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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

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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Maybe LeBron James was Right about Winning "Not One" Championship

"I feel sorry for whoever gotta guard both of us."--Dwyane Wade, July 9, 2010 interview during the Miami Heat's preseason coronation

"We're going to challenge each other in practice. And the way we're going to challenge each other to get better in practice, once the game starts, I mean, it's going to be easy. I mean, with me and Dwyane Wade running a wing, Pat could come back and play like he was back in his Kentucky days. Just throw it up there, we're going to get it."--LeBron James, July 9, 2010 interview during the Miami Heat's preseason coronation

"Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven."--LeBron James, July 9, 2010 interview during the Miami Heat's preseason coronation

Unless LeBron James is planning on playing in the NBA until he is 50--and somehow convincing Commissioner David Stern to allow him to team up with the other four members of the All-NBA First Team--it does not seem likely that he will fulfill his pledge to win more than seven NBA championships. Boston's aging, infirm Big Three (plus young Rajon Rondo) defeated James' Miami Heat 94-90 in Miami in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals to take a 3-2 series lead. We keep hearing that the Celtics are about to break up their Big Three but, ironically, James' Heat may be one loss away from seeing their Big Three broken up; the Heat were considered in many circles to be overwhelming favorites to win the East--if not the NBA title--as one potential rival after another (including Chicago and Orlando) fell by the wayside due to injuries but now they have to win two games in a row to stave off elimination. If the Heat fail to make it to the NBA Finals, team President Pat Riley will justifiably have to wonder if it makes sense under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement to pay max dollars to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

In Greek mythology it is called hubris: an overbearing pride or presumptuousness that precedes dramatic failure. In the NBA, it is called the Miami Heat--specifically, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Winning a championship in any sport at any level is never easy--and winning a championship at the highest level of a sport is particularly challenging. That is why Andrew Bynum sounded like such an idiot early this postseason when he declared that closeout games are "easy"; Shaquille O'Neal got it right on TNT recently when he said that closeout games are the toughest games. Bynum should know better but maybe it is easy for him to talk out of the side of his neck because his primary role during the Lakers' 2009 and 2010 championship runs was to put up Luc Longley numbers before sitting on the bench in the fourth quarter and watching Kobe Bryant go to work.

Wade should know better as well; even if he got things twisted in his mind during the 2006 NBA Finals when he faced single coverage while the Dallas Mavericks focused their defensive attention on Shaquille O'Neal, the ensuing four year postseason drought should have reminded Wade how challenging the championship chase really is: after Miami's 2006 championship season, Wade did not win another playoff series until he, James and Bosh teamed up last year. James and Wade talk and act like all they have to do is just stroll into any NBA arena and the players on the other team will bow down to them; that approach may work to some degree against inferior teams during the regular season but--as Magic Johnson has repeatedly noted--the Heat lack toughness and mental fortitude: when the going gets tough, James, Wade and company don't dig down deeper and fight harder. They just seem to lack the indefinable but essential character traits of champions--but James and Wade lack more than just those intangibles: they also appear to be incapable of executing a half court offensive set against elite defensive pressure, instead running what I call a "clown car" offense because it is about as organized and efficient as clowns piling out of a car at a circus. It is easy to blame Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra but James is the best player in the NBA and Wade is supposedly a top five player--yet James and Wade are repeatedly stymied when the opposing team uses a basic zone and challenges James and Wade to move without the ball and/or consistently make an outside shot. I seriously doubt that Coach Spoelstra is drawing up sets that involve no ball movement and that station James in the corner as a passive bystander; the Heat's problem is that James and Wade are so used to just overwhelming opponents with their athleticism that James and Wade do not consistently have a good counter to opponents who get back on defense, stay in front of them and are not intimidated.

Yes, I predicted that the Heat would beat the Celtics--and it is still possible that the Heat will win the series--but I also said that the Celtics could emerge victorious if Rajon Rondo is the best player on the court for an extended period of time, if the Celtics execute the correct anti-Heat game plan (limiting Miami's paint points and free throws through good shot selection, a low turnover rate and excellent transition defense) and if LeBron James quits. So far, Rondo has performed magnificently and the Celtics have executed their game plan reasonably well. It would not be fair or accurate to say that James has quit but, despite his gaudy statistics, James has not made an imprint down the stretch in the past three games as the Celtics grabbed control of the series. All of the overheated nonsense about clutch shots is irrelevant; what LeBron James should be doing is what Kobe Bryant did during the 2009 and 2010 postseasons and what Dirk Nowitzki did during the 2011 playoffs: controlling games down the stretch, a quality that may not be definable by a specific score/time remaining parameter but that is more significant than just making clutch shots.

When James played in Cleveland, he had the support of a fan base that enthusiastically cheered for him, unlike the late arriving Miami fans who sit on their hands for most of the game. If James had been willing to commit to the Cavaliers the way that Kevin Durant committed to Oklahoma City and the way that Derrick Rose committed to Chicago, the Cavaliers would have been perennial championship contenders (and if James had not quit during the 2010 playoffs then he likely would already have won at least one championship); I said it right after James left Cleveland and I'll say it again now: while it is possible that James will win a championship in Miami, it is also possible that after James retires we will look back on his career and say that the best all-around teams he played for were the 2007-2010 Cavaliers. James handpicked his destination and his teammates in the summer of 2010 yet all we keep hearing is how he supposedly does not have enough help. Whose fault is that? James could have stayed in Cleveland, played for a team that annually won well over 60 games and then recruited any number of players to bolster the roster--and he could have played for Mike Brown, a defensive-minded coach who took the depleted Lakers to the second round this season, matching what Phil Jackson did in a regular length season with a deeper roster.

If the Celtics defeat the Heat in this series, the media spin will focus more on "Heat lose" than "Celtics win" so it is important to give full credit to Doc Rivers--the brilliant Boston Coach who was repeatedly and foolishly criticized for years by supposed basketball expert Bill Simmons--and Boston's players, particularly Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. As ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy mentioned during the game five telecast, Boston's star players mesh together well because their strengths and weaknesses are complementary. This is a marked contrast with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who arguably are the three most talented individual players in this series (when Bosh is fully healthy) but whose skill sets are not complementary: James and Wade are primarily isolation players, which relegates Bosh to a glorified Horace Grant role on the weak side despite his abundant skills as both a post player and a face up player. Even though James and Wade have yet to figure out how to fully utilize Bosh's skills, it is striking that the Heat's record is much better with Bosh (in both the regular season and the playoffs) than without him. While the Heat run the "clown car" offense and often loaf back on defense--a point that Van Gundy repeatedly emphasized during game five--the Celtics space the floor and maximize each player's talents on offense while also playing rugged, tenacious defense.

The Celtics are gritty and mentally tough; the Heat are, as Joakim Noah so memorably and aptly put it, "Hollywood as hell"--a team that values style over substance, a team that takes its cue from superstars who had a coronation party before they had even played a single game together and who used that occasion to brag about how the whole basketball world would have to bow down before them. What do you think Rivers, Garnett, Rondo, Pierce and Allen thought of that spectacle? I guarantee you that they were not impressed or intimidated by it.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:54 AM

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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Poised Thunder Beat Spurs in Pivotal Game Five

The 2011-12 San Antonio Spurs produced the third longest winning streak in NBA history (20, tied with two other teams) but after Oklahoma City's 108-103 game five victory in the Western Conference Finals the Spurs are in danger of getting bounced from the playoffs with four straight losses. The Spurs collected wins 19 and 20 in the first two games of this series before the Thunder became the first team this season to beat the Spurs three straight times. Confidence and rhythm can be fleeting traits, even at the highest levels of a sport, and the Spurs seem to have lost confidence and rhythm in the face of the Thunder's athleticism, length and precise execution at both ends of the court. Kevin Durant led the Thunder with 27 points in game five but he had plenty of help: Russell Westbrook contributed 23 points, 12 assists, four rebounds and four steals and James Harden added 20 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter.

The better team in a matchup should not have to adjust much; as ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy recently put it, the main adjustment that usually needs to be made during the playoffs is to simply play harder and to execute more efficiently. The coach's job is to come up with the right game plan to defeat a particular opponent and to perhaps tweak that game plan as events necessitate but if the coach has to completely scrap his original plan then he has already failed in some sense; the idea that coaches need to make huge adjustments from game to game or even within games is a bit overstated: even some moves that the media calls "adjustments" were likely part of the original game plan (i.e., the coach starts out the series matching up a certain way defensively but he has already had his team practice and prepare other defensive schemes as well, so a seamless switch can be made if necessary--the so-called "adjustment" was in fact part of the original plan). Dallas Coach Avery Johnson made a questionable move versus Golden State in the 2007 playoffs when he changed his starting lineup--Dallas won 67 regular season games and should not have been trying to adjust to an eighth seeded team--and San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich made a similarly questionable move by changing his starting lineup prior to game five. Sixth man extraordinaire Manu Ginobili has been coming off of the bench all season long but Popovich moved him into the starting lineup in favor of the ineffective Danny Green. Ginobili responded with arguably his best game of the season--a game-high 34 points and a team-high seven assists--but an adjustment is only successful if it ultimately helps the team and most of the Spurs' other players looked out of rhythm, perhaps because in the most important game of the season the team had lineups on the court that were not used to playing together. Popovich is a great coach--perhaps the best coach in the league--and he knows his team better than anyone else, so starting Ginobili indicates just how desperate he perceived his team's situation to be; Popovich made a risky, questionable move with the hope that it would spark his team. It is certainly understandable that Popovich wanted to limit Green's minutes and increase Ginobili's minutes but it may have been more effective to start Green but shorten Green's first rotation if Green struggled; that way the Spurs would have maintained a sense of familiarity and continuity and Popovich would have retained the option to play Green his normal minutes if Green snapped out of his slump at home.

The Spurs took an early 11-4 lead in game five but by the end of the first quarter the Thunder were up 26-21 and the Thunder stayed in front for most of the rest of the game. The net result of the lineup change for the Spurs turned out to be that their starting unit improved a little bit--hence the early lead and a similar run at the start of the third quarter--but their bench all but disappeared, with only Stephen Jackson (13 points) having a discernible positive impact. Starters Tony Parker (20 points on 5-14 field goal shooting) and Tim Duncan (18 points on 7-10 field goal shooting) are the only other Spurs who scored more than five points.

When the Thunder extended their lead to 101-88 with 5:16 remaining they seemed to have firm control over the game but the Spurs promptly made an 11-0 run in the next 3:22 before Westbrook hit a jumper and Harden drained a three pointer to seal the win. According to ESPN Stats and Information, 23 different players in this season's playoffs have attempted at least one potentially game tying or game winning shot with 24 or fewer seconds remaining on the clock in the fourth quarter or overtime. Durant has shot 3-4 in that situation, Glen Davis has shot 1-2 and the other 21 players have combined to shoot 0-29, including Ginobili's three point attempt with less than 10 seconds remaining in game five. What do those numbers mean? It is very difficult to score late in an NBA game when the opposing team knows how much time is left and what kind of shot you are most likely to take based on the game situation and matchups--but no definitive conclusions can be drawn about an individual's supposed clutch ability (or lack thereof) based on a small sample size of shots taken in this particular kind of extreme situation. It is also worth noting that, based on this definition of a clutch shot, the Harden three pointer that not only proved to be the game winner but may have ultimately helped propel the Thunder to the NBA Finals was not a clutch shot: Harden's basket came with 28.8 seconds left in regulation, 4.8 seconds outside of the arbitrarily defined clutch boundary. This is why I have repeatedly insisted that being a clutch player is more significant than making clutch shots and why I have consistently noted the limitations of "advanced basketball statistics" not just in terms of defining clutch play but also in the larger realm of individual player evaluation; NBA basketball games consist of numerous simultaneous interactions that cannot be quantified as precisely as the discrete actions that take place in a baseball game.

I picked the Spurs to win this series but I also wrote, "The Thunder can certainly challenge the Spurs, though, and I expect this series to go the distance. I would be surprised but not shocked if the Thunder pull off the upset; I definitely expect the Spurs to win this series and then go on to capture the championship but the Thunder have to be respected as a legitimate championship contending team that is capable of beating the Spurs (and any other team) in a seven game series." The 1991 Chicago Bulls began their dynasty by eliminating two recent NBA champions, the Detroit Pistons (1989-90) and the L.A. Lakers (1987-88); if the Thunder defeat the Spurs and go on to win the championship they will have eliminated at least three recent former champions (a total that would climb to four if the Thunder defeat the 2008 champion Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals): the Dallas Mavericks (2011), the L.A. Lakers (2009-10) and the San Antonio Spurs (2007). Such a triumph by a Durant-Westbrook-Harden trio drafted and developed by the Thunder would be a welcome contrast to the way that many young stars have fled from the teams that drafted them instead of trying to build those teams into champions; actually, a triumph by the veteran Duncan-Ginobili-Parker trio drafted and developed by the Spurs would also be very good for the league and show the value of improving individually and collectively from within instead of seeking the supposedly easy way out.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:47 AM

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