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Monday, April 24, 2017

LeBron James Excels As Cavaliers Sweep Pacers

The sometimes disinterested Cleveland Cavaliers swept the often disorganized Indiana Pacers in the first 2017 NBA playoff series to finish. The Cavaliers will now have a week off before facing the winner of the Toronto-Milwaukee series, while the Pacers will have all summer to ponder the possibility of a future without Paul George. Addressing the latter situation first, the Pacers are a poorly constructed team with mismatched talent; Larry Bird purportedly wanted to put together an offensive-oriented, high tempo team but he did not acquire enough players who can effectively play that style--and his coach, Nate McMillan, is known for defense, not offense. If George decides to exercise his option after next season and leave as a free agent, it will likely be a long time before the Pacers contend for a championship--but if he stays it will also be a long time before the Pacers contend for a championship (which tends to suggest that he will either leave or else pressure the Pacers to trade him by threatening to leave).

During the regular season, the Cavaliers displayed little interest in fighting for the number one seed in the East and for long stretches of the series against Indiana they also displayed little interest in competing against the Pacers. This indifference reached its nadir in the first half of game three, when the mediocre Pacers (who backed into the playoffs with a 42-40 record) jumped out to a 72-46 first half lead against the reigning NBA champions.

There is sometimes talk of the "switch" and whether or not a team can turn it on and off. If you ever wondered what it looks like when a team turns the "switch" from off to on, just watch the second half of game three. LeBron James apparently decided that four games versus Indiana would be quite sufficient and that he had no interest in extending this series to five games, so he carried the Cavaliers to a 119-114 victory. He finished with 41 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists (including 28 points, seven assists and six rebounds in the second half), joining Russell Westbrook in the elite playoff 40 point triple double club.

The Pacers looked like the Washington Generals in the second half. If this had been a boxing match, the referee would have stopped the series right then and declared Cleveland the winner by knockout. Instead, we were "treated" to one more game of the Cavaliers being interested at times and the Pacers being organized at times. After Paul "I must have the ball" George bricked a last second three pointer with a chance to tie the score, the Cavaliers won 106-102 to put the Pacers out of their misery. During the game, one of the announcers said something about the Pacers believing that they should have been up in the series and I about fell out of my chair; in this series, Cleveland was the cat and the Pacers were the ball of yarn: the Cavaliers played with their toy until they tired of it and then they swatted it away.

George is ultimately going to get a max deal, but his performance and attitude during this series were uneven at best. I don't necessarily have a problem with a great player saying that he must have the ball and I don't necessarily have a problem with a great player missing shots. Either of those things can happen--but when a supposedly great player insists that he must have the ball, presides over one of the worst blown leads in playoff history and then bricks his way to 5-21 shooting while getting swept on his home court then that combination is problematic.

The last three pointer that George took reminded me of the Peja Stojakovic three pointer versus the Lakers during the playoffs that started in one corner, sailed clear over the hoop and landed in the other corner. It's OK if the moment is too big for you. That can happen to anyone--but when you say after game one that you have to have the ball, then it is not OK if the moment is too big for you. Call it the Muhammad Ali/Reggie Jackson/Deion Sanders rule: if you can win the heavyweight title three times or belt three home runs in a World Series game or single-handedly shut down one side of a football field, then you can talk trash and say whatever you want--but if you are bricking three pointers at the end of playoff games after demanding the ball, then you probably should not have been so vocal in the first place.

I don't begrudge anyone his money and I fully understand the economics of pro basketball but--purely on the merits--there are only a handful of guys in the NBA who truly "deserve" max money; those are the guys who clearly could be the best player on a championship team. We all know each of them by one name: Westbrook. LeBron. Durant. Curry. Kawhi. You might be able to convince me that there are one or two more or that there are a few young guys who will reach that status soon. You would have a hard time convincing me that George's name belongs in that group. This is not about numbers and it certainly is not about "advanced" numbers. This is about watching a player try to perform and try to lead under pressure.

I might be wrong about George and I can't "prove" that I am right. If I owned the Pacers, I might pay him the max rather than lose him and start over from scratch, because it is almost as hard to find the 10th or 15th best player in the NBA as it is to find one of the top five players--but the idea of mentioning George as an MVP caliber player just does not sound right, based on what I see. Again, the numbers were good overall and George is clearly an All-Star and perhaps even an All-NBA player. He is just not elite to me. A few years ago it looked like he had the potential to make that breakthrough but it just has not happened.

During the four game sweep, James averaged 32.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 9.0 apg, 3.0 spg and 2.0 bpg while shooting .543 from the field (including .450 from three point range). He shot .579 from the free throw line and committed 18 turnovers just to reassure us that he is in fact human and not some alien cyborg designed to play perfect basketball. James is a marvelous basketball player. He confounds me at times with things that he says/does and until my dying day I will find it puzzling and inexcusable that he quit during the 2010 playoffs but he is a very special player. In NBA-ABA playoff history, James ranks fifth in ppg (28.1) and during this series James passed Kobe Bryant for third place on the NBA-ABA playoff career scoring list (5703 points, trailing only Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

James is the king of first round dominance and I say that without a hint of sarcasm. I am not sure exactly what it means to dominate the first round the way that James has during his career but it is impressive. Most of the greatest players of all-time had at least one first round stinker during or near their prime but James has not (and if he ever has one it could reasonably be stated that he is now past his prime, even though he is still playing at a very high level).

It may seem petty to say that it would be preferable to own Bill Russell's record (11 titles in 13 years) or to match Michael Jordan's standard (six Finals, six championships, six Finals MVPs) but regardless of what one thinks about the Eastern Conference it is impressive to mow down the competition year after year the way that James has with both the Cavs and the Heat. As a competitive tournament chess player, I know from experience that sometimes the hardest task as a competitor is to get up for games against clearly outmatched opponents; there is a natural human tendency for the mind to wander but James and his teams have avoided this pitfall.

It is easy to look at James' physique and athletic gifts and assume that he was destined for greatness but he often states "I'm not supposed to even be here" and that is the poignant reality: the odds facing a young man from his background are overwhelmingly stacked against achieving the success that he has attained. I respect him greatly for that.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:56 PM



At Monday, April 24, 2017 8:28:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

I was never high on Paul George. I never saw him as a MVP caliber player, but maybe as a guy right under that level at his peak. I did not realize that he had such a bad attitude until this season, but like you, I'm even more convinced. I would not want Paul George on my team. He does not strike me as a leader nor as a guy that will consistently show up when times are rough. That may be too harsh. He will get paid max money somewhere expecting him to be the best player on a contender, but that team will never get anywhere. He would serve best as a guy behind one of those MVP players.

As for LeBron - this dude is amazing. Sometimes we're ready to right him off because of his lack of aggression in meaningful games and then other times we're in awe of his performances and achievements. The most special kind of greatness to me is sustained greatness. You hit it on the head at the end of your post. Sometimes it's unbelievably hard in whatever kind of work you do to continue to churn out greatness. Sure, many people can peak, but the truly special ones do it over and over and over again.

I'm not a big fan of ranking all-time players in terms of saying player X is definitively greater than player Y when their skill level, achievements, etc. are close. However, I do believe that if one is to establish an unbiased, all-encompassing ranking system where some things are valued over other consistently then some players are clearly greater than others.

With that said, if I were forced to rank the top 5-15 players of all-time, my top 4 are Jordan, Russell, Wilt, and Kareem. I've watched and studied this game for a long time and there's very little anyone can do or say to convince me that those aren't the top 4 in some order. LeBron is getting very very close to joining that group in my opinion. We need to see how the rest of his career plays out.

At Tuesday, April 25, 2017 1:26:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

I mentioned it before here I believe but I prefer this older LeBron even though he is not quite the bulldozer he was in his prime. He doesn't have the consistent focus of a Kobe or Jordan and still does/says exasperating things sometimes but overall he displays much more mental focus compared to his first stint in Cleveland and much of his time in Miami. You used to be unsure if he'd even get out of the Conference Finals, but it's expected of him now and I expect him to make the Finals again.

At Tuesday, April 25, 2017 4:13:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

I agree with you and Kyle in your views of Paul George. I have lost a ton of respect for him as a player after his performance in this series, particularly with his stance on having the ball for the last shot. His last shot in Game 4 didn't even graze the rim.

If he's some superstar, which he's not, he should have been able to take over and win the Pacers one game, let alone perform better in the regular season to earn them a higher seed instead of 7th. Paul George has the potential to be at best an All-NBA 2nd team member though definitely not this season. He is still 26 and can take that next level but we have not seen in yet as you have stated.


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