Durant Outduels James as Thunder Take 1-0 Finals LeadNBA 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.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:48 AM