest three-point shooters—Mo Williams, Delonte West, Anthony Parker, Daniel Gibson, and Wally Szczerbiak (all shot 40 percent or better).

This Heat team has three guys hovering around 40 percent on threes, and has two mobile defensive players who are limited offensively (limited is being kind to Joel Anthony). Oh yeah, and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh…

After watching Lebron absolutely murder the Celtics while the rest of his team completely disappeared, and then reading a Sporting News article that basically said Lebron is back to square one—meaning having to carry a team all by his lonesome—why do people not see that Lebron is actually a terrible teammate?

He puts up crazy individual numbers and his teams win during the regular season, but most of the players he has played with have regressed.

 
At Saturday, June 09, 2012 1:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

DodgerBlue15:

I would not go so far as to say that LeBron James is a "terrible teammate" but there is some validity to the point that most of the players who have played with him have not improved compared to how they performed before playing alongside James.

 
At Saturday, June 09, 2012 12:00:00 PM, Blogger ChowNoir said...

Dave,

How would you compare Kobe's 2001 statline against Sacramento in conference semifinals?

48 points, 16 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and a block, with only 2 turnovers.

I thought Kobe was pretty special in that game also.

 
At Saturday, June 09, 2012 2:57:00 PM, Anonymous Alfharidi said...

David, very nice acrostic.

 
At Saturday, June 09, 2012 3:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

ChowNoir:

Kobe's stats versus Sacramento are very comparable to LeBron's against Boston. The main differences (besides the fact that LeBron had two more assists) are that LeBron's game took place in the Conference Finals instead of the second round and LeBron's team faced elimination while Kobe's team was up 3-0. I did not do an exhaustive search to see how many other players came close to the artificially designated 45-15-5 classification and it certainly could be argued that someone who had a few more points (or rebounds) but a few less assists performed every bit as well as LeBron did. Magic's 42-15-7 game six performance in the 1980 Finals clincher is certainly no less significant than LeBron's performance even though Magic scored three fewer points. I brought up Erving specifically because I know that no one else will bother to examine ABA stats to see if an ABA player had a 45-15-5 playoff performance; there may have been one or two other such ABA performances but I do not have access to rebound and assist data for all of the players who scored at least 45 points in an ABA playoff game.

 
At Saturday, June 09, 2012 3:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Alfharidi:

Thank you.

 
At Sunday, June 10, 2012 12:27:00 AM, Blogger Ben said...

Agreed, it's the situation that makes the stat line impressive. How deep into the playoffs the game is, and any other circumstances that increase the pressure and urgency (i.e. flu game).

Stats alone aren't noteworthy, unless you hit some high water mark like 60. Lebron is averaging 30/10 and no one blinks an eye.

 
At Sunday, June 10, 2012 2:30:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

marcel

as i predicted and never wavered boston got beat by thirteen lebron hit big 3 late got 31 12 like he did whole series. chris bosh was huge 8-10 and 19 points if he was fully healthy this would of been 5 game series. lebron showed why he mvp and why i think he gon be finals mvp. okc jump shooting team i dont think those jump shots will fall anymore. westbrook is no rondo he a 2 guard fakeing as a point guard. he is out of control alot and has alot of turnovers. he is top ten in league player when he ply right. but he is also a turnover machine who hogs the ball and shoot too much. wade gon play better bosh gon bring ibaka away from basket. lebron cant guard durant. and i think heat role players make shot. heat split in okc. they due to lose a home game, get two out of three at home and close them in game 6. i know u like okc and always against heat and lebron but u b een wrong a whole lot so far so i like they chances.

 
At Sunday, June 10, 2012 2:56:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

Yes, you have "never wavered" for years and each year you have ended up being wrong as James failed to win a title. We'll see what happens this time. I expect OKC to win. Westbrook is the best pg in the league--bigger, stronger and more explosive than Rondo--and a top five player overall; he is better than Wade at this stage of their respective careers. I'll have more to say about the series in my preview article.

As for your allegation that I am "against Miami," you should be aware that I picked the Heat to beat Boston and indeed I picked the Heat to win each of their playoff series so far. My overall prediction about the Heat two years ago was that they would be a good regular season team--though not as good as James' Cleveland teams--and that they would annually contend for the title but quite possibly come up short each time (I don't discount the possibility of them winning a championship eventually but I think it is far from inevitable that they will and my gut feeling is that they will not do so as presently constructed). So far, the Heat have performed exactly as I expected and they have failed to dominate either the regular season or the playoffs the way that the "stat gurus" said that any team with James and Wade would do even if they just had so-called replacement level players as teammates.

 
At Sunday, June 10, 2012 11:17:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

LBJ is now second on the all-time list with 45 or more points in elimination games.

Wilt Chamberlain is first with 5 such games.

 
At Sunday, June 10, 2012 11:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Awet M:

James now has two such games (game seven versus Boston in 2008 and game six versus Boston in 2012), the only player other than Chamberlain to accomplish this feat more than once. James' teams went 1-1 in those games, while Chamberlain's teams went 4-1.

 
At Monday, June 11, 2012 10:20:00 PM, Anonymous Frankfurter said...

Have to agree with Matt regarding JVG's "scrutiny" comments. Lebron is definitely the first basketball "megastar", while Kobe is close his career started in 1996 so he's had some time to cultivate his media image prior to this period of intense 24/7 coverage. Lebron's career coincides with the Facebook era and everything he does is scrutinised, all the time. How about the internet meme following the status of his receding hairline!?

In that sense, anything he does or says can be taken out of context and it frequently is. I actually feel sorry for the guy a little bit - I would not want to be in his shoes.

I don't think the guy is a saint or anything, but I don't understand the level of vitriol directed at Lebron.

 
At Monday, June 11, 2012 11:05:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Frankfurter:

I don't at all agree that LeBron James is the first basketball "megastar." When the Dream Team arrived in Barcelona in 1992 there were building-size billboards of Michael Jordan. When Julius Erving joined the 76ers there was a separate press conference for him on the road in each city and people around the team said that it was like traveling with a rock star (in terms of the media attention), an analogy that was repeated when the Jordan-Pippen-Rodman Bulls won 72 games. There have been several basketball "megastars" before James and they each faced a lot of scrutiny, pressure and criticism.

The immediacy of some of the coverage has increased due to technological advances (satellites, the internet, etc.) but I disagree that the intensity of the scrutiny/pressure has changed.

I don't feel sorry for James at all. He is a very highly paid professional living a life of luxury. He is expected to consistently perform at a high level because he is so talented and because he is so well compensated for those talents. He put additional pressure on himself--and brought "vitriol" on himself--by the tone deaf way that he handled his departure from Cleveland and his arrival in Miami. If James can win even one title in Miami he will largely be forgiven for his perceived (and real) transgressions and as the best player in the game/leader of a talented team it is well within his power to win that championship and transform his image. Since James' situation is largely one of his own making and since he can exercise a large degree of control over what happens next I see absolutely no reason whatsoever to feel sorry for him.

 

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