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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Durant Outduels James as Thunder Take 1-0 Finals Lead

NBA fans have seen this movie before; if you live in Miami it is a horror film but otherwise it is a compelling drama: LeBron James, the best regular season player in the NBA for the past four seasons, once again watched the other team's star outperform him down the stretch in a crucial playoff game. Tony Parker did it to James in the 2007 NBA Finals, Rajon Rondo did it to James in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals and Dirk Nowitkzi did it to James in the 2011 NBA Finals. Add Kevin Durant to that list; Durant scored 36 points and contributed eight rebounds and four assists as his Oklahoma City Thunder rallied from a 13 point deficit to defeat James' Miami Heat 105-94 in game one of the NBA Finals. Durant finished second to James in 2012 MVP voting but he is making a strong case that perhaps he is the best player in the league; the 23 year old three-time reigning NBA scoring champion became the fourth youngest player to score at least 35 points in an NBA Finals game and he tallied the seventh most points ever in a player's NBA Finals debut (Allen Iverson holds that record with 48 points). Durant played better in his first NBA Finals game than James has played in any of his 11 NBA Finals games and Durant completely dominated down the stretch, scoring 17 fourth quarter points on 6-10 field goal shooting.

James did not play badly--he finished with 30 points, nine rebounds and four assists--but he disappeared with the game on the line, scoring just two points in the first 9:16 of the fourth quarter; the Heat never got the score closer than a two possession game in the final 2:44 as James padded his total with five relatively meaningless points. His performance is a classic example of what "stat gurus" fail to understand about evaluating basketball players. James will consistently put up good to great box score numbers/"advanced basketball statistics" numbers because the ball is in his hands a disproportionate amount of the time but there is something lacking in his mindset and/or skill set that often prevents him from taking over against elite teams in playoff competition. Ironically, James' failure in this game will not hurt his ranking in the much touted "clutch stats" because the score was not close enough down the stretch for James' statistics to be included in his "clutch stat" portfolio; as I have stated many times, the ability to control a game down the stretch is more significant than simply making buzzer beating shots: Kobe Bryant's 10 fourth quarter points and four fourth quarter rebounds in game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals--a low scoring defensive slugfest in which Bryant's L.A. Lakers prevailed 83-79 over the Boston Celtics--is a clutch performance because he delivered down the stretch with a championship on the line, even if Bryant's overall shooting percentage in that game (like the overall shooting percentages of most players in that game) was not great. When the great Bill Russell was a TV commentator he used to say that what matters is not just how much you score but when you score--but this "when" cannot be defined by an arbitrarily constructed notion of "clutch time."

The Heat got off to a quick start thanks to a three point shooting barrage led mainly by Shane Battier but--as ESPN's Magic Johnson wisely pointed out after the game--Battier is not the kind of player who can score 30 points; Battier scored nine points in the first quarter, added four in the second quarter but only had four more in the entire second half. The Thunder overwhelmed the Heat with energy and execution, outscoring the Heat 58-40 in the second half. Overall, the Thunder pounded the Heat 56-40 in the paint and crushed them 24-4 on the fast break. At times, the Thunder's great ball movement and quick drives to the hoop so befuddled the Heat that it looked like the Harlem Globetrotters versus the Washington Generals (when James Harden passed the ball between LeBron James' legs for a Nick Collison dunk I thought that I heard "Sweet Georgia Brown" playing in the background).

Perhaps the most telling play of the game happened late in the first quarter: Durant blocked Dwyane Wade's layup attempt and then--while Wade no effort to get back on defense--Durant sprinted past James to score a layup and draw a foul. That is just one snapshot from a 48 minute contest and it would not be until late in the third quarter that the Thunder first took the lead, but it is fair to say that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook played harder than LeBron James and Dwyane Wade for most of the game.

While Durant won the main event versus James, Westbrook defeated Wade in the undercard. Westbrook finished with 27 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds and just two turnovers, while Wade had 19 points, eight assists, four rebounds and three turnovers. Westbrook's performance was naturally overshadowed by Durant's heroics but Westbrook authored the first 25-10-8 NBA Finals game since Charles Barkley accomplished this in 1993. Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Clyde Drexler and Michael Jordan are the only other players who put up a 25-10-8 stat line in an NBA Finals game in the past 25 years. Those guys are each not just Hall of Famers but also members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List.

Westbrook should have made the All-NBA First Team; he is the best point guard in the NBA and he is closing in on Kobe Bryant for the title of best guard in the NBA but Westbrook seems to be following in the footsteps of Bryant and Scottie Pippen as the great player who the media loves to hate. For the better part of two decades I have defended Pippen's greatness both publicly in print and privately in water cooler discussions, for the better part of a decade I have similarly defended Bryant's greatness and now it looks like I will be spending the next decade or so speaking up for Westbrook. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy mentioned that Thunder Coach Scott Brooks has consistently relayed a great, calming message to Westbrook about ignoring media criticism: You are not their point guard, you are my point guard and I like the way that you play.

While Van Gundy correctly noted that Westbrook is doing exactly what his coach wants him to do, "Screamin'" A. Smith of the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader blasted Westbrook for shooting 10-24 from the field in game one; meanwhile, Smith's hero LeBron James shot 11-24. Apparently one shot makes a huge difference in Smith's world. I don't know or care what the "advanced basketball statistics" say about game one but I know that Durant outperformed James both overall and down the stretch when the outcome was decided and I know that Westbrook was the second best player on the court, not James. Westbrook is not better than James overall, of course, and he is not in Pippen or Bryant's league historically but Westbrook is emerging as an elite player. Sixth Man Award winner James Harden is a very, very good player (even though he was nearly invisible in game one with just five points and three assists) but anyone who thinks that he is equal to or better than his teammate Westbrook needs to stop smoking crack; comparing the two of them purely by using statistics is like comparing Kobe Bryant and Manu Ginobili (a favorite hobby for "stat gurus" in recent years): Westbrook plays more minutes and is matched up almost exclusively against starters, while Harden comes off of the bench and often plays against reserve players.

The best duo in NBA history is Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen and the second best is either Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Bill Russell-choose a Celtic Hall of Famer. No current duo--including James-Wade--should be mentioned in the same breath with those tandems that each won multiple championships but if there is a current duo that could potentially become the next Jordan-Pippen it is Durant-Westbrook. Unlike James and Wade, Durant and Westbrook have complementary skill sets, they are willing and able to effectively play the screen/roll game and they consistently perform with high energy at both ends of the court.

During his postgame press conference, Wade uttered a phrase that he has repeated several times this postseason: "I'm a winner." Most real winners do not have to say that they are winners because all we have to do is look at the standings and the record books to know who won and who lost. While it is true that Wade has won one championship, he also lost in the first round of the playoffs three times during his prime and he spent a fourth prime year as the best player on a team with the worst record in the league, a strange distinction to have just two years after winning that lone title. Who exactly is Wade trying to impress by declaring over and over that he is a winner? He sounds like a scared child in the middle of the night trying to convince himself that the noise under his bed is not a monster. Wade looks more and more like a player who has entered the declining phase of his career; he is an undersized (listed at 6-4 but closer to 6-2/6-3) shooting guard who has always relied on great athleticism to make up for his lack of a consistent jump shot but now he is struggling to get his shot off at times and at the other end of the court Westbrook repeatedly blew by him so easily Wade that could have gotten whiplash. At no time was Wade ever as good as James, so it is comical to hear the heartfelt interviews in which Wade declares that he has let James assume leadership of the team; for better or worse, James became the Heat's best player and the Heat's leader as soon as he uttered the infamous words about "taking my talents to South Beach." No sensible person ever believed that the Heat were still "Wade's team" but Kenny Smith made a great point in NBA TV's pregame show: one of the things that distinguishes Durant from other superstars (and a few so-called superstars) is that Durant never talks about the Thunder being his team; he considers himself part of the team, not someone who is above the team. That is an interesting perspective considering how much time the Heat spend talking about the pecking order, about how it is now James' team but Chris Bosh is the most important player and how Dwyane Wade may be the closer; the Heat do a lot of talking and posturing but it is more important and meaningful to "be about it" instead of to "talk about it."

Excuses are already being uttered in anticipation of Miami losing this series but it is incorrect to suggest that James does not have enough help to win a championship. James fled a deep Cleveland team--a squad that had the best record in the NBA for two straight years--to join forces with two perennial All-Stars and after recruiting those players and others to play with him in Miami, James emphatically stated in that fateful summer of 2010 that it would be "easy" to win "multiple championships" with this group. The Heat have several solid role players, including one--Udonis Haslem--who has been an important contributor on a championship team. James' teams have not been eliminated from the playoffs in recent seasons because of things that role players did or did not do; James' teams lost--as mentioned in the first paragraph of this article--because the opposing team's star outplayed James down the stretch.

Besides "clutch shots," another favorite media storyline is about players who supposedly make their teammates better, a phrase that I dislike; I prefer to say that great, unselfish players create openings and opportunities for their lesser talented teammates to do what they do well. James is often described as a pass first player but the reality is that he is a tremendous scoring machine who also possesses excellent court vision and passing skills--but his numbers (both in terms of scoring and assists) are a bit deceptive because he monopolizes the ball. In a strange way, he is like a bigger, more talented/productive Stephon Marbury; Marbury put up gaudy combined scoring/assist numbers that had not been seen since the days of Oscar Robertson but no intelligent observer considered Marbury to be a great player or a winner. James is much more effective than Marbury and James has proven that he can be the leader of a winning team but watching James repeatedly struggle to win a championship despite playing for talented and/or deep teams emphasizes a curious aspect of James' career: few players actually play better alongside him than they did before or after becoming his teammate. Boatloads of players from the sublime (Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom) to the ridiculous (Kwame Brown, Smush Parker) played better with Kobe Bryant than they did before and/or after playing with Bryant but there is a long, growing list of players who did not/have not played better with James than without him, including Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Antawn Jamison, Larry Hughes and Carlos Boozer. While extenuating circumstances could perhaps be cited in some of those cases, it is hard to think of even one player who performed substantially better with James than without him--and that comparison could even be extended into FIBA play, where James and Wade relied on none other than Bryant to take over in the fourth quarter of the Olympic gold medal game versus Spain after they came up woefully short in the 2004 Olympics and 2006 FIBA World Championship.

In the 2012 Eastern Conference playoffs, Miami recovered from a 2-1 deficit versus Indiana and a 3-2 deficit versus Boston; you could interpret that to mean that Miami is fully capable of coming back to beat the Thunder--or you could interpret that to mean that Miami had a greater margin of error against those inferior teams than exists against Oklahoma City. One game does not make a series but history shows that the team that wins game one of the NBA Finals captures the championship nearly three fourths of the time.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:48 AM

11 comments

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11 Comments:

At Wednesday, June 13, 2012 6:28:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in Miami and find it comical when I hear Heat fans and the media say that Wade ceded the team to Lebron this season rather than Wade simply not being as good as Lebron (and not as good as himself from previous seasons). It's one thing for Wade to rationalize his decline as by design, but do media members and the media think that Wade is missing shots he used to make through the goodness of his heart in an attempt to maximize Lebron?

It makes no sense.

 
At Wednesday, June 13, 2012 8:45:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know it is premature but where do you think Durant will end up among the greats provided he doesn't lose a significant amount of time due to injury? He seems to be a new breed of superstar when compared to players such as MJ and Kobe, who considered their respective teams to belong to them. He's also only 23 and is evolving into an even more dynamic scorer, after leading the league in scoring for consecutive years. His defense is improving and his playmaking ability has also improved. He has a very solid young supporting cast that could lead to multiple championships. He has the necessary killer instinct/mentality to step up when it matters. Again, I know it is very very early to say anything definitively, but I don't think it's outlandish to suggest Durant could rank pretty high up there when all is said and done.

 
At Wednesday, June 13, 2012 10:55:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marcel

Its one game the heat been down the whole playoffs I expect them to respond. I felt they should of started bosh. And put james on durant. Late in. Fourth lebron best plater in nba he will respnd back. I know people who don't like lebron and Heat are Happy now but won't be at end of series. Wade will play Better so will bosh. So I never waver he gon win. There never a comparison in the world to steph marbury and James. U from ohio ur a cavs fan u need to get ovet decision and let it go against. James he gon win anyway so it need to end now. Durant awesome and westbrook GOOD too gon be a compelling series

 
At Wednesday, June 13, 2012 3:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, but I do think if the Heat lose, it's not entirely on LJ's shoulders. He and the Heat deserve all the misery/scrutiny for failing to have their actions match their foolish predictions. But I'd look at Wade, Bosh and James if they lose the series. I can't blame Kobe for losing 2 games against the Thunder (even though he botched some key passes at the end of one game and failed to box out properly to rebound Blake's shot). But you are right about Kobe and LJ. Kobe's intensity inspires some players and frightens/intimidates others, so they play better. I don't think LJ has that effect on his teammates, and that is a key element to being a leader.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2012 1:02:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

You are right; it is comical for anyone--especially Wade himself--to act like Wade has committed some kind of charitable gesture by giving top billing to James. James became the Heat's best player the instant that he signed with the team and it is baffling that it has taken some so-called experts two years to figure this out. James has been the best player in the NBA since 2009 and Wade is, at best, on the fringe of the top five so it never made sense to say that the Heat are "Wade's team" simply because Wade has been there longer than James.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2012 1:05:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

You are correct that it is premature to try to establish Durant's place among the all-time greats but if he continues on his current trajectory then he could very well rank among the top 20 or even top 10 players in the history of the sport. He does not deserve such a lofty ranking now but if he leads the Thunder to this championship--and possibly multiple championships--while continuing to play at a high level then he obviously will join very select company.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2012 1:14:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

Bosh and Spoelstra are always going to be the media's scapegoats for James' failures and as James' biggest fan it is no surprise that you are falling right in line with that propaganda. Did I see you in the background during the Decision waving pom poms or was that someone else? You probably were off camera during Miami's preseason coronation two years ago, setting off fireworks and cheering wildly.

Do you realize how completely ridiculous you sound when you weakly try to challenge my objectivity after you have clearly demonstrated how deeply in the tank you are for James? You are so blinded by your faith in him that I am surprised you are not insisting that James and the Heat actually won the 2011 Finals. I have called James the best regular season player in the NBA for the past four years; that means that I am giving him more credit even than the MVP voters who did not select him in 2011. I am one of the very few commentators who has actually been objective about James, neither vilifying him a la Skip Bayless or portraying him as the greatest thing since sliced bread a la just about every ESPN talking head other than Bayless.

You don't have to comment after each game saying that you still believe in the Heat. We all know that you do--and most people who understand the sport also know that within the next two weeks you will be posting comments making excuses for why the Heat's 2012 Finals loss was not really James' fault even though Durant scored almost as many points in his first Finals fourth quarter as James did in all of the fourth quarters of the 2011 Finals COMBINED.

James is a great talent and an extremely productive regular season player who has also had some great playoff moments--but there is no denying that something in his mindset often short circuits when he is faced with elite competition in the playoffs.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2012 1:25:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

James handpicked his destination and his teammates in 2010. He could have stayed in Cleveland and recruited players to join him, he could have taken less money and teamed up with Kobe Bryant to form an unstoppable duo or he could have signed with just about any team in the league. After James assembled the core of the Heat's roster he said that he "truly believes" that the Heat can win not one, not two...well, you know the rest. Wade and Bosh's games have regressed since teaming up with James, while James' stats have stayed the same or increased, the same pattern that we saw in Cleveland with Hughes, Boozer, Jamison and other All-Star or near All-Star players who played alongside James. James has enough talent around him to win a championship, just like he had enough talent around him in Cleveland, but he consistently is outplayed by the other team's superstar at critical moments in the playoffs. If James had played Durant to a draw in the fourth quarter then the Heat would probably have won or, at the very least, forced overtime. The game was up for grabs and Durant grabbed it, leaving James to speak meekly afterward about game one being an adjustment game. The game one winner in the Finals goes on to win the championship nearly three fourths of the time! It makes no sense to act as if the first game is some kind of meaningless scrimmage but then James does not really seem to understand what it means to compete at the highest level.

Don't even try to throw Kobe Bryant in this discussion. Bryant has five championships and two Finals MVPs. Let James put up even half of those totals before we mention their names together in any discussion about true champions. James has had the personnel around him to win championships, just like Bryant has, but James has failed to do so. The 33 year old Bryant dragged a depleted Lakers team to a much higher seed than they would have otherwise earned and even led the Lakers to one victory in the series but Durant is a better player than Bryant at this stage of their careers and Westbrook is not far behind Bryant--not to mention the fact that the Thunder are a far superior team to the Lakers. James is supposed to be better than Durant and the Heat are the only team in the NBA that has three perennial All-Stars, so if the Heat do not win the championship James has to be the first name mentioned when blame is assigned. That does not excuse Wade, Bosh or anyone else from doing their jobs but the best player rightly gets the most credit when things go well and rightly gets the most blame when things don't go well.

 
At Thursday, June 14, 2012 1:39:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sharp

Kenny Smith is very correct to call Durant unique amongst NBA superstars. That attitude about the Thunder not being "his team," seems to extend onto the floor. For such a gifted scorer, you rarely see him demand the ball. But he picks his spots and is extremely effective nonetheless.

I honestly don't get what it is that causes Lebron James to disappear in the 4th quarter. There are occasions where he completely takes over, and it can be awe inspiring. Then he turns in an effort like game 1, where he is passive and makes no effort to get to the rim for points. He got back to attacking the rim in the closing minutes of the game, but at that point it was too little and too late.

 
At Friday, June 15, 2012 1:02:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marcel

I never waver lebron james beast again back against the wall after being buried by u a d others he drop 32 7 6 after 45 15 5 game six vs Boston and 40 18 9 against indy. He is most clutch player in league. He showing alot of Heart I know all ysle Wish he was back in Cleveland that's the only Time that franchise has ever been relevant with him.


The criticism of westbrook is unfair he is a beast player. Most athletic in league he not a point guard he a guard. I know u don't like lebron but he the lebron of his team and durant is wade all he do is get ripped no matter how he play. Lebron get alot of love from stat guru but that it. Westbrook is what make them go he best guard other than rondo. I love his game I love durant too but wrstbrook is getting killed

 
At Friday, June 15, 2012 7:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Marcel:

We all know that you have never wavered--and that so far you have been wrong every time, including last year when the Heat had three All-Stars compared to Dallas' one, led the series 2-1 and still lost as James completely disappeared.

Where James plays is irrelevant to how I analyze his performance; when he quit in Cleveland I said so and when he quit in Miami I said so. When he has played great I have said so as well. It is baffling that you think I have something against a player who I have been calling the best player in the league for the last four years! Do you even actually read what I write or is this just a convenient place for you to either say "I told you so" (when the Heat win) or "I never waver" (when the Heat lose)?

 

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