Miami's Big Three Overwhelm Pacers, Earn Third Straight NBA Finals AppearanceThe Indiana Pacers pushed the heavily favored defending champion Miami Heat to the brink of elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals but in game seven the Heat pushed back: LeBron James led the way as usual (game-high 32 points, eight rebounds, four assists) but this time he had more help from the other two thirds of the Big Three as Dwyane Wade had his best game of the playoffs (21 points, nine rebounds) and Chris Bosh made his presence felt in the paint even though his numbers were pedestrian (nine points, eight rebounds, three blocked shots). The Pacers have all of the necessary physical components to beat the Miami Heat but this series was about mental focus and toughness: could the Pacers execute the right game plan offensively and defensively four times in a seven game series? The answer to that question turned out to be, "Not this year," and Miami rolled to a 99-76 victory, earning their third straight trip to the NBA Finals and a chance to becoming the first repeat champions since the 2010 Lakers.
Game seven went sideways for the Pacers right from the start, even though the Pacers briefly took the lead; the Pacers turned the ball over at an alarming rate, they granted the Heat easy access to the paint--resulting in foul trouble for the Pacers and free throw attempts for the Heat--and when they did not turn the ball over they lacked the patience to create the proper passing angles to exploit their inside advantage with Roy Hibbert (18 points, eight rebounds but just 11 field goal attempts) and David West (14 points, six rebounds, six turnovers). The Heat deserve credit for staying poised and for ratcheting up their defensive pressure to the extent that it fried the Pacers' brains but if the Pacers had remained calm and made the extra pass then they could have exploited gaps in Miami's defense and forced the Heat to refrain from trapping so aggressively; as Hubie Brown always says, you don't beat the trap with the first pass but with the second pass, because no man can outrun the ball: after the first pass, the offense enjoys a four on three advantage and when the second pass is made the result should be a wide open shot. Hit the Heat upside the head with four or five sequences of two passes leading to dunks and/or wide open three pointers and then see how enthusiastic the Heat are about trapping all over the court; nothing saps defensive energy like the sight of the ball going through the hoop. Unfortunately for the Pacers, during game seven they often could not even safely make the first pass out of the trap, let alone make the second pass to get a wide open shot.
When Kobe Bryant led the L.A. Lakers to three straight NBA Finals (and two straight championships) from 2008-2010 he dismantled defenses by repeatedly making a pinpoint pass out of the initial trap; the recipient of that pass often made the assist pass but that assist would have never happened if Bryant had turned the ball over or forced a shot. Being a superstar is about more than just accumulating certain box score statistics and/or piling up impressive "advanced basketball statistics." A superstar is such a deadly offensive threat that he forces the opposing team to trap him and then he destroys that trap by splitting it off the dribble (a la Mark Price), shooting before it arrives (Bryant often uses this tactic because he can pivot in either direction to create a high percentage shot) or passing crisply to create the aforementioned four on three advantage. Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and LeBron James were/are superstars but most so-called superstars cannot consistently attack a defense in this manner.
There is a reason that I get irritated when certain players are crowned as MVP candidates or superstars or elite players after a few good games or even a month's worth of good games; those terms should be reserved for players who perform at the highest level over the course of an entire season and then maintain that performance level in the postseason. Paul George is a legit All-Star and perhaps he has superstar potential--but he is not a superstar now; LeBron James ate him alive at both ends of the court in game seven and George had just seven points (on 2-9 field goal shooting) plus seven rebounds and four assists before fouling out midway through the fourth quarter. There is a mental/psychological component of greatness that "stat gurus" will never be able to quantify or understand--and that is precisely the point that Memphis Coach Lionel Hollins made in an interview a while back when he said that he did not want "stat gurus" telling him which lineups to use because "stat gurus" do not understand what is in a player's heart/mind and which players will crumble under pressure even if their statistics supposedly indicate that they should be on the court. Would a "stat guru" have put Scottie Pippen on the court with four reserves during a crucial fourth quarter stretch of game six of the 1992 NBA Finals while Chicago trailed Portland by 15? Chicago Coach Phil Jackson had trained his reserve players to be ready for that kind of situation and he also knew that he needed to rest Michael Jordan for the game's final moments; Pippen and the reserves slashed Portland's lead and then a refreshed Jordan returned to action to win the game--and clinch the championship--with Pippen at his side.
James' brilliance and the Pacers' focus (or lack thereof) were the two main themes of this series but the way that Wade--an All-Star and an All-NBA Third Team member this season--has suddenly become a very ordinary player was a significant sidebar story. It is impossible to know what is really going on with Wade now. Has Wade permanently declined to the extent that he cannot play at a high level for an entire regular season/extended playoff run or is he just very injury prone but otherwise his skills are intact? TNT's Steve Kerr and others noted that Wade seemed disinterested for much of this series; if anything, being injured should increase a player's focus and intensity, not decrease it. It almost seemed like Wade was pouting about his reduced role--but then, seemingly out of nowhere, in game seven Wade found the wherewithal to perform at a solid All-Star level, if not quite an All-NBA level. Wade refuses to talk about his knee injury, though he has made sure that word gets out that it is very unpredictable and that just because he looks good/moves well in one game does not mean that he will be able to play well in the next game. That is certainly very convenient, because it elevates his solid performances to a heroic level while excusing his many poor performances throughout this postseason. I just find the whole Wade act a bit tiresome; he flops around at the slightest hint of contact but he is also a sneaky cheap shot artist (breaking Kobe Bryant's nose in an All-Star Game, taking out Rajon Rondo in a playoff game, "accidentally" hitting Lance Stephenson upside the head earlier in this series, etc.). Wade not only refused to talk about the injury while making sure that everyone in fact knows about the injury but for some reason he grumbled about not getting enough touches--as if LeBron James, the best player in the league by far, should be going out of his way to give up the ball so that Wade can miss some more jumpers and get some more layups blocked. James has handled the situation masterfully, refusing to directly criticize Wade while also making it clear that he expects Wade to be more productive. I greatly respect Tim Grover and I understand why he speaks highly of his client Wade, but the more I watch the Heat the less I buy Grover's contention that Wade has somehow taught James how to be a leader/champion; James has clearly learned a lot in the past few years but I am more inclined to believe that he has learned from Pat Riley, Hakeem Olajuwon and/or others than that he learned from the second best player on his own team. When Wade won his first NBA title, Shaquille O'Neal was Miami's vocal leader and he was also the player who was drawing double teams; in the ensuing years, O'Neal declined and/or missed games because of injury and the Heat quickly descended in the standings. I am not sure what Wade learned from those experiences that would be relevant to James' recent evolution.
Bosh is everyone's favorite whipping boy but what happened to him in this series is easy to understand; he is a slender power forward who was overmatched physically while playing center against Roy Hibbert, a big, low post brute. Bosh was also limited by a sprained ankle but since he really does not talk about his injuries we don't know just how severe the ankle injury is. Bosh's scoring and rebounding figure to increase in the Finals against the Spurs because the matchups will not be so unfavorable for Bosh at either end of the court. Perhaps James and Wade will even permit Bosh to post up once in a while and/or receive the ball in position to drive/attack the hoop, instead of consigning Bosh to the outer limits of the offense so that they have open driving lanes for themselves: Bosh cannot be expected to drive to the hoop from the three point line--he does not have handles like a shooting guard--but if he is given the ball in the midpost area he can face up and either hit the 15 foot jumper or make a nice, two dribble drive into the paint.
After the game, James said that he is 20 times the player he was when his Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals. While that is not literally true, it is true that James' accelerated growth curve has continued on a steep upward path, resulting in four MVPs, one Finals MVP and one championship during the past six years. During the 2012 NBA Finals, James demonstrated how much he has improved his focus and to what extent he has refined his skill set. In Jedi terminology, James was just a padawan apprentice when he faced Jedi Master Tim Duncan in the 2007 NBA Finals but now James is a full fledged Jedi Master; the circle is now complete and James has a chance to further establish his Jedi credentials by outdueling a four-time NBA champion on the sport's biggest stage.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:41 AM