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Friday, June 15, 2012

Heat Build Huge Lead, Hold off Late Thunder Rally to Even Finals at 1-1

Game two of the NBA Finals almost looked like a replay of game one, with the Miami Heat again building a big first half lead only to watch the Oklahoma City Thunder storm back in the second half, but this time the Heat held on for a wire to wire 100-96 win to even the series at 1-1. LeBron James led the Heat with 32 points--establishing a new NBA Finals career high for the second game in a row--and he also had a good floor game with eight rebounds and five assists. James shot 10-22 from the field and 12-12 from the free throw line, significantly better in both categories than his career Finals averages. Dwyane Wade added 24 points, six rebounds and five assists and Chris Bosh--inserted in the starting lineup for the first time since his return from an abdominal muscle strain--had a strong double double (16 points plus a game-high 15 rebounds). Shane Battier scored 17 points for the second game in a row. He has shot 9-13 (.692) from three point range in the first two games of this series, spreading the court to provide driving lanes for James and Wade.

Kevin Durant led the Thunder with 32 points and he now ranks third on the all-time list for most points scored in the first two games of a player's NBA Finals career (68, just behind Allen Iverson's 71 and Michael Jordan's 69). Durant shot 12-22 from the field overall but he only had six points on 3-9 shooting in the first half and his floor game was subpar as he amassed just three rebounds and one assist. He committed a couple silly fouls that landed him in foul trouble and that seemed to affect his aggressiveness in every aspect of the game except for scoring. Russell Westbrook finished with 27 points, a team-high eight rebounds (starting center Kendrick Perkins also had eight rebounds) and a game-high seven assists but, predictably, he received a lot of postgame sniping from the talking heads. Westbrook only had two turnovers but he shot 10-26 from the field, so instead of blasting his ballhandling his critics highlighted his shot selection--but the problem with that narrative is that there is a difference between taking bad shots and just shooting poorly. Yes, Westbrook took a couple questionable shots but that is true of every single player in the NBA who averages more than 20 ppg (and many of the less productive players as well); Westbrook's real problem in game two was that in the first half he inexplicably missed several point blank shots, shots that he normally makes. It is ridiculous to criticize an explosive point guard for penetrating all the way to the basket just because the ball rolled out instead of falling through the hoop. Westbrook made the same moves and attempted the same shots in the second half but in the final 24 minutes he made a much higher percentage of his shots and, not coincidentally, the Thunder got right back into the game. James Harden kept the Thunder alive in the first half with 17 points but he only scored four points in the second half. No other Thunder player scored more than seven points; will the people who screamed after game one that LeBron James needs more help now make the same plaintive plea on Durant's behalf?

Miami started the game with an 18-2 run that essentially decided the outcome; it is not realistic to expect to win after spotting a good team that kind of advantage in the NBA Finals. The Heat led 51-34 late in the first half but Miami's half court offense is still quite erratic--that "clown car" offense is a major reason that the Heat often have trouble executing well enough down the stretch to maintain a lead: whenever they slow the game down and try to work the clock they have a lot of empty possessions that result in poor shots or turnovers. The Heat were still up 98-93 with less than 45 seconds remaining when Wade did his best Michael Jordan impersonation--not the Jordan who won six championships but rather the Jordan from 1995 who, after taking a year and a half off to play baseball, turned the ball over late in Chicago's game one Eastern Conference semifinal loss to Orlando. Wade's blunder resulted in a Durant three pointer and then after James bailed out the Thunder by settling for--and missing--a three pointer the Thunder had a chance to tie or possibly even win the game. The Thunder ran a nice out of bounds play and fed the ball directly to Durant on the left block but he missed a short running shot with less than 10 seconds left. Replays clearly showed that James hooked Durant's right arm and should have been called for a foul but during the postgame press conference Durant quite correctly refused to criticize the referees and instead said that the reason the Thunder lost is that they fell behind by so much so early in the game. Many teams say that they are "no excuse teams" only to make plenty of excuses after they lose but the Thunder truly live by that mantra--and Durant is quite correct: the Thunder lost because of all of the shots that they missed in the first quarter, not because of one shot that Durant missed just before time expired.

Durant's miss and the Heat's victory will likely prevent most people from noticing that James once again did not have a great fourth quarter, scoring six points on 1-3 field goal shooting. If the Thunder had won this game, we would rightly be questioning why James can be so passive late in games after being aggressive for three quarters--but the Heat survived and James did score four crucial points that helped preserve Miami's lead: He hit a tough bank shot from the left wing to put the Heat up 96-91 at the 1:25 mark and then after Durant's miss he grabbed the rebound and made the two game-clinching free throws with seven seconds remaining.

The same people who just got finished saying that the Thunder are too talented for the Heat and that James needs more help to win a championship will now likely place most if not all of the blame squarely on Westbrook. Magic Johnson knows a lot about playing the point guard position but it is far from clear that he is a student of the sport's history; at halftime he boldly declared that Westbrook had just played the worst half a point guard had ever played in the NBA Finals--but Westbrook's only first half "sin" was that he missed several layups after blowing by Wade and anyone else who tried to check him. Westbrook played below his normal standard in the first half but only in the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader's universe of nonstop hype, hyperbole and noise does that mean that Westbrook played worse than any point guard in NBA Finals history. Dennis Johnson was a natural shooting guard who, like Westbrook, converted to point guard at the NBA level; Johnson won the 1979 Finals MVP and earned induction in the Hall of Fame but he missed every single shot that he attempted in game seven of the 1978 NBA Finals. Technically Johnson was still a shooting guard at that stage of his career but the Sonics did not have a true pass first point guard, much like the Thunder do not have a true pass first point guard. There are plenty of examples of point guards, combo guards and other guards who had worse halves in the NBA Finals than Westbrook did in the first half of game two--not to mention that right after Magic Johnson made his ill-considered remark Westbrook bounced back to have an outstanding second half and flirt with a triple double!

No Heat player has consistently been able to stay in front of Westbrook in the first two games of this series and if that continues to be the case then he will finish plays at the rim and the Thunder will eventually prevail. When Scottie Pippen and Kobe Bryant were the second best players on their championship teams they repeatedly received most of the blame for any losses while Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal respectively get most of the credit for any wins and that storyline is repeating itself now with Durant and Westbrook: when the Thunder win we mainly hear about Durant's greatness (and he is truly great, just like Jordan and O'Neal were) but when the Thunder lose we mainly hear about all of Westbrook's supposedly fatal flaws. The good news for Westbrook is that it would not be surprising to see Durant and Westbrook lead the Thunder to multiple championships; the bad news for Westbrook is that even after Pippen won six titles and Bryant won five titles the media still often found (or made up) reasons to belittle their accomplishments.

As the series shifts to Miami for the next three games it will be interesting to see if the pattern continues to hold that the Heat build big leads only to fade down the stretch; if the pattern is broken it is more likely that the Thunder will get off to better starts than that the Heat will close more strongly: there is no reason that the Thunder cannot do the same things early in games that they do late in games but the Heat's inconsistent half court offense will always be a problem late in games when fatigue sets in and it is more difficult to score in transition. On paper, the Heat have the advantage now because they can clinch the title by winning their home games but history shows that it is very difficult to sweep the middle three games in the 2-3-2 format; the 2004 Pistons and 2006 Heat are the only home teams to accomplish this (oddly, three road teams have swept the middle three games: 1990 Pistons, 1991 Bulls, 2001 Lakers). The likelihood is that this series will return to Oklahoma City with the Thunder having the opportunity to win the championship in front of their home fans.

The two most important team statistics in this series are points in the paint and fast break points: those numbers are impacted by offensive execution (particularly shot selection and turnovers), defensive transition and post play. The Thunder dominated both categories in the first game and won going away despite their slow start; in game two the Heat outscored the Thunder 48-32 in the paint, while fast break points were almost even (11-10 in favor of the Thunder). Perhaps the Thunder will utilize the Durant-Westbrook screen/roll play earlier in the upcoming road games to jump start their offense; that action and the pin down action with Durant receiving the ball on the move on either wing have both been deadly in the second halves of both games and there is no reason that those plays cannot be effective at the start of the game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:15 AM


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


Monday, June 11, 2012

Oklahoma City Versus Miami Preview

NBA Finals

Oklahoma City (47-19) vs. Miami (46-20)

Season series: Tied, 1-1

Miami can win if…the Heat force enough turnovers and/or missed shots to fuel their transition game. Miami's half court offense--what I call the "clown car" offense because at times it is as disorganized and chaotic as clowns piling out of a car at the circus--cannot consistently get the job done against good defensive teams but if LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are allowed to score dunks, layups and free throws then the Heat are very difficult to stop.

Oklahoma City will win because…the Thunder are a more complete all-around team than the Heat and because Oklahoma City's Big Three (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden) will match--if not exceed--the production of Miami's more celebrated Big Three (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh).

Other things to consider: In my Western Conference Finals preview I should have stuck with the prediction that I made prior to the start of the season when I ranked the Thunder as the top team in the West: "The Thunder have all the necessary ingredients to be a championship team: two star players, a good and versatile supporting cast and the ability to defend all areas of the court; the final challenge for this young team is to put everything together when the stakes are highest and consistently execute at both ends of the court against elite teams in postseason play." The San Antonio Spurs authored a long winning streak that enabled them to snatch the top seed in the West away from the young Thunder and it seemed like perhaps the Thunder needed one more year of seasoning to go all the way--and that assessment seemed right on target when the Spurs jumped out to a 2-0 lead over the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals but then Oklahoma City just overwhelmed San Antonio at both ends of the court with athleticism, energy and poise.

The Thunder proved that they can indeed "consistently execute at both ends of the court against elite teams in postseason play" and their 12-3 romp through the Western Conference playoffs is remarkable in terms of the historical pedigree of the three teams that they defeated: the Dallas Mavericks, L.A. Lakers and San Antonio Spurs combined to win the last 13 Western Conference championships and 10 of the last 13 NBA titles. While it is true that the Mavericks and the Lakers did not have championship caliber squads this season it is still significant that the young, upstart Thunder so convincingly dethroned more than a decade's worth of Western Conference royalty.

The Miami Heat had a much easier path to the NBA Finals both in terms of historical pedigree and actual on court talent. Injuries sidelined 2011 MVP Derrick Rose and perennial First Team All-NBA center Dwight Howard, turning top seeded Chicago and dark horse threat Orlando into first round fodder. Miami's first round opponent, the New York Knicks, is vastly overrated by the media and the general public, while the Indiana Pacers seemed satisfied to win a couple games versus the Heat. The Boston Celtics turned out to be the only team of substance that the Heat faced but the aging Celtics simply did not have enough gas left in the tank to take out the Heat. The Heat's 12-6 record in the Eastern Conference playoffs is solid but not overly impressive, though the absence of Chris Bosh for nine games--during which the Heat went just 5-4--certainly played a role in extending the Indiana and Boston series.

The Heat suffered a disappointing come from ahead loss to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals, rallied from a 2-1 deficit to beat Indiana in the second round of this year's playoffs and bounced back from a 3-2 deficit to defeat Boston in the seventh game of this year's Eastern Conference Finals; if LeBron James and Dwyane Wade do not understand now how foolish it was to boast about how "easy" it would be to win multiple championships then they will never learn. The Heat are doing less prancing and showboating this season than they did last season when Chicago's Joakim Noah said that the Heat are "Hollywood as hell."

James and Durant are clearly the two best players in the NBA, something that they established over the course of the regular season and reinforced during the playoffs. Their postseason numbers are very similar: James is averaging 30.8 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 5.1 apg while shooting .508 from the field, .275 from three point range and .718 from the free throw line; Durant is averaging 27.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg and 4.2 apg while shooting .505 from the field, .364 from three point range and .870 from the free throw line. The bigger, stronger James is a better rebounder and more versatile defender, while the longer, lankier Durant is a much better shooter. James appears to be more committed than ever to getting into the lane instead of settling for jumpers or passively watching others shoulder the offensive load during crucial moments, while Durant has evolved from primarily being a great shooter into being a great scorer from all areas of the court who is also an above average rebounder, defender and passer.

Coach P.J. Carlesimo unwisely switched Durant from small forward to shooting guard during Durant's rookie season, a mistake that hindered Durant's transition from the college game to the professional game--but the first thing that Scott Brooks did when he took over for Carlesimo was to put Durant back in his comfort zone at small forward. Durant now has a complete skill set at both ends of the court and is thus better equipped to shift positions at times, playing power forward when the Thunder go small and even playing shooting guard at times when the Thunder go big. People who compare Durant to George Gervin may not realize that Gervin spent the early part of his pro career at his natural forward position before sliding over to the backcourt; that is why it was so smart of Brooks to immediately return Durant to the frontcourt until Durant completed his adjustment to the pro game.

A key factor in this series will be how effective the Thunder's big men--Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison--are at deterring James and Wade from scoring in the paint and/or drawing fouls. If the Thunder big men lock down the paint and the Thunder perimeter players do not turn the ball over excessively then the Heat will have serious problems scoring unless Chris Bosh and/or Miami's role players hit a very high percentage of their perimeter shots to punish the Thunder for walling off the paint; Bosh is an excellent face up shooter but the three three pointers he hit in game seven versus Boston are a bit of an aberration and he may not make three three pointers over the entire course of the NBA Finals.

Another important factor will be James Harden's impact off of the bench both early in the game and as a fourth quarter closer. The Heat will have a difficult time matching up with him. The Heat ultimately took out Indiana and Boston by wearing those teams down with their superior energy and then hitting them with quick scoring runs; the Thunder are deeper than the Pacers and the Celtics and thus less apt to get worn down and/or beaten in transition.

It will be extremely interesting to watch the James-Durant matchup. One of those players will earn his first championship ring. Durant's career is on the rise and, unless he plays terribly, he will likely not face heavy criticism if the Thunder do not win in their first appearance on the sport's biggest stage (much like James was not really blamed for Cleveland's 2007 loss to San Antonio in his first NBA Finals appearance)--but if the Heat lose then James will have fallen short in the NBA Finals for the third time and his performance will be very closely scrutinized and critiqued.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:00 AM


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