LeBron Leads the Way as Heat Win Pivotal Game FiveLeBron James led the Miami Heat in scoring (30 points), rebounds (eight) and assists (six, tied with Mario Chalmers) as they defeated the Indiana Pacers 90-79 to move within one victory of a third straight trip to the NBA Finals. It is interesting to hear LeBron James being praised for doing precisely the things that Kobe Bryant is often criticized for doing: cussing out teammates and taking over the game by scoring. James gave his teammates an earful on the sidelines prior to the second half and then he poured in 16 points on 7-10 field goal shooting in the decisive third quarter as the Heat outscored the Pacers 30-13 to take control of the game after the Pacers led for most of the first half. James is an excellent passer--he had four assists in the third quarter alone--but the idea that he is a pass first player is not quite correct; James is a very dominant scorer and his teams have always been at their best when he relentlessly attacks the hoop. James has a scoring, attacking mentality that pass first point guards like Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd never had; even when Magic Johnson took on added scoring responsibilities he never scored at nearly the same rate that James scores.
It is tempting for some people to compare what James is doing to what he did when he played in Cleveland but the critical difference now is that James' mental game is much, much stronger; he quit when things got tough versus Boston in the 2010 playoffs and versus Dallas in the 2011 Finals but now James understands the obligation that comes with being the best player on the court/best player in the league: it is his job to take over by asserting his will and he cannot abdicate that responsibility by casually dribbling the ball up the court, giving it up and watching passively as the game slips away (which is what he did in the aforementioned Boston and Dallas scenarios). Being a great player is not defined entirely by statistics but rather by timely impact; Paul George, James' Indiana counterpart, had a game that is statistically comparable (27 points, 11 rebounds, five assists) but no one who watched game five with understanding would put George in the same category as James, even though George is a very good player.
The Indiana Pacers are big, physical, well-coached and very tough on defense--but they do not have a legit franchise player and that is why they likely will lose this series. The only way that a team that lacks a legit franchise player can win a championship is by executing very efficiently at both ends of the court and consistently receiving significant contributions from several All-Star caliber performers.The 1979 Seattle Supersonics accomplished this, as did the 2004 Detroit Pistons.
There are only a handful of legit franchise players in the NBA: they are the ones who you see regularly leading their teams to the Conference Finals and the NBA Finals. Franchise player status is not solely defined by scoring average or any other statistic, "advanced" or basic; some 25 ppg scorers are not even close to being franchise players (2013 James Harden, 2010 Monta Ellis and 2006 Gilbert Arenas, to name just three recent examples) while some franchise players never averaged 25 ppg (Bill Russell and Magic Johnson).
Chris Bosh receives the bulk of the criticism when things go bad for Miami--and Bosh has been bashed after each Miami loss in this series--but Bosh is being asked to do an impossible task in this series: play in the pivot against Roy Hibbert, a legit, back to the basket, seven foot All-Star caliber center. Playing small ball with James at power forward and Bosh at center works wonderfully against most teams because the Heat can overwhelm the opposition with speed but the handful of teams that can slow the game down and turn it into trench warfare have a major advantage against Miami in the paint. Bosh plays on the perimeter offensively and he has has hands (and back and legs) full just trying to hold his position defensively so it is unrealistic to expect him to post big rebounding totals against Indiana. The physical pounding is also obviously having an impact on Bosh's energy level offensively and his shooting touch.
It has always been fashionable to say that James had no help in Cleveland but the Cavs had a deep and rugged frontcourt that defended and rebounded very well. In some ways, James almost has to do more with the Heat than he did with the Cavs, at least in terms of playing in the paint and guarding legit big guys. Again, the difference is that now James embraces that challenge, whereas in Cleveland he was reluctant to play power forward and--even though he had some monster playoff games--he at times shrunk from the challenge of taking over.
Charles Barkley has been saying for a while that Dwyane Wade is a declining player--and I predicted this decline some time ago because Wade has spent years throwing his body recklessly into the paint without ever developing a consistent outside game as a backup plan and/or a way to limit the physical pounding he is taking. During the game five telecast, Steve Kerr pointed out that Wade is easy to guard now because he cannot get to the hoop consistently and because no one is scared of Wade's outside game; it will likely be more difficult for defenders to check a post-Achilles tendon surgery Kobe Bryant than it is to check Wade because even if the Achilles injury takes away some of Bryant's explosiveness he will still be able to hit jump shots and post up.
It is funny how we no longer hear anyone talking about Miami being Wade's team; Wade had a very good regular season but even then he was clearly the second option and it is becoming increasingly clear that at this stage of his career his body can not hold up for a full 82 game season plus an extended playoff run. Wade has had bad knees for two playoffs in a row and at some point this has to be recognized as not a temporary condition but rather a permanent reduction in his capabilities. That is one reason I questioned the idea that the James-Wade-Bosh trio would automatically win "not one, not two, not three," etc. titles. Yes, they have already captured one championship and the second one may only be a few weeks away but each one gets progressively harder to obtain, as we saw in both of the Chicago Bulls' three-peat seasons--and it is still more than a stretch to compare James and Wade to Jordan and Pippen: even if the Heat beat the Pacers and the Spurs in the next few weeks they will still have to win four more titles for James and Wade to collectively match what Jordan and Pippen accomplished. I will be shocked if James and Wade even get close to that total.
If the Pacers cut down on their turnovers, keep James out of the paint as much as possible and pound the ball inside to Hibbert and David West--both of whom missed easy layups early in game five that proved to be costly in the long run--then they certainly can win game six in Indiana. The home team has the advantage in game seven but the home team also faces added pressure as well--and a one game scenario is much more random than a seven game series: a sprained ankle, foul trouble and/or an ejection could swing the balance in one game.
One thing that I like about the way that Indiana Coach Frank Vogel and his players talk about this series is that they are respectful of the Miami Heat but not fearful; that is the difference between being foolish--i.e., Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings guaranteeing that his team would beat Miami in six games--and being a serious, confident and intelligent competitor. Some people wonder what Jennings was supposed to say when he was asked about the Miami-Milwaukee series; the answer to that question is listen to how Vogel, Hibbert and West talk: those guys are not backing down or conceding anything but they also are not making stupid predictions/guarantees/declarations. Vogel praises the Heat as a great team but then says that he believes that his Pacers can compete with the Heat; Vogel has been proven right in that regard but it will obviously be very difficult for the Pacers to beat the Heat two games in a row to win this series.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:33 AM