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Friday, June 21, 2013

LeBron James Dominates as Miami Heat Win Second Straight Championship

LeBron James authored one of the greatest seventh game performances in NBA Finals history, winning his second consecutive NBA Finals MVP and his second consecutive championship after carrying the Miami Heat to a 95-88 victory over the San Antonio Spurs. James scored an NBA Finals career-high 37 points on 12-23 field goal shooting (including 5-10 from three point range), grabbed a team-high 12 rebounds and passed for a team-high four assists. James tied Tommy Heinsohn's 1957 record for the most points scored in an NBA Finals game seven by a member of the winning team. James played a game-high 45 minutes and he guarded multiple positions, including spending a lot of time smothering San Antonio's All-Star point guard Tony Parker. James hit the jump shot that put the Heat up 92-88 with :27.9 remaining and then he stole the ball before making two free throws to clinch the win. He averaged 25.3 ppg, 10.9 rpg and 7.0 apg in the NBA Finals, leading his team in all three categories by wide margins; James averaged 25-10-7 in the NBA Finals for the second consecutive year--an NBA Finals stat line that no other player has equaled even once--and he joined Bill Russell and Michael Jordan as the only players who won both a championship and the regular season MVP in consecutive seasons. James averaged 25.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg and 6.6 apg during the 2013 playoffs while shooting .491 from the field, .375 from three point range and .777 from the free throw line.

James' production can best be described by two words: "great" and "necessary." There are many perks, awards and honors that come with being the best basketball player in the world but that status also carries with it a tremendous responsibility, something that James understands much better now than he did earlier in his career. Great players do not put up ordinary statistics in the NBA Finals; great players dominate the NBA Finals and impose their will on the opposing team. In the first three games of the 2013 NBA Finals, James scored 18, 17 and 15 points as the Heat fell behind two games to one; in the final four games of the series, James scored 33, 25, 32 and 37 points as the Heat won three times to capture the title. There are many statistics and strategies from this series that can be discussed and analyzed but the bottom line is that when James was a 16.7 ppg scorer in the first three games the Heat were headed for a very disappointing loss but when James averaged 31.8 ppg in the final four games he carried the Heat to the championship. James is an all-around player who can rebound, pass and defend at a very high level but his greatest attribute--no matter what anyone says--is that he is one of the best scorers in pro basketball history.

James' primary job is not to pass the ball or defer to others; his primary job is to score at least 25 ppg. The same thing is true of Kobe Bryant--and every time Bryant led the Lakers to the NBA Finals after the creation of this web site I wrote that he needed to average at least 25 ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field: that is the standard and that standard has nothing to do with "loving" one player or "hating" another player. James averaged 25.3 ppg on .447 field goal shooting versus the Spurs and the Heat did not clinch the championship until the final seconds of the seventh game at home--and they easily could have lost the championship in the final seconds of game six. James had a great series by the standards of most NBA players but he also barely met the 25 ppg/.450 threshold and that is why his team barely won; if he had performed better in the first three games then this series would not have lasted seven games but if he had not stepped up to the challenge in the final four games then the Heat would have lost. That is part of the confusing legacy of James: he is a great player who has already won two championships and may very well win several more championships but he has a strange propensity to not play his game when the stakes are highest. Maybe the glimpses he provides of his talent raise expectations to unreasonable levels--but I don't fault James for missing shots in the first three games as much as I fault him for not being aggressive enough. In the fourth quarter of game six and during most of game seven, James played decisively: he shot open jump shots without hesitation and he relentlessly drove to the hoop whenever he had the opportunity to do so. Any objective observer has to admit that James played very tentatively during the first three games, hesitating to shoot open jumpers and shying away from attacking the hoop.

Despite all of the talk about James not receiving enough help during his Cleveland years, consider these numbers: his 2007 team that reached the NBA Finals had three players who averaged between 11.3 and 12.6 ppg during the postseason, his 2008 team had three players who averaged between 10.8 and 13.1 ppg during the postseason, his 2009 team had three players who averaged between 10.5 and 16.3 ppg during the postseason and his 2010 team had three players who averaged between 11.5 and 15.3 ppg during the postseason. What about this year's Miami Heat featuring two perennial All-Stars other than James plus future Hall of Famer Ray Allen? Three Heat players averaged between 10.2 ppg and 15.9 ppg during the playoffs. Only four Heat players other than James scored in game seven and one of them, Chris Andersen, contributed just three points; both Chris Bosh and Ray Allen did not score, though Bosh made some key defensive plays and Allen matched James with four assists. No matter how you slice the numbers or analyze the skill sets of the Cleveland players and the Miami players, the reality is that for a team to win a championship the best player must not only post great numbers but he also must dominate the action down the stretch of close games. James has won two championships in Miami after failing to win a championship in Cleveland because James has improved his skill set, strengthened his mindset and committed himself to consistently dominating playoff games versus elite competition. If he had posted a 20-10-10 triple double in game seven that might have looked great on paper to some people but the Heat would have lost; James has an obligation to be a big-time scorer and he fulfilled that obligation in the 2012 NBA Finals and the 2013 NBA Finals after failing to do so in the 2011 NBA Finals and the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals. Revisionist historians are eager to say that James has now refuted his critics but the truth is that James heeded some very valid critiques, worked hard to improve himself as a player and as a person and now he is reaping the rewards of that self-improvement.

Dwyane Wade was ineffective--and at times looked indifferent--during most of the 2013 playoffs but he played with tremendous energy and aggressiveness in game seven. He not only scored 23 points on 11-21 field goal shooting while grabbing 10 rebounds but he also made several hustle plays. For someone who says that he does not talk about injuries, Wade talks about his injuries a lot but I do not doubt that he really is injured and he deserves credit for saving his best for last, even if it seems like maybe he could have done a little more earlier in the playoffs; some people act like it is a crime against humanity to criticize Wade but, even after he boosted his statistics with his performances in games six and seven, he averaged a career-low 15.9 ppg during the 2013 playoffs and he only surpassed the 20 point plateau four times in his 22 playoff games.

Chris Bosh shot 0-5 from the field but he grabbed seven rebounds and he played excellent defense; the Heat left him on an island one on one versus Duncan, which enabled the Heat's perimeter players to smother the Spurs' perimeter players and hold them to 6-19 (.316) three point shooting. Bosh rarely touched the ball on offense, so it is not fair to judge his performance based on his scoring; on one play he approached Wade to set a screen but Wade turned the ball over and then glared at Bosh for daring to venture over to the strong side of the court when Wade wanted to go one on one. The Heat do not utilize Bosh like the eight-time All-Star that he is but they instead treat him like a glorified Horace Grant, someone who is expected to do the dirty work and occasionally hit a spot up jumper.

Championship teams often have a role player who makes a major, unexpected contribution during their playoff run; Shane Battier put his name alongside John Paxson, Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher by scoring 18 points while shooting 6-8 from three point range, tying the record for most three pointers made in a seventh game of the NBA Finals. Battier received the dreaded DNP-CD (Did Not Play--Coach's Decision) during Miami's 99-76 game seven win against Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals but when Coach Erik Spoelstra called Battier's number in this game seven Battier responded with a clutch performance.

Tim Duncan had a very good overall game--24 points on 8-18 field goal shooting, 12 rebounds, four steals--but he admitted that he will forever be haunted by his critical late game mistakes, including two missed shots from point blank range that could have tied the score. Tony Parker looked completely drained, which is what happens when a small player is hounded by a much bigger and more athletic defender--especially if that defender is LeBron James. Parker had 10 points on 3-12 field goal shooting, plus four assists and three steals; he is an excellent player and he has been a key member of the ensemble cast for three San Antonio championship teams but--as Bill Russell mentioned before game six--Duncan is San Antonio's most valuable player. Anyone who doubts that size matters in pro basketball or who thinks that a small point guard can be the best player on a championship team should look very carefully at what happened in the final two games of this series: James dominated at both ends of the court and played a major role in shutting down Parker, while Parker had very little impact offensively or defensively. Size is significant not just because it affects what a player can and cannot do in a game but also because a smaller player is more likely to become worn down by the end of a long series than a bigger player is.

Manu Ginobili's overall FIBA/NBA resume will likely earn him induction to the Basketball Hall of Fame but the 2013 NBA Finals will not provide many clips for his career highlight video. He finished game seven with 18 points, five assists, four turnovers and a +6 plus/minus rating, providing an excelllent example of how misleading statistics can be; with the result up for grabs in the final 7:14, Ginobili committed three turnovers--including fumbling an easily catchable pass out of bounds plus firing two horribly off target passes that were easily stolen--and shot an air ball from three point range. Ginobili's butter fingers had a lot to do with San Antonio fumbling away the championship, regardless of what the numbers might suggest.

The good news for every future Hall of Famer in this series not named LeBron James is that so much attention is focused on James' legacy that few people care that much about the performances of any other player; Parker's late-series fade, Duncan's miscues at the end of game seven and Ginobili's atrocious ballhandling throughout the series will all be ignored by the vast majority of people who are trying to determine where James ranks among the greatest players in pro basketball history. I focus a lot of my coverage on James, too, but the performances of Wade, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili should at least be mentioned. Wade's excellent showings in games six and seven elevated his series scoring average to 19.6 ppg and he shot a very solid .476 from the field; he was not dominant but overall he was an effective second option. Duncan averaged 18.9 ppg and a series-high 12.1 rpg while shooting .490 from the field, which is about as much as can be reasonably expected from a 37 year old post player--and if the Spurs had closed out game six then he would have deserved serious NBA Finals MVP consideration. Parker averaged 15.7 ppg and 6.4 apg while shooting .412 from the field, numbers that are not good enough considering his role. Ginobili is only asked to be the third scoring option and second playmaking option but he averaged just 11.6 ppg (fifth on the team) and 4.3 apg (second on the team) while shooting .433 from the field and leading the NBA Finals with 3.1 turnovers per game despite only ranking ninth in the series in minutes played.

Two other Spurs should be mentioned. Kawhi Leonard tied James with 45 minutes played, finishing with 19 points and a game-high 16 rebounds; Leonard is an excellent rebounder/defender whose offensive game is still developing. Danny Green set three point shooting records during the first five games of this series but the Heat made a concerted effort to deny him open looks in games six and seven. Green scored five points on 1-12 field goal shooting in game seven; the Heat forced him to dribble instead of allowing him to catch and shoot and he looked extremely uncomfortable trying to make plays with a live dribble.

This series was notable not only for its great drama and high level of competitiveness but also because it thoroughly refuted the idea that it is necessary to hate and/or disrespect an opponent; after game seven, both teams demonstrated commendable sportsmanship as the players and coaching staffs exchanged hugs, handshakes and congratulations/consoling words. During the series there were no flagrant fouls, no technical fouls and no trash talk; rivalries are formed by great players making great plays, not by players doing a lot of extracurricular nonsense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:20 AM

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Monday, June 10, 2013

Sizzling Second Half Run Propels Heat to Game Two Win

The San Antonio Spurs led the Miami Heat 62-61 with 3:50 remaining in the third quarter of game two of the NBA Finals and were in prime position to take a commanding 2-0 series lead but then the Heat went on a 33-5 run to save their season; the Heat's 103-84 win puts the pressure on the Spurs to win three straight games at home in the NBA's outdated 2-3-2 Finals format. Mario Chalmers led the Heat with a game-high 19 points; he is not a traditional point guard--Chalmers had just two assists--but he is a fearless scorer, equally able to attack the hoop off of the dribble and to drain long jumpers. LeBron James finished with 17 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, three steals and three blocked shots while shooting 7-17 from the field. Chris Bosh contributed 12 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals. Although Bosh's numbers are not eye-popping, he made a subtle but important adjustment by eschewing the three point shot in favor of stationing himself within 18 feet of the basket on offense; this enabled him to improve his shooting percentage, grab more rebounds and have more of an impact on the game. Dwyane Wade added 10 points and six assists, with all of the points and four of the assists coming in the first half. Danny Green led the Spurs with 17 points on 6-6 field goal shooting, including 5-5 from three point range. San Antonio's Big Three came up very small: Tony Parker had 13 points, five assists and five turnovers while shooting 5-14 from the field, Tim Duncan had nine points and 11 rebounds while shooting 3-13 from the field and Manu Ginobili had five points on 2-6 shooting in 18 unproductive minutes.

James has won four of the previous five NBA regular season MVPs, so there is an understandable tendency to view every Miami Heat game through the prism of James' performance--but the real story of game two is just how badly Parker, Duncan and Ginobili played. Duncan is a certain first ballot Hall of Famer and Parker and Ginobili will both likely earn Hall of Fame induction as well, so they should be held to a high standard; Parker and Ginobili were both very careless with the ball, which is inexplicable since the Spurs know that live ball turnovers are death against the Heat because such miscues ignite Miami's potent transition game. If Parker and Ginobili make safe passes and patiently run the Spurs' half court offense then San Antonio can be very effective against the undersized Heat. Duncan played a more poised and intelligent game than Parker and Ginobili did but he has to shoot much better from the field.

Some commentators place great emphasis on one or two statistics from a particular game but it is important to understand the difference between a trend and something that is simply an aberration that has no real significance due to a small sample size. Here are two examples of aberrations: (1) the Spurs tied an NBA Finals record by committing just four turnovers in game one; (2) the Spurs shot 7-10 from three point range in the first half of game two. The Spurs soon regressed to the mean in both categories; they committed 16 turnovers in game two and they shot 3-10 from three point range in the second half of game two. The Spurs cannot reasonably expect to have another four turnover game or to regularly shoot 7-10 from three point range during a half but in order to beat the Heat they should strive to commit fewer than 12 turnovers per game and to shoot around .400 from beyond the arc.

Much has been made about how difficult and/or intimidating it is to interview San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich. I love Popovich's press conferences and in-game interviews because he does not let reporters off of the hook for asking stupid and/or lazy questions. After game one, someone asked Popovich how the Spurs managed to commit just four turnovers and he candidly replied that he has no idea because he does not have a "no turnover drill." In other words, "Why are you asking me to come up with an explanation for something that is obviously an aberration?" In another Finals press conference, Popovich noted that one year his team finished close to the bottom of the league in three point field goal percentage defense and then the next year they finished near the top of the league in that category despite not doing anything differently; he said that he never figured that one out but that he thinks that many people are too narrowly focused on statistics instead of just watching the game as a whole. "Advanced basketball statistics" supposedly bring basketball analysis to a higher, more objective level but in the wrong hands these numbers just dumb things down; instead of watching games with understanding, media members randomly pluck out a bunch of statistics and look for patterns that do not exist and/or are not meaningful because the sample size is too small. It is true that to win this series the Spurs must keep their turnover total as low as possible but it is not logical to draw definitive conclusions based on one game during which the Spurs only committed four turnovers.

The first time that I interviewed Popovich I did not feel intimidated at all; I asked him intelligent questions and I received thoughtful responses. He gives short and/or repetitive answers to some reporters because those reporters asked him stupid and/or obvious questions. After game two, someone asked Popovich what he saw during Miami's 33-5 run and Popovich said, "They did a great job." Many reporters do not even ask fully formed questions; they simply say something like, "Talk about what happened in the third quarter." Some coaches respond to such lazy "questions" by sticking to whatever message they want to deliver but Popovich draws attention to unprepared questioners by issuing direct, curt replies. If you ask Popovich to "talk about" something then he is going to say, "They played well." He is not going to do the reporter's work for him. I have yet to see/hear Popovich give a disrespectful answer to a well formed question, so anyone who tells "horror stories" about interviewing Popovich is essentially admitting his/her own incompetence. One quasi-exception is the celebrated "happy" question that TNT's David Aldridge asked; Aldridge is an excellent, well-informed NBA reporter who made a poor word choice earlier this season at the spur of the moment (pun intended) when he asked if Popovich were "happy" about how the game was going and Popovich replied that no one is "happy" in the middle of a tough contest. Aldridge knew that he had phrased his question poorly and the two of them joked about it later. The rest of the reporters who are so intimidated by Popovich need to stop complaining and do their jobs better.

In addition to taking numbers out of context, media members also like to take spectacular highlight plays out of context and then elevate the importance of those plays. James' block of Tiago Splitter's fourth quarter dunk attempt has already been replayed countless times--but the Heat were up 86-67 and the outcome of the game had already been decided, so this was not a game-changing play. It was a very athletic play and it was nice to see James go for the block without fearing being dunked on but that sequence had very little meaning in the larger context of the game and the series.

While the story of this game should be about how poorly/passively the Spurs' Big Three performed, most of the focus will shine on James; James' performance/box score numbers once again provide a Rorschach test about how one evaluates basketball players: did James play passively and get bailed out by his teammates until he came to life during the big 33-5 run or did James deftly take what the defense gave him while resisting the temptation to force the action? When James quit in the 2011 NBA Finals versus Dallas and in the 2010 playoffs versus Boston no rational observer could dispute what happened: James played lethargically, he gave up the ball early in possessions without making any effort to get the ball back and he looked/acted disinterested. What James did in the first half of game two is harder to quantify/explain. The Spurs have set up their half court defense to make it difficult for James to drive to the hoop--but every team does this against James and he still can get to the hoop when he puts his mind to it. ABC's Jeff Van Gundy said during the first half that James was "remarkably uninvolved" offensively. After the Heat took over the game in the second half, Van Gundy resisted the urge to engage in revisionist history (i.e., to act like James had deliberately eased himself into the game) and he reminded viewers, "Until that spurt, he was not himself." This is not just a matter of ignorant fans and/or ignorant media members wrongly blasting James; Van Gundy--a former NBA coach who has no obvious agenda and who has a deep understanding of the NBA game--was puzzled by and critical of James' first half performance. James scored two first quarter points on 1-4 field goal shooting, two second quarter points on 1-3 field goal shooting and four third quarter points on 1-6 field goal shooting before scoring nine points on 4-4 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter. James had 11 points and three assists during Miami's decisive 33-5 run. The idea that the Heat are better off without James being a big-time scorer is absurd; this game was up for grabs until James asserted himself offensively.

During NBA TV's pregame show, Shaquille O'Neal mentioned that when he was James' teammate in Cleveland during the 2009-10 season he told James that James sometimes holds the ball too long and thus lets the defense get set; at that time, O'Neal urged James to be aggressive and attack quickly. O'Neal is right; that is how he played when he was dominant and that is how other dominant players who won multiple championships played, from Julius Erving in the ABA to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan: during their primes, those players made the defense react to them. This is not about statistics but about mindset and impact; a great player should have the mindset to dictate the terms of play and he should perform in a way that controls the game. James usually does this but he has displayed a strange tendency to be passive during his NBA Finals career; James' regular season career scoring average is 27.6 ppg and his playoff career scoring average is 28.1 ppg but he only averaged 22.0 ppg in the 2007 Finals and 17.8 ppg in the 2011 Finals before scoring 28.6 ppg in the 2012 Finals. Not surprisingly, James' teams lost both times when his scoring declined significantly but he led the Heat to the 2012 championship and won the Finals MVP when he maintained his normal scoring average. James has now played in 17 Finals games; his teams are 7-10 in those games and he has scored 30 or more points just twice while scoring fewer than 20 points six times. James has yet to consistently make his mark as a scorer in championship play. If that trend continues, the Heat will not win this series and it will be difficult to rank James at the top level of pro basketball's pantheon, no matter what else he accomplishes in the regular season and the first three rounds of the playoffs: James is not Magic Johnson nor has he ever led a team to the Finals by playing like Magic Johnson; James has led teams to the Finals as a big-time scorer, he won his only championship as a big-time scorer and if he is going to win more championships he will do so as a big-time scorer.

The Heat survived James' passive first half because the Spurs' Big Three all performed badly but if the Spurs rediscover their game in San Antonio then the Heat will need for James to be at least a 25 ppg scorer in order to extend the series to six or seven games.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:50 AM

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Heat Come Back from 17 Point Deficit, Take 3-1 Finals Lead

The Miami Heat withstood a tremendous 33-16 first quarter outburst by the Oklahoma City Thunder and a historically great individual performance by Russell Westbrook to take a 3-1 NBA Finals lead with a hard fought 104-98 victory. Leg cramps limited LeBron James in the final five minutes of the game but he still just narrowly missed posting a triple double with 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, leading the Heat in all three categories. Dwyane Wade added 25 points, five rebounds and three assists and Chris Bosh contributed 13 points while tying James with nine rebounds but the difference proved to be Mario Chalmers' playoff career-high tying 25 points, including the final five points of the game; Chalmers' layup with :44 remaining put the Heat up 101-96 and he then calmly drained three out of four free throw attempts to ice the win. There is a reason that many NBA talent evaluators like to draft players who won a championship at the collegiate level (assuming, of course, that the player has at least one legitimate NBA skill); Chalmers won the 2008 Final Four Most Outstanding Player award while leading Kansas to the NCAA title and he is a perfect complementary player for the Heat because of his willingness/ability to take and make big pressure shots, much like John Paxson, Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher filled a similar role on many championship teams in the past two decades. None of those four 6-3 and under guards were/are traditional point guards but they were/are all excellent spot up shooters.

Twenty four years ago, Isiah Thomas scored 43 points in game six of the NBA Finals--many of them on one leg after he sprained his ankle--as his Detroit Pistons lost to the L.A. Lakers 103-102; Westbrook did not sprain his ankle and he did not pour in a record 25 points in one quarter the way that Thomas did but Westbrook's 43 points on 20-32 field goal shooting (plus seven rebounds and five assists) will be remembered as one of the greatest single game performances in NBA Finals history. It is hard to overstate just how well Westbrook played and just how rare his overall numbers are, particularly at the NBA Finals level: Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal are the only other two players in the past 25 years who made at least 20 field goals in an NBA Finals game, they are the only other two players in that time span who scored more than 43 points in an NBA Finals game while shooting better than .600 from the field and they are also the only other two players in the past quarter century who scored at least 43 points in an NBA Finals game while accumulating at least seven rebounds and at least five assists.

No Heat player can stay in front of Westbrook--and that was as true in games one through three when he missed good, point blank shots at the rim as it was in game four when he made those same shots, a reality that ESPN's Magic Johnson finally acknowledged; Johnson apologized for the disparaging comments that he made about Westbrook's game two performance and Johnson conceded that the way Westbrook plays is an essential part of the Thunder's success this season.

I rarely comment much in my game recaps about officiating and I do not plan to change that policy now, but here is one interesting statistic to consider: even though Westbrook is an attacking player who scores many of his points in the paint, he is the first player in NBA Finals history to score at least 43 points in a game while having three or fewer free throw attempts.

While Westbrook put his name in the history books alongside legends like Isiah Thomas and Jerry West (who tallied 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in game seven of the 1969 NBA Finals to become the first and only Finals MVP from the losing squad), LeBron James is on the verge of making history as well; the best player in the NBA is just one win away from capturing his first NBA championship. James' playoff numbers this year are great but he has put up similar numbers before; the big difference now is that his effort level is consistently high and he is making a conscious effort to relentlessly attack the paint instead of settling for jump shots or meekly passing the ball without first drawing multiple defenders to create an open shot for the player who receives the ball: it is one thing to passively give up the ball while standing three feet behind the three point line and it is another thing entirely to post up, get both feet in the paint to draw an extra defender and then fire a pass to a teammate for an open shot.

The way that James is playing now is the way that James should have played against Boston in the 2010 playoffs and against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals; if the Heat win the 2012 NBA Championship then James will obviously deserve to receive the Finals MVP and all of the accolades that go along with being the best player on a championship team but that accomplishment will not justify the narcissistic excess of the "Decision" or James' ludicrous boast that it would be "easy" to "win multiple championships"--and I suspect that if James is honest about it he would admit that nothing about this season or this playoff run has been easy. Perhaps James has learned how important it is to respect the process involved in becoming a champion and how important it is to play hard all of the time. The idea that James could just team up with two perennial All-Stars and cruise to multiple titles was foolish, as was the idea that fleeing Cleveland relieved James of the pressure to perform at a high level; in order for the Heat--or any other team--to win an NBA championship it is necessary for the best player to dominate the game and that has almost always been true (the 1979 Sonics and the 2004 Pistons are perhaps the only exceptions to that rule, with multiple All-Stars on those squads almost equally sharing the collective load).

After the first quarter it did not seem likely that we would now be thinking about James possibly hoisting the Finals MVP on Thursday night; for the first time in the series the Thunder exploded out of the gates, with Westbrook leading the way, but the Heat weathered the storm and Norris Cole's three pointer with :03 left started a 16-0 run that erased almost all of the Thunder's initial advantage. The Thunder never led by more than five the rest of the way, so it is important to understand that even though much attention will be focused on the final minutes of the game the Thunder actually lost this game in the second quarter (and, to a lesser extent, in the third quarter when they fell behind after leading by three at halftime) when they so quickly surrendered a huge lead and could never again muster the energy that they displayed in the first 10 minutes or so of the contest. A big part of the problem for the Thunder is that their transition defense fell apart, so much so that on occasion they gave up layups (or fouls in the paint) even after they scored--something that exasperated ABC's Jeff Van Gundy (and surely must have infuriated Thunder Coach Scott Brooks): at one point, Van Gundy declared that if players are tired then they should go sit on the bench but that there is no excuse for jogging back on defense, particularly with an NBA championship at stake.

After the Thunder blew their big lead, the game was close the rest of the way. The individual plays that will be most discussed took place in the final six minutes of the fourth quarter, starting with Derek Fisher's steal from LeBron James with the score tied at 90. The 37 year old Fisher, who has never been a great finisher at the rim, recklessly went all the way to the hoop and got his shot stuffed by Wade like a little brother getting packed by his big brother in the driveway; Wade's block ignited a Heat fastbreak and--as Hubie Brown likes to say--a missed layup at one end of the court in an NBA game almost always results in a score at the other end of the court within three or four seconds. James made a short shot from the left wing to put the Heat up two, but he came up lame and after Westbrook missed a jumper the Heat called timeout and James had to be helped to the bench because of leg cramps.

James missed 1:10 with the injury, came back at the 4:05 mark to play for a little more than three minutes and then sat out the final :55--during which the Heat (specifically, Chalmers) outscored the Thunder 5-2. When James returned to action, the Thunder failed to attack him at either end of the court: they should have crowded him on offense and they should have driven the ball right at him on defense but their offensive possessions during that crucial time resulted in three long, missed jump shots, two turnovers, an offensive foul by Durant and a strong driving layup by Westbrook (the Thunder's only score). Bill Russell once said that he would have been insulted if Willis Reed--or anyone else--had tried to play against him on one leg the way that Reed played against Wilt Chamberlain in the 1970 NBA Finals; toward the end of his career, Michael Jordan torched Kenyon Martin for 45 points after Martin foolishly admitted to Jordan that a back injury was limiting his mobility. Jordan could not believe that someone would volunteer such information to an opponent. It is inexplicable that the Thunder permitted James to hobble around the court for three minutes without making him and the Heat pay. James' three pointer with 2:50 remaining put the Heat up 97-94 and the Heat led the rest of the way; James spent that entire possession as an immobile decoy--which is why Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra removed him from the game shortly thereafter--so it is baffling that the Thunder did not force James to put the ball on the floor, even though that obviously contradicts the scouting report about how to guard a healthy James. Unless the Thunder thought that James was faking--and there was no reason to think that--they had to attack him at that crucial point in the game.

The Thunder's last realistic chance to save the game happened when Udonis Haslem and James Harden contested a jump ball at the Heat's end of the court with 17 seconds remaining and Miami leading 101-98. Miami controlled the tip but only had five seconds to shoot; if the Thunder got a stop and a rebound then they would have had time to try a tying three pointer but Westbrook--who apparently thought that the shot clock had reset--intentionally fouled Chalmers, who made both free throws. Coach Brooks correctly stated that one play out of 200 or so does not win or lose a game--and I would add that the Thunder's mistakes in the second and third quarters plus their refusal to attack the wounded James had more to do with the loss than one mental error by the player who almost singlehandedly kept them in the game with a performance for the ages.

The bottom line is that Westbrook needed more help and if he had received just a little more assistance then this series would be tied 2-2. Kevin Durant scored 28 points on 9-19 field goal shooting and 9-9 free throw shooting but his floor game was once again subpar; in the last three games, LeBron James has physically dominated Durant, preventing Durant from receiving the ball close to the hoop and essentially forcing Durant to revert back to being a one dimensional player who does not impact the game in other ways (Durant only had two rebounds and three assists).

Besides the way that James has outplayed Durant since game one, the big difference in this series has been the disappearance of 2012 Sixth Man of the Year James Harden; listen closely and you can hear all of the people who loudly stated that the Thunder should keep Harden and trade Westbrook scurrying into hiding. Miami's Big Three is fully functional, with LeBron James filling up all of the box score columns, Dwyane Wade serving as the second leading scorer and secondary playmaker and Chris Bosh providing a paint presence at both ends of the court--but Oklahoma City's Big Three has turned into a Big Two now that Harden is scoring in single digits while shooting a low percentage. Harden had just eight points on 2-10 field goal shooting in game four.

No team has ever won the NBA Finals after trailing 3-1 and no Finalist has even forced a game seven after facing that deficit; the only solace the Thunder can take now is that all of the games have been competitive and they have proven that they can outplay the Heat for significant stretches of time: one road win sends this series back to Oklahoma City, where the Thunder have only lost once this postseason. If the Thunder can revive James Harden and get some more production from their big men then perhaps they can make history--but it is more likely that 10 years from now James' gimpy legged three pointer will be featured in a TV commercial similar to the one that now highlights Michael Jordan's famous "flu game."

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:48 AM

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