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Friday, June 22, 2012

LeBron James Leads with a Triple Double as the Heat Win the First Title of the Big Three Era

"I just looked at myself in the mirror and said, 'You need to be better, both on and off the floor.'"--LeBron James, postgame interview after the Miami Heat won the 2012 NBA Championship

LeBron James clinched his first NBA Championship with a dominant game five performance--26 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds--as the Miami Heat blew out the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-106. James led the Heat in all three major statistical categories during the game and the series, earning unanimous selection as the 2012 NBA Finals MVP; he averaged 28.6 ppg, 10.2 rpg and 7.4 apg during the series. Chris Bosh, the most underrated and unappreciated member of Miami's Big Three, scored 24 points on 9-14 field goal shooting and grabbed seven rebounds. The Heat went 11-3 during the playoffs with Bosh in the lineup but just 5-4 during the nine games that he missed due to an abdominal injury; the Heat probably would not have beaten Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals if Bosh had not returned to action and they certainly would not have defeated the Thunder without Bosh, who ranked second on the Heat in rebounding (9.4 rpg) and third on the Heat in scoring (14.6 ppg) during the NBA Finals. Bosh's shooting ability spaces the floor on offense and he is a mobile, versatile defender.

Mike Miller poured in 23 points in just 23 minutes, draining seven of his eight three pointers after not making a single shot from beyond the arc in the first four games of the series. Miller's marksmanship helped the Heat tie the NBA Finals record for most three pointers made by a team in one game (14). Dwyane Wade had a nice all-around performance: 20 points on 7-12 field goal shooting, eight rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots, two steals. Wade seems to have entered the declining phase of his career but he is still a potent second option, probably the second best second option in the league behind only Russell Westbrook, whose great game four performance should have convinced the doubters that he is in fact the best point guard in the NBA.

Another person must be mentioned even though he did not make a shot, grab a rebound or dish for an assist: Coach Erik Spoelstra deserves credit for designing and implementing Miami's tenacious defense, for helping his team to resiliently bounce back after trailing in three out of four playoff series and for improving the team's once subpar halfcourt offense. Spoelstra essentially shifted James to power forward, making James the low post focal point of the halfcourt offense and the team's key rebounder at both ends of the court (in tandem with Bosh, who functioned as a mobile center much like Boston's Kevin Garnett).

Kevin Durant led the Thunder with a game-high 32 points on 13-24 field goal shooting and 11 rebounds but he had little help; Russell Westbrook attacked the hoop with great vigor but only made four of his 20 field goal attempts, finishing with 19 points, six assists and four rebounds. James Harden finally showed up--even if a lot of his production came during garbage time--with 19 points and five assists and Derek Fisher had a solid game (11 points, four rebounds, three assists) but most of the other Thunder players had little discernible impact.

The Heat led for most of the game but--at least initially--the Thunder battled back, eventually cutting a 17 point deficit to just 61-56 early in the third quarter. It seemed like this would be yet another fantastic finish but then Miami blew the game open with a 33-14 run that included five three pointers and the Thunder never seriously threatened to get back in the game after that, turning the fourth quarter into what Marv Albert would call "extensive garbage time."

This series contained a lot of stories and subplots but we all knew that there were only two possible headlines after it ended: either "LeBron Wins" or "LeBron Loses." James' first championship will undoubtedly cause celebration in some quarters and angst in other quarters and it will also prompt a lot of historical revisionism; neither the celebration nor the angst particularly interest or engage me but I am concerned about historical revisionism and I think that it is very important to place James' accomplishment in proper context.

James made a candid admission prior to game five: "Last year, after game six, after losing, once again, I was very frustrated. Like I said, last year I played to prove people wrong instead of just playing my game, instead of just going out and having fun and playing a game that I grew up loving and why I fell in love with the game. So I was very immature last year after game six towards you guys and towards everyone that was watching." In case you forgot, this is what James said after he and the Heat lost three straight games to blow a 2-1 lead in the 2011 NBA Finals: "At the end of the day, all of the people that were rooting for me to fail, tomorrow they'll have to wake up and have the same life that [they had] before they woke up today. They got the same personal problems they had today and I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things I want to do." That comment, along with James' infamous "Decision" TV show and his boast that it would be "easy" to "win multiple championships," are examples of the immaturity that James finally realized was holding him back from reaching his full potential. Winning one championship does not validate James' previous immature actions and statements--and in fact he would not have won a championship without both realizing that he has been immature and taking steps to correct that immaturity.

This year James cut down on the foolishness and the histrionics before, during and after games; he approached his craft in a much more professional, businesslike manner. He not only altered his demeanor but he finally took full advantage of his physical gifts by relentlessly attacking the paint with drives and postups; when the going got tough he did not settle for jump shots or simply give up the ball but he continued to attack: during game five, James scored 16 of his 26 points within five feet of the hoop and during the NBA Finals he averaged nearly 18 ppg in the paint. It must be emphasized that James' triumph does not "refute" his critics: James' critics were right and James responded properly by making the appropriate changes in his mindset. NBA TV's Charles Barkley said that winning a championship did not make James a better player but Barkley has it backwards; only by becoming a better, more focused player did James succeed where he previously had failed.

The difference between LeBron James this season and last season is like the difference between Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back and in Return of the Jedi. In the former, Skywalker could "feel" the Force but he could not "control it" (as Yoda tried to explain to his young apprentice) and when he rushed headlong into a showdown with Darth Vader he got his hand chopped off and almost lost his life; in the latter, a more mature Skywalker was able to defeat Vader and also avoid being tempted to turn to the Dark Side. James now has a much fuller appreciation of how to use his gifts to win at the highest level of the sport and his mental/psychological approach to competition is much better than it was previously.

James averaged 30.3 ppg during the playoffs, the second time he has finished first in the league in postseason scoring average; Kobe Bryant leads active players with three such scoring crowns, while Michael Jordan tops the all-time list with 10 and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Gervin each accomplished this feat five times. James also averaged 9.7 rpg and 5.6 apg, becoming the first player in NBA history to twice average at least 30 ppg, 9 rpg and 5 apg in one postseason; James previously achieved this in 2009 and Oscar Robertson is the only other NBA player who has done it even once (1963)--however, it must be noted that Julius Erving averaged 33.3 ppg, 20.4 rpg and 6.5 apg for the Virginia Squires in the 1972 ABA playoffs as a rookie and Erving just narrowly missed this plateau during the 1976 playoffs when he led the New York Nets to the final ABA title while averaging 34.7 ppg, 12.6 rpg and 4.9 apg. Also, George McGinnis averaged 32.3 ppg, 15.9 rpg and 8.2 apg for the Indiana Pacers in the 1975 ABA playoffs.

It is ironic that James is persistently described as a "pass first" player and that it is commonly believed that he had to leave Cleveland in order to get enough help to win a title; the reality is that during the first championship run of James' career he posted his third highest postseason scoring average, his highest rebounding average and his lowest assists average: James led the Heat to the championship by becoming a dominant inside scorer and rebounder who is willing/able to pass when he is double teamed. The Heat would not have won this championship without James' scoring--and James' teams very likely would have won the 2010 and 2011 championships if James had been willing/able to be a dominant inside scorer instead of settling for outside shots or passively giving up the ball without even being double teamed. James scored at least 30 points in 13 of the Heat's 23 playoff games; Magic Johnson, who truly was a "pass first" player, scored at least 30 points in just 12 of his 190 career playoff games. James has never averaged more than 8 apg during a single postseason, while Johnson averaged at least 9.3 apg in 11 of his 13 postseasons, with the two exceptions coming in an abbreviated three game playoff run after his second season and in a similarly abbreviated four game playoff run after his brief 1996 comeback.

James is not the heir to Magic Johnson; James' game--when he is playing the right way--is some combination of the ABA Julius Erving, the older Karl Malone who could post up and pass to cutters and the Larry Bird who played the "point forward" position (James made a couple very Bird-like touch passes for assists during the NBA Finals, redirecting the ball while barely touching it to get an easy basket for a teammate). James has a mixture of Erving's hops, Malone's bulk and Bird's court vision. It is difficult to think of a direct comparison in terms of James' ability to guard multiple positions, though Scottie Pippen in his prime and Julius Erving in his Nets' years are two players who come to mind--both Pippen and Erving would have had more difficulty defending big centers than James does but James rarely guards a big center who actually is a low post scoring threat (Pippen used to check Greg Ostertag at times during the NBA Finals and the young Erving also could use his athletic ability to occasionally guard bigger players).

James' 2012 playoff run is one for the ages not just because of the raw numbers or because of the way his skill set is an amalgamation of Erving/Malone/Bird but because James fully directed his mind, his energy and his skills toward doing whatever he had to do for his team to win. James admitted that he did not make enough "game changing plays" during the 2011 NBA Finals and he made sure that he made many such plays during the 2012 NBA Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:55 AM

4 comments

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4 Comments:

At Friday, June 22, 2012 10:56:00 AM, Blogger Ben said...

I agree that winning a championship doesn't absolve Lebron of all of his prior transgressions. But if he continues to win, history will certainly look at his earlier years more favorably. I was hoping that this series would go six or seven games, it's rare that you have the clear #1 and #2 players in the league going head-to-head.

Public opinion of Lebron turned when he quit against the Celtics in 2010, then subsequently held the NBA world hostage over the summer before alienating every fanbase except Miami. Let's not forget that Kobe Bryant pulled similar shenanigans, first forcing Shaq out of LA, demanding to be traded, and refusing to shoot in key playoff games. The key for Lebron was tuning out all the vitriol aimed at him from social media and finally operating from the low block where he was virtually unstoppable.

With the Celtics on the verge of breaking up and Derrick Rose's knee in recovery, the Heat could draw additional free agents and continue to win championships, especially since the pecking order has clearly been established.

As far as the Thunder go, they'll be back as long as they can retain their core. James Harden was MIA for most of the series and was destroyed by Lebron on the block. I was hoping to see Durant guarding Lebron in second half but they continued to use Harden with lots of help which led to a flurry of three point shots. Once Durant bulks up a bit and refines his defensive skills, we could be seeing this matchup quit frequently in the finals. OKC is refreshing in that all their talent came from the draft, but that's more of an anomaly than anything in today's game. The Durant / Westbrook tandem has incredible potential and will likely break through within the next few years.

 
At Friday, June 22, 2012 4:01:00 PM, Blogger Dodgerblue15 said...

While I have yet to attain the level of objectivity that you have David (and now that I’m no longer a journalist, I probably will never get there), I must say, watching Lebron’s performance and then listening to him talk after the game, I can’t help but be at peace with his victory.

I was very much against Lebron for the various reasons everyone else seems to dislike him. But as the season progressed, and as he shouldered a greater burden which ultimately culminated in his triple-double game five performance, I began to lose my anger towards his 7-championship-claim during his after-signing celebration.

In fact, I began to despise Dwyane Wade more. He seemed to be above reproach despite a continued inability to stay healthy and declining numbers across the board. Throw in his foot-in-mouth disease (wanting to get paid for the Olympics, complaining about the celebrations of the Pacers, etc.) and his penchant for throwing cheap flagrant fouls (during all-star games) and he became my public enemy number one.

But seeing how humbled he was and admitting how difficult it is to win a championship in his post game comments, helped balance my negative opinion of him. Perhaps now, (though unlikely) the vast majority of casual fans and the overly subjective sports media, will begin to appreciate what Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant have accomplished. But especially Kobe, who has a three-peat and a back-to-back. No matter who is on your team, getting to the top of the mountain is and should be the most difficult thing a basketball player can do on the court.

It’s been a great season reading you David. Thanks for all of the fantastic writing. This is my haven from all the amateur, sensationalist NBA coverage out there.

 
At Friday, June 22, 2012 4:07:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Ben:

I don't want this comment thread to veer off into a referendum about Kobe Bryant but your statements about Bryant are inaccurate.

1) Bryant did not force Shaq out of L.A.; Shaq wrote his own ticket out of the city by having his foot surgery too late--derailing the 2003 Lakers' chances to repeat--and then he later loudly demanded that owner Jerry Buss give him a max length contract for max dollars. Shaq had proven to be unreliable in terms of his effort/conditioning and because of his age Buss was not willing to give Shaq max years. Buss rightly chose to rebuild around the younger Kobe, a decision that resulted in two titles and three Finals appearances. No star has won more titles or made more Finals appearances since Shaq left L.A. than Kobe has, a remarkable stat considering the young talent that has come into the league since 2004.

2) Kobe did not "refuse to shoot in key playoff games." Here are two articles refuting that contention:

To Shoot or Not to Shoot?

Detroit Smothers Cleveland in Game Seven

The new CBA will greatly restrict Miami's ability to add talent; the same consideration applies to all teams, of course, but the Heat are unusual because they have three max level (or near max level) players. The Thunder just needed a bit more poise to beat the Heat this year and the Thunder will likely improved while the Heat have probably peaked considering that Wade is a declining player.

 
At Friday, June 22, 2012 4:16:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

DodgerBlue15:

Thank you for the compliment. I am glad that you enjoy reading my work.

 

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