LeBron James Makes a Strong Case That He is the Best Player on the Planet as Cavaliers Force Game SevenWell 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.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:31 AM