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Friday, June 17, 2016

LeBron James Makes a Strong Case That He is the Best Player on the Planet as Cavaliers Force Game Seven

Well done is better than well said.

Around this time last year during the 2015 NBA Finals, LeBron James was asked a question about his confidence and he defiantly responded that he is always confident because he is the best player on the planet. During post-game media sessions in the 2016 NBA Finals, LeBron James has pointedly refused to take that verbal bait and he has rallied his Cleveland Cavaliers from a 3-1 deficit versus the Golden State Warriors to a 3-3 tie by letting his play do his talking.

James followed up a scintillating 41 point outburst in game five with an even more impressive 41 point performance in game six as the Cavaliers routed the Warriors 115-101. What made this 41 point performance more special? This is not about numbers but about impact; make no mistake that James had a lot of impact in both games but in game six he not only set the tone at the start but he scored 18 straight points in the second half to short-circuit a potential Golden State rally that could have not only won the game but also clinched the title for the Warriors.

James has put up good numbers throughout the series but he played far too passively in games one and two as the Warriors cruised to a 2-0 series lead. James did not consistently attack the hoop to score during those games. The Warriors have no player who can guard James individually when James is in attack mode and the Warriors have no team defensive scheme that can stop him, either. The only player in this series who can slow down James is James himself. When James catches the ball on the block and powers decisively to the hoop with the intention of scoring, he scores or gets fouled; when James power dribbles into the paint on the break or quickly after catching the ball on the wing, he scores or gets fouled. Also, James is now utilizing his midrange and three point game perfectly; he is not settling for those shots when he has the opportunity to attack the paint but he is taking those shots with confidence when the defense dares him to do so.

James joined Jerry West, Rick Barry, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal as the only players to score at least 40 points in back to back NBA Finals games (West accomplished this on two separate occasions). It is worth noting that Julius Erving scored at least 40 points in games one and two of the 1976 ABA Finals, while Connie Hawkins had at least 40 points in games four and six of the 1968 ABA Finals but missed game five due to injury.

James started game six aggressively and he maintained that aggressiveness throughout the contest. The Warriors elected to begin the game with a small lineup--their so-called "Death Lineup"-- instead of replacing injured starting center Andrew Bogut with another big man and the Cavaliers repeatedly punished the Warriors in the paint at both ends of the court, with James leading the way as the Cavaliers outscored Golden State 31-11 in the first quarter.

James is a dominant scorer, not the "pass-first" player that some claim him to be and that James often defines himself to be--but he is without question an all-around player in addition to being a dominant scorer and in game six he showcased the full range of his talents: he shot 16-27 from the field while also passing for 11 assists, grabbing eight rebounds, swiping four steals and blocking three shots.

Size and physicality bother the Warriors. We saw that during the Western Conference Finals when the Oklahoma City Thunder bludgeoned the Warriors in the paint en route to taking a 3-1 series lead. The Thunder could not figure out how to close out games five, six and seven but they provided a blueprint to compete with and possibly beat the Warriors--at least for teams that have big players who are also mobile. LeBron James and Tristan Thompson fit that bill to perfection--and when the Warriors go small, those guys are the two biggest players on the court. Cleveland shot .519 from the field in game six, including .600 (30-50) from inside the three point line. The Cavaliers also won the rebounding battle 45-35, as Thompson corralled a game-high 16 rebounds to go with his 15 points on 6-6 field goal shooting. Draymond Green returned from suspension to grab 10 rebounds but no other Warrior had more than four.

Other notable game six performances include 23 points by Kyrie Irving--who led Cleveland with 20 first half points before taking a back seat to James in the second half--and 30 points by Stephen Curry. Two-time MVP Curry matched his league-leading regular season scoring average but he did not have a great game by his standards; he only had one assist and two rebounds, he turned the ball over four times and after he fouled out with a little more than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter he became so irate that he threw his mouthpiece, drawing an automatic ejection when the mouthpiece struck a fan. Curry downplayed the significance of the toss, saying that he was aiming for the scorers' table as he has in the past but he just missed. However, Curry's palpable anger and frustration is not only misplaced with a championship on the line but very ironic considering that just a few days ago the Warriors were mocking James for supposedly being a crybaby. Curry's backcourt mate Klay Thompson added 25 points and Leandro Barbosa contributed 14 points off of the bench but the rest of the Warriors did not show up.

The way that the Cavaliers are pushing the Warriors around--both in the literal, physical sense and also psychologically--lends some credence to the old-school critique that the Warriors would not have been a 73-9 team in the 1990s or 1980s. If Curry and his cohorts think that the Cavaliers are too rough or the game is being officiated too loosely then they would not have stood a chance against the championship teams from the NBA's golden age. Tristan Thompson has no postup game and cannot make a free throw but he ate Green's lunch in the paint. How would Green have fared against the likes of Kevin McHale? I think that McHale said it best a while back when he declared, "That guy could not grow enough to guard me." Like Thompson, McHale had the mobility to defend on the perimeter and the size to battle in the paint--but McHale also had a deadly postup game and a deft free throw shooting touch.

I do not know what will happen in game seven but I do not consider this Cleveland team or this year's Oklahoma City team to be historically great teams and both of those squads showed that at the very least they could push Golden State to the limit. If Golden State caps off this season with a championship that is quite an accomplishment but I have seen enough to convince me that Golden State is a notch below the truly great championship teams of the past 35 years such as (in reverse chronological order) the 2001 Lakers, the 1996 Bulls, the 1987 Lakers, the 1986 Celtics and the 1983 76ers.

What does all of this mean for the legacies of the 73-9 Warriors, a Cleveland franchise that has never won a title, LeBron James and Stephen Curry? The only honest answer is that it is too soon too tell. The complete story has not been written yet. The Warriors have looked dominant at times but they have looked flustered and dominated at other times. The Cavaliers have the right personnel and game plan to win this series but Cleveland sports franchises are notorious for stumbling in the biggest moments. LeBron James is indisputably one of the greatest basketball players of all-time and he has produced many classic playoff performances but he also owns a 2-4 Finals record that is littered with subpar performances in key moments. Curry has had a solid series overall but he has yet to really place an MVP imprint on the proceedings and this comes on the heels of last year's Finals when he also failed to showcase the full range of his skills. Larry Bird won the 1981 NBA title in no small part thanks to the Finals MVP efforts of Cedric Maxwell but most MVP/Hall of Fame level players who win championships either win the Finals MVP or only fail to do so because an MVP/Hall of Fame level teammate captured the honor. If Curry wins back to back titles without being the Finals MVP either time that will be a historical anomaly.

This game seven will likely be long-remembered. I believe that the James-Curry rivalry will be considered historically significant as time passes, because either or both may still add to their MVP and championship totals. 

My mind tells me that a reigning champion like Golden State is not likely to lose at home in game seven. It is very tough to win on the road in game seven against a top notch team. My all-time favorite game seven won by a road team is Philadelphia over Boston in the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals. The 76ers blew a 3-1 lead versus Boston in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals and when they lost game six at home in 1982 to once again squander a 3-1 lead everyone thought that the 76ers were doomed heading into the Boston Garden--but Andrew Toney poured in 34 points and Julius Erving scored 29 points as the 76ers won, 120-106. It would be 13 years--and 20 game sevens--until another NBA team won a game seven on the road.

My heart tells me that a great player properly motivated with the right mindset can impact the outcome of a basketball game more profoundly than can a great player in any other team sport. James' jumper might be off in game seven. Consequently, he might shoot something like 11-27 from the field--but the numbers will not matter as much as the attitude, the shot selection and the timing: if James attacks the paint relentlessly and shoots open jumpers without settling for jumpers when driving lanes are open then the Cavaliers can pull off an upset that seemed unthinkable when the Warriors were up 2-0. The odds are against James and the Cavaliers but this is how legends are made. I am not a big believer in the idea of elevating the importance of one game when a player has already produced a large body of work but if James lifts Cleveland to the title by authoring a third straight dominant game (defined, at least for me, by impact and not numbers) then this game will be a milestone event in James' career.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:31 AM


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At Friday, June 17, 2016 12:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And LeBron is carrying this team with a broken or 1/8 of an "All-Star" in Kevin Love. Incredible.

At Friday, June 17, 2016 1:09:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Incredible performance by LeBron and great write up, David. What do you think the chances are for LeBron and the Cavaliers pulling off the upset? LeBron was incredibly inconsistent at the start of this series but he seems fully dialed in at the moment. The Bogut injury seems like it hurts the Warriors more than the Green suspension, since Bogut is the only reliable big body they have to protect the rim and clog up the driving lanes, so LeBron and company now seem like they have as fair a shot as possible to pull off the upset for a Game 7 on the road.

Between the Draymond suspension and Curry's tantrum last night, this series has been a disappointing test of character for the Warriors. I am not really a Curry fan but it was unexpected he'd throw a fit like he did at the end of last night's game.

At Friday, June 17, 2016 1:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


If LeBron attacks aggressively then I think Cleveland has a very good chance to win. It is difficult to win a game seven on the road but having an elite player who can dominate is a great potential equalizing factor. Irving also needs to continue to play well, too.

At Friday, June 17, 2016 3:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

those horns are pushing off the halo over curry's head. Curry is still young and deserves the right to grow and make mistakes which is not easy under a glaring spotlight. Doesn't help when your idiotic owner comically says your organization is "light years ahead." Curry, Kerr and Thompson also have a date with the history books Sunday. How they react on Sunday will say a lot.

Another great article. You know, no one would ever wonder if Kobe would show up for a game 7....

At Friday, June 17, 2016 6:19:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Game 7 thoughts:

* Haralabob had a pretty interesting observation, that Curry is pretty much destroying Irving & Love (shock!), but ice-cold against most others (especially Tristan Thompson). GSW might want to be more selective about who they run PnRs against (why involve Thompson? He's a better defender than Irving or Love by a million miles), and so far this series Curry is absolutely smoking Irving on Isos (he's putting up something like 1.37 points per possession on Irving over 28 possessions, most of which have been isos).

* On the flip side, they may want to do less switching with Curry on D; should help him stay out of foul trouble (so will playing in GS).

* I said before the series that Lebron would need to put up 40/10/10 to give his team a shot and damn if he isn't coming close lately. If he does it for a third game in a row that'll be downright historic, but I think he comes at least slightly back down to Earth.

* GSW needs to figure out their rotation in a post-Bogut world. I'd consider starting Ezeli to keep their usual pattern more intact. I'd also want more minutes out of Iguodala if he can stand it.

* Is it time to put out an ABP on the whereabouts of Harrison Barnes?

Prediction: Close game in the first half, GSW runs away with it in the second.

At Friday, June 17, 2016 6:20:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

Poignant player evaluation and game analysis as usual.
Quickly, on a personal level, why did you do a career switch? If i were in your shoes, being a lifelong basketball fan, and being nba media credentialed, i would already be living my dream. Why a midlife career switch? You could have been among the best basketball analysts and writers remembered by future sportswriters.
I rarely will blame refs for deciding the outcome of games because i believe a missed call on 1 side is usually balanced by another missedc all on the other end. But the way the refs officiated this game really bothered me. Cant take out the other team's superstar on those flimsy calls. If they allow the cavs to grab and bump curry, they shouldnt call him for those 3 fouls that kerr referred to. It was a beautiful game 2nd q onward. The cavs answering every charge the warriors put up. Shotmakers challenging defenses beautifully. Superstars carrying both teams. Until the last 2 fouls on curry. There was also the missed 3 from curry where his landing spot was taken away and foul was not called. Just not right...

At Friday, June 17, 2016 7:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


So far this series, Irving is eating Curry's lunch overall. Irving is playing better D than usual and Curry's D has been subpar. Neither player is a pass-first pg but Irving at times looks like a new age, slightly smaller version of Andrew Toney.

What matters more with LeBron than the numbers is his mindset. According to NBA.com, he took 16 shots in the paint yesterday. That is bad news for GS because they have no one who can check him in the paint when he thinks shot first.

I agree with you about possibly starting Ezeli. Pure small ball will not work if TT and LeBron are active in the paint.

Barnes has been awful but Steph, Klay and Green are supposed to lead the charge. Barnes is a role player even though he starts.

Your prediction is plausible. Logic says to go with GS but I know if Cle had prime MJ or prime Kobe I'd pick Cle. If LeBron takes 16 shots in the paint and makes wide open Js that GS has to concede then how does GS win? Curry or Klay would have to go nuts or Irving would have to be terrible with no one else picking up the slack.

At Friday, June 17, 2016 7:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


New career offers a lot of interesting challenges plus the potential of more reliable income stream. Plus, Steve Young, Jay Bilas and Howard Cosell each found a way to be involved in sports after getting a JD degree, so I have a lot of options now.

I tend to focus more on the players and the coaches than the refs. I am not a conspiracy buff and I think missed calls tend to even out. Players have to adjust to how the game is called. If the refs are calling fouls when you reach, then stop reaching! Curry did not play a smart game in many ways, including adjusting to how the game was being called.

In all the years that I've watched basketball, the only time that I really thought that one awful call swung the outcome of a series was Hue Hollins bailing out Hubert Davis in game five versus Chicago in 1994. Hollins' partner Darell Garretson later publicly said that Hollins messed that one up.

At Friday, June 17, 2016 7:12:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...


I agree that Curry's D has been well below his usual and deserves recrimination and is a very real problem. I disagree that Irving has played good D, but it is fair to call it 'better' than his usual as his usual is almost league-worst; his Finals D has been merely very bad. It is not a great sign for his "no, really, I can play D" case that his Power Forward is doing a better job of covering his man than he is. His individual defensive shortcomings are being somewhat masked by the relative infrequency with which he's been on Curry (and Curry's meh numbers overall), but that has more to do with good coaching (or bad, on CLE's side) than it does with anything Irving's been doing. His team D has been... ok, I guess?

"If LeBron takes 16 shots in the paint and makes wide open Js that GS has to concede then how does GS win? "

Because 3>2. By no means a foregone conclusion, but when GSW is feeling it from 3, especially at home, they're very nearly unbeatable. Also because Cleveland still needs someone else to come up big even when Lebron has 40, and so far the answer to that has been Irving-or-nobody. Irving was great the last few games, but he had some stinkers earlier in the series and CLE cannot afford another one.

At Friday, June 17, 2016 10:40:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Irving played very good defense early in series, and maybe less so later on, though he's guarding the MVP and CLE needs him to play awesome offensively. It's not like he's guarding Derek Fisher. He's outplayed the 2x MVP so far. And less we forget, it's nearly impossible to guard quick PGs. I actually thought most of the defense on Irving has been fairly solid, but he can pretty much get a good look for himself whenever he wants.

I wonder if CLE has a chance now. James has been his usual stat-padder self. Some of his stats are meaningful and impactful, but a lot of them haven't been. Love hasn't had that much impact, but that's partly due to James, similar to Bosh in MIA. CLE usually plays hard, lucky for James to keep getting extra chances here. But, the same goes for Curry, too. I didn't expect Curry to do much better than he has in the finals. It's a long season, and smaller players wear down easier. The officiating needs to be more consistent. It's hard watching these last few games.

At Saturday, June 18, 2016 2:00:00 PM, Blogger Awet M said...

Regarding your comment about the best team of the last 35 years. I think the best team of all time is the 1967 Philadelphia Sixers, given the dominance of peak wilt Chamberlain, and the well-built roster around him (Jackson and Walker up front, Greer and Jones in the backcourt, Cunningham off the bench).

The next best teams IMO are the 1996 Bulls, 1972 Lakers, 1986 Celtics, 1987 Lakers, 1989 Pistons, 1992 Bulls, 1964 Celtics, 1971 Bucks, 2001 Lakers, 2005 Spurs, 2012 Heat, and the 1983 Sixers.

They all should be able of beating the 2015 or 2016 Warriors in a series due to fundamentals of basketball: size, depth, savvy, rebounding, defense, coaching, etc.

At Saturday, June 18, 2016 4:28:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

Well, that is a pretty logical decision. More options in life. Not letting passion cloud your judgement re life decisions. Salute.
Regarding steph curry... i just hope he can be more aggressive when he is being single coveraged by a big man (either thompson or love) after an initial pnr action by either driving to collapse the defense or score, or taking that side step 3. Though i am not making an excuse for curry, i would assert that he is in a no win situation. Refs typically allow more physical action during the playoffs, and he relies more on shooting and skills, all those grabbing and bumping surely throws off his rhythm. Being skinny and relatively small, he cant overpower opponents to get a bucket when driving to the hoop nor can he post up and do a power pivot for a quick hit. That would be essentially why his percentages/scoring drops during the playoffs where physicality allowed goes up.
I hope the warriors start ezeli and allows iggy to come off the bench. I hope the warriors play varejao and speights more also. Two reasons. Cavs going small is not really going small at all as lbj at power forward instead of small forward is not going small at all. Thompson has been rebounding with impunity the last 2 games, same with lbj. Starting a center will steal some time for iggy to conserve his energy and also allows him to captain the bench unit. Playing a center more hopefully will minimize the offensive rebounding of thompson who is absolutely dominating them inside the last 2 games. Play the small ball only in 3 minute spurts to blitz the cavs... and lbj has been scoring in the paint aggressively, maybe a center will challenge some of his layups, or make him want to drive to kick out to teammates again...

At Saturday, June 18, 2016 5:32:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

Warriors will win game 7.
They are a bunch of high iq guys. They figure teams out. I was intently watching barnes. Though his shots were not falling the last 2 games, his demeanor doesnt change. There is this calmness and internal strength in his demeanor. I wouldnt call curry's ejection a meltdown emotionally. Thompson continues shooting even when shots dont fall. Kerr is almost stoic to a fault. I believe these guys are more reliable in high pressure situations, and none can be higher than a finals game 7 (sportswise). Plus the homecourt advantage.
Hoping for a beautiful game 7 tomorrow where superstars captain both squads to a nailbiting conclusion.

At Sunday, June 19, 2016 11:07:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

I was wrong...

At Sunday, June 19, 2016 11:32:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

I can't believe it actually happened. LeBron's effort level seemed all over the place in this Game 7 and I thought he spent far, far too much time on the perimeter and passing than he needed to but a win is a win. Kyrie and Love and JR Smith of all people also played well. What an incredible series.

At Tuesday, June 21, 2016 4:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that all of the teams that you listed would probably beat the '16 Warriors in a seven game series.

The '67 Sixers are a very solid choice for greatest team of all-time. The media members who selected the NBA's 35th Anniversary Team in 1981 chose the '67 Sixers as the greatest team of all-time.

At Tuesday, June 21, 2016 4:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


We got the "nailbiting" game that you--and most basketball fans--wanted, but not the outcome that you predicted. It was very cool watching the closing moments not knowing who would win or who would be the hero.


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