LeBron James Did a Lot--but not Quite Enough--in Golden State's 108-100 Game One Win Over ClevelandLeBron James scored an NBA Finals career-high 44 points on 18-38 field goal shooting last night but the Golden State Warriors still prevailed over his Cleveland Cavaliers 108-100 in overtime to take a 1-0 series lead. James also had eight rebounds and six assists. Stephen Curry led Golden State with 26 points on 10-20 field goal shooting, plus a game-high eight assists.
Recent media coverage of James has focused on his poor shooting percentage during the 2015 playoffs and attributed this at least in part to James shifting from being a pass-first player to being more of a scorer because of the injuries that have knocked Kevin Love out of the lineup and limited Kyrie Irving's availability. That description of James' play is false, contrived and does not match reality. James did not suddenly emerge as a great scorer. James has the fourth highest regular season career scoring average (27.3 ppg) in pro basketball history and the highest regular season career scoring average among active players. He also ranks fifth in playoff career scoring average (28.0 ppg). Entering the 2015 NBA Finals, James did not rank in the top ten in NBA Finals career scoring average and that helps explain why James owns four regular season MVPs but only two Finals MVPs while posting a 2-3 record in his previous Finals appearances. James has always been a great scorer and his teams have always been at their best when he scores a lot of points. Sometimes, James has played passively in the Finals after spending the whole regular season and playoffs putting up big point totals and in those situations his teammates understandably could not compensate for James' reduced scoring. It is to James' credit that he is also capable of passing the ball very well but James' greatest asset is his ability to use his size, strength, athletic ability and shooting touch to score.
The first quarter of game one of the 2015 Finals is yet another example of how James' team thrives when he scores a lot. James scored 12 points on 4-9 field goal shooting as Cleveland led by as many as 14 points before settling for a 29-19 advantage after the first 12 minutes. James played all 12 of those minutes and clearly earned his +10 plus/minus rating.
James did not quite maintain that scoring pace the rest of the way and Golden State shot much better from the field in the final three quarters of regulation but with less than 10 seconds remaining James had scored 42 points and he had the ball in his hands with the score tied at 98. One more basket would have given James 44 points (nearly the 48 point pace he had set in the first quarter) and would have given Cleveland an upset win. James had the necessary time and space to attack the paint and take a high percentage shot but instead he let the clock wind down before missing a low percentage fadeaway jump shot. Running the clock down with just seconds remaining in a tied game is good strategy--the offensive team in that situation should either win or go to overtime but should not give the defensive team any time to score--but the fadeaway jump shot only makes sense if Cleveland had inbounded the ball with less than two or three seconds remaining. James should have attacked the paint around the five second mark with the mindset of scoring, getting fouled or dishing to an open teammate (if help defenders engulfed him).
Golden State scored the first 10 point in overtime. James shot 1-4 from the field in overtime--including 0-2 on three pointers--and he committed two turnovers; his scoring during the first four quarters nearly carried Cleveland to victory and his lack of scoring in the overtime doomed Cleveland to defeat. Is that analysis too dramatic or oversimplified? Not really. The great, iconic players have usually carried a heavy burden during championship runs. A few well-balanced teams spread out the scoring and the glory but most championship teams (and almost all championship-winning dynasties) have one player who carries a significantly larger weight than his teammates.
James had a plus/minus number of -3 during game one of the Finals. Does that mean that Cleveland was better off without him? No, because Cleveland was +5 during regulation time when James was in the game; James authored a dominant performance in the game's first 48 minutes and nearly led the Cavaliers to a road victory in the NBA Finals against a team than won 67 regular season games. However, James took a low percentage last second shot to end regulation and he came up empty in overtime save for Cleveland's lone basket of the extra session, a hoop that even James termed "meaningless." Taken in isolation, that plus/minus number of -3 can be misinterpreted but placed in proper context it provides some illumination about the ebbs and flows of game one.
I mention James' plus/minus number--and how to correctly understand what it means--because I have previously noted that James Harden had a negative plus/minus number throughout the entire 2015 playoffs. There are apparently few basketball sins worse than merely suggesting that Harden might not be one of the two best basketball players on the planet, so some diehard Harden fans accused me of selectively using the plus/minus statistic against Harden after allegedly not using it in my analysis of other players and games. The latter accusation is easily refuted; my coverage of Team USA in FIBA play--which can be found in the right hand sidebar of 20 Second Timeout's home page--includes many references to plus/minus. Plus/minus is a "noisy" statistic. It must be used judiciously and placed in proper context. With my Team USA coverage, I provided very detailed explanations of why Team USA performed better when certain players were in the game. With my Harden coverage, I noted that during the playoffs the Rockets had extended periods of meaningful time when they did better with Harden on the bench. The "noise" from plus/minus often comes from numbers that are skewed by garbage time but this was not the case with Harden; in fact, on multiple occasions in the playoffs, Houston made important fourth quarter runs with Harden on the bench--and Harden actually padded his individual numbers, if not also his plus/minus numbers, by staying in some blowout losses and getting buckets while his team trailed by more than 20 points. I do not lend much credence to individual statistics that are padded by garbage time points but I do take note when a supposedly MVP caliber player is on the bench while his team makes series-defining runs with home court advantage on the line (versus Dallas in game two) and with elimination on the line (versus the L.A. Clippers in game six).
A player's plus/minus number for a game, a playoff series or even an entire season is "noisy" and, without context, does not mean very much--but a plus/minus number combined with observation and analysis can be helpful in determining what factors led to a team's success or failure.
LeBron James had a great game one. He was not flawless but no great player is flawless. He did a lot to put his team in position to win. With each great game that he plays in the NBA Finals, James is diminishing the weight of his earlier failures in the NBA Finals. After his travails and triumphs in Miami, he finally seems to understand how large of a burden a great player must shoulder to win an NBA championship. This one particular series will not define James' legacy any more than any one particular series defined Kobe Bryant's legacy or Michael Jordan's legacy. James has already earned the title of NBA champion and no one can take that away; only James can determine how far he will climb within pro basketball's Pantheon and that determination will not be based on one game or one series but on his entire body of work.
It could turn out that this series is not about James as much as it is about Curry. Curry did not arrive in Golden State accompanied by all of the hype that preceded James' jump from high school to the NBA but Curry has developed from solid pro to All-Star to All-NBA player to MVP in a very short period of time. Curry is the best player on a 67 win team and he may cap off that season with Finals MVP honors. He has authored one of the greatest years ever by a 6-3 and under player. I about fell out of my chair when I heard Jeff Van Gundy say during a radio interview that Harden is better than Jerry West; that is one of the most absurd player comparisons ever made by an otherwise sensible analyst. However, while Harden is receiving unwarranted praise, Curry may very well be playing his way into the ranks of the greatest guards of all-time; he is a peerless shooter, a deft ballhandler/passer and a more than capable defensive player.
James, by virtue of his physicality, individual numbers and team accomplishments, is a magnet for attention, analysis and criticism but when we may look back on the 2015 NBA Finals we may realize that the main story really was not about him.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:00 PM