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Friday, May 31, 2013

LeBron Leads the Way as Heat Win Pivotal Game Five

LeBron 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:33 AM

6 comments

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6 Comments:

At Friday, May 31, 2013 4:48:00 PM, Anonymous AW said...

I mentioned in a recent post that reguardless of Miami's and Indiana's strengths and weaknesses against each other that having a legit superstar player could wind up becoming the difference maker in this series. I agree that Paul George is not a superstar, he's just an all star level player.
Some people may incorrectly label him as a superstar, but he.has to prove himself more.

About Wade, maybe it's safe to say he isn't a great second option/Robin to LeBron anymore. But a good enough second option. And if he is going to regress more and more year after year then Miami may be under pressure to make a big move for them to stay in the title hunt as long as possible.

 
At Saturday, June 01, 2013 2:07:00 AM, Anonymous JLK1 said...

Good stuff, and I just had a few thoughts:

Bosh and Wade have combined for zero 20 point games in this series. I didn't realize that until I looked at the stats, but I was surprised to see it even considering Wade's health and Bosh's matchups. When this team was put together I recall James talking about how on some nights any of them might have the hot hand, so they could spread the load a bit. Funny how things work out.

I continue to like Chalmers a lot as a role player. He eases James's load on offense, spaces the floor, and provides youth on a team that is otherwise full of older veterans.

The Heat seemed to collapse into the paint more aggressively in this game, no doubt a coaching adjustment. Although the Indiana frontcourt scored a lot of points, the Heat were able to close the rebounding gap to the point that Indiana only had a 1 rebound advantage. It's hard to criticize Hibbert's body of work in this series, but he only notched 6 boards in a critical game, a series low and his lowest total of the playoffs.

 
At Saturday, June 01, 2013 5:02:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

AW:

Yes, you did mention that, and I mentioned the same idea in my series preview and other articles. Julius Erving also said this when he visited the Inside the NBA set; the NBA is and always has been a star driven league. The problem sometimes is that people get anointed as stars (or superstars) who really are not at that level.

If the Heat do not win the championship I think that it is very likely that they will make some kind of move--and even if they win the championship it is still very possible that they will make a move. If the roster is not upgraded and/or made younger then LeBron could decide to leave when his contract is up.

I still believe that if LeBron had stayed in Cleveland, improved his mental game and actively recruited players to come play with him then the Cavs could have built a roster around him even better than the one the Heat built; the problem is that LeBron never recruited anyone to come to Cleveland and he was not nearly as mentally tough two or three years ago as he is now.

Think about the young players that the Cavs had back then:

1) Shannon Brown could barely get on the court because the Cavs were so deep (contrary to popular belief) but then he went to the less deep Lakers and became a rotation player for two championship teams.

2) Danny Green, who also could not get on the court because the Cavs were so deep, now starts for the Spurs.

3) J.J. Hickson averaged a double double this season for Portland.

The Cavs constantly brought in veterans to try to help LeBron (Ben Wallace, Shaq, Antawn Jamison) and the Cavs could have done even more if LeBron would have recruited players (like Kobe did for the Lakers and like Chris Paul has done for the Clippers) and if LeBron would have committed early on to re-signing with Cleveland.

Considering the salary cap restrictions, Pat Riley has done a great job building the roster around James, Wade and Bosh but age, injuries and a lack of size may prevent the Heat from becoming a dynasty. That said, the Heat are one more great game from LeBron away from making the Finals for the third straight year.

 
At Saturday, June 01, 2013 5:05:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JLK1:

LeBron has finally learned that being the best player carries with it the obligation to take over games at certain times. Shaq, Kobe and Tim Duncan understood this and that is why those guys won multiple titles. The best player cannot just rely on everyone else to get the job done; a Steve Kerr or a Derek Fisher can hit a big shot when left open but those shots only matter if the superstar has already carried a huge load prior to that last second opportunity.

I agree with you about Chalmers.

You are also right that the Heat did a better job of swarming in the paint, taking advantage of their speed and quickness.

 
At Saturday, June 01, 2013 6:27:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

For some reason, I don't think Wade and Bosh would have came to Cleveland to play with LeBron...Even if LeBron did try to recruit guys.

It probably wouldn't make any sesne for a team that just won a title to make a big move. But then again championship teams can always try to improve themselves along with other teams.

If some people felt that LeBron quit or gave up in 2010 with Cleveland then Thats understandable.

Reguardless of Lebron's so called mental makeup at that time, I never thought his cast in Cleveland was that good. You probably make some good points about some of the guys that once played with LeBron. I think Mo Williams was the best player LeBron ever played with in Cleveland. He was an all star in 2009. He got selected as one because he was on that Cavs team with LeBron, not because of how good he was. He even got in as a replacement for an injured player.He never came close to being an all star since then. Even if the cavs had the same cast in 2010-2011 that they had in 2009-2010 minus LeBron, I still don't think they'd win much.more than those 19 Games they won.

About the so called franchise players, you're correct. I never said Harden was a franchise guy I was just saying I expected that Houston would get to the playoffs as a lower seed then lose to a better team in round one. But you had some great points that I overlooked. Houston was in strong contention for the eighth seed for three straight seasons prior to Harden's arrival. And with the addition of Harden and Lin they didn't imorove.much. They snuck into the playoffs as the eighth seed on the last day of the season. All year long it looked like they would not be a playoff team. If they had miss the playoffs, I think it would have made the Rockets look stupid that they gave Harden that big contract. But then again I think several other teams would have gave Harden the same deal if they had the.money. I believe they overpaid Lin.

 
At Saturday, June 01, 2013 3:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

AW:

I don't know if Wade or Bosh would have come to Cleveland to play with LeBron but if LeBron had made it clear all along that he was staying in Cleveland then I am sure he could have recruited many players to join the Cavs. Everyone says that people love playing with LeBron because he is so unselfish, right? The reason players did not go to Cleveland is that LeBron never committed to staying; that meant that the only way the Cavs could build was by trading for older veterans. In a sense, it was LeBron's fault that he did not have a better supporting cast.

That said, his supporting cast was vastly underrated, as was Coach Mike Brown. The Cavs posted the best record in the league two years in a row and they also made it to the Finals in 2007. You cannot do those things over the course of three different seasons with a one man team. The Cavs had size, rebounding and shooting and they had great depth. It is true that they lacked a second true superstar but they had enough parts to win a title--if LeBron had not quit.

The Cavs would not have had the same cast in 2010-11 if LeBron had stayed. They would have kept some players, gotten rid of some players and added some new players--as they had done in each of the previous seasons. Dan Gilbert has always been willing to spend money and if LeBron had stayed then the Cavs would have been a 60 win team again in 2010-11.

 

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