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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Miami's Energetic Big Three Wears Down Boston's Old Big Three

In the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" fight, Muhammad Ali leaned against the ropes and absorbed body shots from George Foreman for several rounds before asking Foreman, "Is that all you got?" Ali took Foreman's heart with those words and soon after that he knocked Foreman out to regain the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship. The Boston Celtics wore themselves out landing body blows on the Miami Heat in game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals--leading by as many as 11 points, maintaining a seven point halftime edge and staying in front as late as the eight minute mark of the fourth quarter--before the Heat figuratively asked, "Is that all you got?" and closed the game out with a 20-6 run to earn their second consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. In the "Rumble in the Jungle" the wily former champion outlasted the young, inexperienced champion but in the Boston-Miami matchup we saw the young challenger outlast a wily former champion seeking one final shot at the title. Miami fans who think that their team will have many chances to win a championship should keep in mind that in five years together Boston's Big Three plus Rajon Rondo quartet made it to the NBA Finals twice and won one championship; injuries, the rise of new contenders and other factors affect how many chances a team gets to win a title--and even a team with multiple future Hall of Famers is not immune to those challenges and twists of fate.

The Celtics executed the proper anti-Heat game plan for much of game seven, building a lead by limiting their turnovers, outscoring the Heat in the paint and preventing Miami from scoring in transition. Rondo authored his fourth triple double of this postseason and the 10th of his playoff career (22 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds) and each member of Boston's Big Three scored in double figures--19 points for Paul Pierce, 15 points for Ray Allen, 14 points for Kevin Garnett--but Boston's bench supplied just two points, forcing Boston's old warriors to shoulder a load that they no longer can carry. The Big Three looked like a boxer who had punched himself to exhaustion or a race car with an overheated engine: their fourth quarter shots came up short, they could not find the energy to pursue rebounds or loose balls and their defensive rotations were late. The 26 year old Rondo will obviously be the cornerstone of Boston's rebuilding project, since it seems unlikely that the Celtics will bring back the Big Three as a group. This was Rondo's second game seven triple double of the 2012 playoffs, a remarkable feat considering that no other player in NBA history has more than one game seven triple double in his entire career (Russell Westbrook, Scottie Pippen, James Worthy, Larry Bird and Jerry West are the only other players who have had a game seven triple double).

The return of Chris Bosh to full minutes (31) and full productivity (19 points on 8-10 field goal shooting, eight rebounds) proved to be a decisive X factor in game seven; his timely shot making--including three three point field goals after shooting just 4-20 from behind the arc in his entire playoff career--not only provided crucial points but also spread Boston's defense thin, opening up driving lanes for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. It is not a coincidence that the Heat are 7-2 in the 2012 playoffs with Bosh (including 2-1 versus Boston) and just 5-4 without him; foolish critics dubbed Miami's Big Three "Two and a Half Men"--not so subtly suggesting that Bosh is not nearly as important or productive as James and Wade--but intelligent basketball observers know that Bosh is hardly half a man from a basketball standpoint.

Wade got off to his customary slow start but finished with 23 points, six rebounds and six assists. Supposedly a knee injury is causing his inconsistent play but I have never heard of a knee injury that afflicts a player at the start of the game when he is loose and warmed up but then becomes better after the player sits around for 15 minutes at halftime; usually the concern with a knee injury is that the knee will become stiff if the player sits down for too long and/or that the injury will become aggravated the longer that he plays. I am not saying that Wade is not legitimately injured but just that it seems more likely that his inconsistent performances are being caused by something other than a knee injury.

The Celtics' legacy is set thanks to their 2008 championship, Wade's 2006 championship/Finals MVP means that he likely will never have to pay for a drink in Miami and few people perceive the playoffs as a referendum on Bosh's legacy; we all know that any elimination game for the Heat will be viewed and remembered first and foremost from the perspective of how it impacts James' legacy--at least until he wins a championship. James led the way with game-high totals in scoring (31 points) and rebounding (12). His shot was off (9-21 field goal shooting, .429) and he uncharacteristically only had two assists but for the most part he played the way he is supposed to play, the way that he should play all of the time: he attacked the basket instead of settling for jump shots or passively getting rid of the ball. James is a great passer blessed with exceptional court vision but--no matter how many times various people say it--he is not a pass first player and he is not the second coming of Magic Johnson; James is an incredible scoring machine and when he is on his game he is the 21st century Julius Erving, soaring to the hoop with one arm extended straight over his head for a devastating tomahawk dunk. The scoring and rebounding numbers that James is putting up during the Heat's 2012 playoff run are not Magic-like or Jordanesque but they are similar to the numbers Erving amassed in his ABA days, particularly when Erving led the Nets to the 1976 ABA title.

The big difference between Erving and James--other than the fact that Erving won two championships by the time he was 26 while James is still seeking his first championship at the age of 27--is that you never had to wonder which Erving would show up from game to game; Erving consistently attacked the hoop and he played with great energy at both ends of the court, while James needs to finish off this playoff run strongly and lead his team to a championship to make up for the fact that he blatantly quit during his previous two playoff campaigns (against Boston in 2010 and against Dallas in 2011). ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy said that there should be a two year statute of limitations on stupidity (referring to James' infamous Decision followed up by the Heat's ridiculous preseason celebration of the multiple championships they have yet to win) but while James can perhaps be forgiven for his poor public relations moves and ill advised comments about how "easy" it would be to "win multiple championships" the fact that the best player in the sport quit during the playoffs two years in a row should not be quickly forgiven or forgotten; James' great predecessors had bad games, made mistakes and experienced painful failures at times but no one ever had to wonder if they would try their hardest. James owes it to himself, to his teammates, to his great predecessors and to the sport itself to try his hardest during the 2012 NBA Finals; regardless of what stat lines James ultimately produces or which team eventually wins the title, there should never be a time in the NBA Finals when James is passively standing in the corner watching the game unfold: he must be constantly on the move, with or without the ball. That is not placing undue pressure on James; that is the level of expectation that goes along with being a three-time MVP. As ESPN's Magic Johnson and Chris Broussard noted during the pregame show, it is a compliment that James is expected to do so many wonderful things--and James should hope that the day never comes when people stop expecting him to be great.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:43 AM



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