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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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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

James, Irving Excel as Cavs Avoid Elimination

What is the difference between LeBron James attacking aggressively and LeBron James playing passively? The answer to that question is not found in the boxscore but rather via the eye test: watch game five of the 2016 NBA Finals to see what it looks like when James attacks aggressively and watch game four of the 2016 NBA Finals to see what it looks like when James plays passively.

Facing elimination on the road, James delivered an outstanding performance in game five as his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors 112-97. James finished with 41 points on 16-30 field goal shooting. He also had 16 rebounds, seven assists and just two turnovers. Kyrie Irving matched James' point total while shooting 17-24 from the field to become just the second player (Wilt Chamberlain is the other one) to score at least 40 points in an NBA Finals game while shooting .700 or better from the field. It is rare for two teammates to each score at least 40 points in the same NBA game and this is the first time that two teammates each scored 40 points in the same NBA Finals game.

As Isiah Thomas, Vince Carter and Tim Legler noted after the game, James set the tone from the start: he aggressively attacked the paint and when defenders played off of him to discourage him from driving he unhesitatingly took and made jump shots from both midrange and beyond the three point line. Thomas said that when the best player sets the tone then everyone else follows. Thomas stressed how important it is for the best player to look to score early in the game.

Doug Collins made the same point before game five when he reviewed what happened in game four. Collins cited James' gaudy looking game four statistics but said, "These aren't winning numbers...It׳s not about looking at the statistics afterward." Collins declared that for the Cavaliers to win this series they need for James to be the best player on the court at least four times but that after four games in the series he had only done it once.

James scored 25 points on 10-18 field goal shooting in the first half of game five. He had nine rebounds and no assists. He was the first player to attempt 18 field goals in one half of a Finals game since Kobe Bryant in the 2009 Finals. Any time Bryant had a half like that, guys like Mike Wilbon would wrongly blast Bryant for shooting so much and not having any assists but at halftime Mark Jackson correctly praised James: "We've been waiting to see this LeBron James all series long." Jackson pointed out that the lack of assists did not mean anything because the Cavaliers were utilizing actions that created scoring opportunities for James and that James was rightly attacking to score instead of looking to pass. James was taking good shots, so it did not matter that he was not accumulating assists.

Jeff Van Gundy's halftime analysis was also right on point. He said that the analytics guys (who I call "stat gurus") would not approve of James' shot selection because he took several midrange jump shots (the dreaded "long twos" that the "stat gurus" are trying to eliminate from basketball) but that James was right to take such shots when the defense gave him so much space. This is exactly the point that I made several years ago when I compared James and Bryant: Bryant was more valuable (and more successful in terms of winning championships) than James because Bryant consistently took and made midrange shots; Bryant's willingness and ability to do this opened up the entire floor for Bryant and his teammates. The San Antonio Spurs have had a great defensive team for almost 20 years but they struggled to deal with Bryant because of his mastery of the midrange game. In contrast, the Spurs went 2-1 in the NBA Finals versus James in large part because James could not or would not take and make such shots.

Overall, the first half of game five was some of the best and most enjoyable NBA basketball I have watched in quite some time. The 61-61 score was the highest halftime point total in the Finals since Magic Johnson led the Lakers to five titles during the Showtime era. I remember when NBA Finals games routinely had halftime scores with both teams scoring more than 50 points. Those games were so much fun to watch.

In addition to James' fine first half production, Irving blistered the nets with 18 points on 8-10 field goal shooting, while Klay Thompson shot 6-8 from three point range and led the Warriors with 26 points.

A key moment in the game happened early in the third quarter, when Golden State center Andrew Bogut injured his left knee while blocking a shot. After Golden State failed to score in transition, Cleveland enjoyed a 5 on 4 advantage as Bogut writhed in pain just off of the court behind the Warriors' basket. Instead of attacking the hoop, James passed the ball and Kevin Love missed a long three pointer. Bogut left the game after the ensuing stoppage of play and he did not return to action. Golden State Coach Steve Kerr elected to go small for most of the rest of the way but Cleveland Coach Tyronn Lue rightly avoided the temptation to go small as well. Lue kept Love and/or Tristan Thompson on the court and the Cavaliers used their overall size plus the driving abilities of James and Irving to good effect to punish the Warriors in the paint.

The Cavaliers built a double digit lead and were ahead 93-84 entering the fourth quarter. At that point, James had scored 36 points on 14-23 field goal shooting, while Irving had scored 29 points on 12-15 field goal shooting. As mentioned above, James set the tone for Cleveland's attack and Cleveland would not have won without him performing in that fashion but it is interesting that in this do or die game Irving, not James, turned out to be Cleveland's closer. Irving pumped in 12 points on 5-9 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter, while James limped to the finish (metaphorically speaking, not literally) with just five points on 2-7 field goal shooting in the final stanza.

Van Gundy often states that shot selection should be judged on quality not outcome (i.e., it is possible to make a bad shot or miss a good shot). Irving took the same kinds of shots in game five that he took in game four. Irving is demonstrating during this series that he is not afraid of the moment and that he is willing to attack offensively on a consistent basis, providing more proof that Mike Wilbon's criticism of Irving's game four performance/shot selection was misguided and ill-informed. James' commitment to attack wavers from game to game--and even within a single game, as we saw last night--but Irving consistently has an attacking mindset. Irving reminds me a little of Andrew Toney. Irving is flashier than Toney (though Toney had a devastating crossover move) but otherwise they are very similar: both attack to score, both are deadly at the hoop, in the midrange and beyond the arc (though the three point shot was not a big weapon during Toney's era) and both are very capable passers despite not having a pass-first mentality. Toney was physically stronger than Irving and Toney was a more consistent defender who could, at times, be relied upon even to defend larger players.

While it is tempting focus primarily on James, Irving and Thompson (who finished with 37 points), it must be noted that Stephen Curry--winner of the past two regular season MVP awards--has yet to put his stamp on this series. Curry finished game five with 25 points on 8-21 field goal shooting. Curry's defense during the Finals has been inconsistent at best and while his commendable movement off of the ball has created shot opportunities for his teammates it is not enough for an MVP to just be a decoy. Golden State had an opportunity to clinch the championship at home and instead of taking over the game Curry was, at best, the fourth best player on the court. Unlike James, Curry does not have a problem with being aggressive; Curry is not playing differently than usual but his effectiveness has dropped and he should not get a free pass either because his team is still leading the series or because the dominant narrative is that in terms of individual legacies this series is mostly about LeBron James. Curry should be expected to perform at an MVP level and he should be held accountable when he fails to do so.

The Cavaliers still face an uphill struggle to win this series; they must beat Golden State at home in Cleveland and then win game seven on the road. Bogut's availability is unknown at this time but Draymond Green will return to action after serving a one game suspension in game five. Green's suspension is a polarizing issue but my take is that the NBA has two choices regarding Green's repeated karate chops and karate kicks to the groin area and his assorted other dirty plays: the NBA can either go the NHL route by letting players "police" such activity (which would mean that Green's victims would be permitted to retaliate in kind) or the NBA has to punish Green in escalating fashion until he decides to control his behavior. Green should have been ejected and suspended for his kick to Steven Adams' groin during the Western Conference Finals; there is no way that was an accident and even if it was an accident I agree with Frank Isola's point that such contact is still unnecessary and excessive to the extent that it should be punished. In other words, if it was not on purpose then it was dangerously reckless.

Kenny Smith once said that if you do something bad once that does not make you a bad person but if you do bad things repeatedly then maybe those actions represent who you are. I have not heard Smith's take on the Green issue specifically but I think that Smith's general observation is correct. Regarding Green, he has done multiple actions on the court that are flagrant and/or dirty, including repeatedly delivering blows to opposing players' groins. Green's conduct is unacceptable. If he had done this in the 1980s, he would have gotten his butt kicked. Rick Mahorn said if Green had done that to him once he would have cracked Green upside the head as hard as he could and taken whatever punishment the league dished out. Green's conduct is dangerous and inexcusable because (1) hitting someone in that area could cause permanent damage and (2) if the NBA does not get this conduct under control someone is going to go the Mahorn rout and crack Green upside the head, which could rapidly degenerate into a full-fledged fight/riot the likes of which the NBA has not seen since the infamous Malice in the Palace.

Some people say that LeBron James instigated the incident by pushing Green down and then stepping over him. James was appropriately punished for his conduct: he received a foul and a technical foul on the play. There is no excuse for Green targeting James' groin, regardless of how much or how little contact Green actually made. It is ironic that Green allegedly called James a word that rhymes with "itch," because I cannot think of a move that is more "itch"-like than repeatedly hitting other men in their genitals. Such actions do not prove Green's toughness and I am sure that he would not act this way outside of an NBA arena where he has referees and security personnel to protect him.

Green's absence does not in any way tarnish Cleveland's win. Green took himself out of action by repeatedly committing flagrant fouls, so his unavailability is no different than a player fouling out or getting injured. Those things are part of the game and if the Warriors or their fans are angry then they should direct their anger at Green, whose conduct could potentially cost the Warriors the championship. A big part of winning a championship is staying poised. If all it takes to get Green to lose his poise is to "disrespect" him by stepping over him then if I were an opposing coach I'd send my 12th man in the game to "disrespect" Green in the first quarter. If Green felt the need to be macho when James stepped over him then Green could have just said the magic word to James--"scoreboard"--and pointed to the numbers showing that Golden State was about to take a 3-1 series lead. Or, Green could have done what so many other "macho" NBA players do: he could have pointed his finger at James and acted like he wanted to fight while making sure that 10 other people stood between them. Green knew exactly what he was doing when he took aim at James' groin and Green felt comfortable doing this because he has gotten away with it before (or because he is so mentally weak that he got caught up in the moment instead of putting his team first).

Green's teammates predictably rallied behind him publicly but I would be willing to bet that the coaching staff--if not the players--has told Green in no uncertain terms to not take any other actions that could potentially rewrite the ending to Golden State's dream season.

Golden State is a tremendous team that likely will eventually win this series but at this point no one can honestly say that James does not have enough help. The Cavaliers won both games during which he was fully engaged and played in attack mode and the Cavaliers would likely be leading the series if he had been fully engaged from the start of the series, as Collins suggested. This is not about James scoring a certain number of points or taking a certain number of shots. This is about James driving to score (not pass) and about James unhesitatingly taking midrange shots when the defense completely shuts off his driving lanes by clogging the paint. Cleveland has no chance to win if James spends most of the game driving to pass and if he refuses to shoot in favor of giving the ball to teammates who are less open than he is. How James plays the rest of the way will give some indication if his game five performance was more about winning a championship or simply about making a one game statement. Is James content to show the world what he is capable of doing or will James accept nothing less than winning the championship? To win the championship, James might have to shoot 10-30 from the field, if by being aggressive James changes Golden State's defense and tilts the floor in a way that creates offensive rebounding opportunities and other open shots for his teammates. This is not about being "efficient"; this is about a superstar's willingness to be consistently aggressive and live with the results.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:10 PM

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