Despite the triple double LeBron James notched last night in Miami’s Game 5 loss in the NBA Finals, many people are (justifiably) crucifying him for his play throughout the series. In my eyes, he played well, if not amazingly (for him) through the first three games before looking absolutely awful (for him) throughout Game 4. He just failed to assert his physical dominance and force the Mavs to stop him off the dribble in a game during which he scored only 8 points and too-willingly swung the ball around the perimeter.
“Eight points is definitely inexcusable to me. I hold myself to a higher standard than that,” James told reporters at a team press conference, according to the Palm Beach Post. “I didn’t play well. I know that. I was hard on myself all last night.”
Game 5 was somewhat of a different story.
He played better, putting up the aforementioned triple double and generally being more aggressive with the ball while playing excellent defense at times. This was by no means LeBron at his best, or perhaps even his typical (and he got inexcusably SMOKED by Jason Terry on perhaps the biggest play of the game … which came one possession after LeBron missed a long three). But it wasn’t the “no show” that so many people were calling his Game 4 display. He shot poorly but played fine overall. Not great, but fine. And you can’t validly tell me a player was “passive” throughout crunch time when he committed a powerful offensive foul at the rim with 150 seconds to play and took three other shots in the games’ final three minutes.
Although more active, he remained atypically unproductive late again, however — which continues his trend throughout this NBA Finals. And now, if Miami can’t win two in a row at home to come back and win the title, LeBron will be undoubtedly be hit with a tsunami of criticism larger than I can remember any athlete ever facing for his on-court failings.
That’s what I was thinking last night anyway.
Then, this morning, @bandwagonknick posted something that made me, not change that opinion, but reconsider it slightly. Apparently, back when I was in kindergarten, Magic Johnson was similarly ripped apart by the press for coming up short when the sport was supposed to matter the most.
Whatever hurt Johnson felt [when LA lost to Boston in the 1984 NBA Finals] was only to intensify as the summer went on. He was stunned at the way he was carved up by the press that had once doted on him. He was particularly wounded by the suggestions that, with the championship at stake, he had choked. “I sat back when it was over,” Johnson says, “and I thought, ‘Man, did we just lose one of the great playoff series of all time, or didn’t we?’ This was one of the greatest in history. Yet all you read was how bad I was.”
It’s funny how history and time (and, ya know, winning three of the next four NBA titles) changes things. Magic is now the beloved, happy-go-lucky, HIV-surviving, bafflingly uninsightful guy on my TV who most everyone believes could do no wrong on the basketball court. He and Larry Bird “saved the NBA” that Michael Jordan would soon own. He was Showtime. He is a fantastic citizen.
He couldn’t have ever been the guy the media would “carve up.”
But he was.
And we are about to see something similar — on hyperdrive given today’s media landscape — for the next (at least) 12 months if the Heat don’t win two more games this year. It will be an annoying thing to see play out, but unlike the scorn thrown at him last Summer for The Decision, this time, there will be a lot more legitimacy to it.
He is earning this.
LeBron hasn’t played well in the Finals.
Post-script … Oddly, I was listening to a mixtape by the hip hop super-group Slaugherhouse this morning and, right as I was reading the Magic story that @bandwagonknick tweeted, the Joe Budden diss track “Pain in His Life” came on. (It’s hard to keep track of Budden’s rap feuds but this joint is about Saigon. The two MCs later made up and recorded a track together that features Sai spitting one of the illest verses I’ve heard in years.)
The opening lyrics of that song are eerily descriptive of stuff you could say about LeBron right now:
“It’s like a lose/lose, already my rep ruined
How I beat dude we know will accept losing? Under Achiever was a underachiever
Almost thought you would come with the Ether“
This article is a guest post from Michael Pina, creator of the all-everything NBA blog Shaky Ankles. His work has been featured on Hardwood Paroxysm and linked to The Point Forward, Ball Don’t Lie and True Hoop. Follow him on Twitter @ShakyAnkles.
On the New York Times’ Off the Dribble blog today, Rob Mahoney eloquently explained why depth is so important in the NBA playoffs. The triple-overtime Game 4 between Oklahoma City and Memphis showed this. The younger, fresher Thunder prevailed that night and blew out the Grizzlies in Game 5 as players like Zach Randolph, who played 56 minutes on Tuesday, looked a step slow.
And it’s not just fatigue. In a league of stars who sometimes cancel each other out, it is how the bench performs that can be the deciding factor, as Mahoney notes.
The Hawks have struggled in part because Marvin Williams, the eighth man in the rotation, hasn’t been able to provide quality minutes. The Bulls, on the other hand, played Omer Asik, Taj Gibson, and Ronnie Brewer together for the entire fourth quarter in Game 5, during which those reserves (along with Derrick Rose and Luol Deng) outscored the Hawks by 11 in a game the Bulls won by 12.
Along these lines, one of the most critical factors in every team’s in-game consistency is how it performs when its floor general heads to the bench. In a sport that’s played up above, high in the blue, the shortest guys are becoming increasingly vital. They dictate tempo — making basketball’s big men look like statues as they scurry around the court — control the pace and judge the flow. So in the playoffs, it’s the back-up point guards who’re responsible for either building on his team’s advantageous play or turning the ship around and surging a comeback.
Neither is an easy task — both are unglamorous — but these guys are the last backups standing. For the most part, they may not be as talented or physically capable of breaking down defenses as their team’s starter, but they have a commendable mindset not everybody is born with. Nobody wants to be a reserve piece (especially Big Baby). The position is allergic to endorsements, creates little national exposure and reeks of uncomfortable inferiority. But right now, at this time of year, whoever’s able to give his team the most quality minutes will end up with newfound respect, elevating themselves from blanketed aid to crucial puzzle piece.
Here is a breakdown of all the back-up point guards left in this year’s postseason.
Jamal Crawford isn’t your prototypical point guard and back-up floor general isn’t his role. But due to Hinrich’s injury, he’s had more responsibility thrown on his lap. I won’t get into too much detail with Crawford because you’re probably well familiar with his resume and basketball makeup, but he’s Atlanta’s second best scorer and, apologies to Barea, the most capable backcourt bench player when it comes to creating his own opportunities. He likes to shoot a whole bunch, and when Teague’s on the bench the team’s solid cohesion melts. Still he is without a doubt the most talented player of the group — but also the least capable at running the point guard position. It just isn’t in his DNA.
Apart from Dirk Nowitzki’s overall annihilation of Pau Gasol, an argument can be made that JJ Barea’s dominance of Steve Blake, and the Lakers as a team, was the key difference maker in the series. He penetrated at will, made the pick and roll look like a series of unanswerable questions from a quantum theory exam, and in the end, was the unfortunate victim of an Andrew Bynum forearm.
In a recent SI feature, Bynum was depicted as a person who loves solving mechanical problems from the inside out: Fixing computers, watches, and clocks by taking them apart and then rebuilding the parts from scratch. For four games the troublesome irritant that is Barea was unsolvable, so the Lakers center resorted to resolving things like a frustrated five-year-old, breaking the Mavericks energy source and walking away.
Both J.J. Barea and Blake both played this season alongside two guys who’ll go down as top 20 all-time players, but Barea was the only one who acted like he’s worthy. He makes the smart decision, doesn’t play scared, and when the moment presents itself he beats it to a bloody pulp.
Barea is tiny—listed at a most charitable six feet—yet attempts most of his shots at the rim., like a less athletic, Puerto Rican Allen Iverson. Watching the unbelievable aspects of his game remind me of an outrageous sequence in a daring action movie. When he drives to the hoop holding neither fear nor hesitation, eyes go wide and thumbs immediately rewind their DVR.
Earlier this season in a game against Boston, Kevin Garnett got into a small skirmish with Barea. There was brief shoving before the two were separated, and after the game Celtics captain Paul Pierce said it wasn’t anything to overreact about; both guys were their team’s inspirational spark plugs. Pierce’s decision to compare Garnett (one of the greatest players of all time) with a Northeastern graduate who averages 20 minutes a game was an attestation to how much respect Barea has around the league. Defensively he’s so in-your-face feisty that opposing guards have no choice but to back him down in the post and take advantage of the sizeable advantage. This is usually combated with an egregious flop, forcing the referee to blow a whistle. Just like that, Barea has the ball back in his hands.
A player best known for making a national championship saving three, Chalmers was likely given a single instruction after the Heat signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh: Work on your shot. Playing alongside a decision maker of James’ ability, Chalmers’ role isn’t that of a normal backup point guard. He doesn’t bring the ball up the floor or initiate the team’s offense, instead hovering around the three-point line and finding open space to catch and release.
In the Heat’s Game 3 loss, Chalmers had perhaps his finest statistical performance, going 7-9 from the floor (including 2-4 from deep) for 17 points. In the series clinching Game 6 win over Philadelphia, he attempted a season-high 12 long balls, making six of them and finishing with 20 points (another high for the year).
As a peripheral member of the most talked about team in basketball, Chalmers comes across as a figurative little sibling who yaps behind a chain fence of older, tougher brothers who’ve been around the block. When Chalmer’s shot isn’t falling he’s useless. When it is, Miami’s very difficult to beat.
When I was a student at the University of Delaware, the basketball team was an atrocious sight to see. Nobody cared how they did, knew when/where games were played, or could identify a single coach or player if they were standing behind them in a dining hall; the buzz they created hummed softer than a flickering mosquito zapper. Attention to the team was minimal…unless, of course, VCU’s Eric Maynor was in town.
Apart from the games that I covered for both the school and local paper, the only Fighting Blue Hen basketball games I took in were those memorable Maynor performances. He was the Colonial Athletic Association’s Chris Paul, dicing up opponents, throwing smooth yet innovative passes to teammates who weren’t ready to catch them, and launching his head coach into a higher paying job. Maynor was a sight to see in person, and ever since, I’ve respected and admired the way he runs a basketball team.
After being VCU’s go-to offensive option in college, he’s adjusted in the NBA, taking smart shots within the offense’s flow, rarely making the unnecessary highlight worthy pass, and accepting a role that offers just 15 minutes of action a night. In light of Westbrook’s increasing volatility, those minutes could, and probably should, increase since Maynor is the essentially the Cool Hand Luke yin to Russell Westbrook’s hot tempered, mercurial yang.
Before we get into Greivis, here’s a hypothetical, somewhat timely, relatable question for you: If you’re Memphis GM Chris Wallace, would you trade Vasquez and Marc Gasol to the Lakers for big brother Pau? Because that’s what that one-sided destructive deal from 2007 has become. Just curious.
On the court, Vasquez is an unafraid rookie who offers a change-of-pace scorer’s mentality whose audaciousness borders on stupidity when compared to Mike Conley’s sometime tentative approach to the position. As Kevin McHale repeats each time he calls a Memphis Grizzlies game, this is both good and bad news for Lionel Hollins. On one hand it’s nice to have a young, athletic player show a willingness to score baskets and create off the dribble, but on the other hand it must be excruciating to watch him play the game at such an unrestrained level in such important spots. Bad decision after bad decision will lower a player’s confidence, and while the big guys down low are Memphis’ clear strength and advantage, Vasquez’s contributions are imperative if the Grizzlies want to advance. (As was put on display during the triple overtime loss.)
So far in this postseason, Vasquez’s points, rebounds, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and assists per 36 minutes have been better than Conley’s. As mentioned earlier he’s 6’6”, which allows him to see the floor a little better than your average point guard. It’s up to Vasquez to take the information his eyes are transmitting to his brain and make the right choice. Memphis might depend on it.
By taking the league’s MVP out of the game each time he enters, Watson’s backup role is probably the hardest, and most internally confusing of any in the league. His job is to run the offense, make smart passes, keep his man in front of him, ease the tempo, and, more often than not, hold Chicago’s lead.
But sometimes Watson’s mind gets nostalgic, going back to his days as the D-League’s Derrick Rose when he held gross averages of 26, 5, and 5. Watson comes into each game after watching the real Rose writhe through complex defenses with an ease that would draw the envy of every point guard in the world. There’s no doubt Watson has moments where he asks himself, why not him? Why can’t he do it? And so he scampers away from his role, veers out of his lane, and flails in a desperate attempt to prove himself as a relative Derrick Rose equal. Who wouldn’t? And thanks to Carlos Boozer’s expected disappearing act, Chicago’s relying on Rose even more than they did in the regular season. The result is less time for Watson and less opportunity on the national stage.
When Watson was on the court during the regular season, he would look over towards the bench and through the corner of his eye notice Rose at the scorer’s table. His response a majority of the time would be to take a bad shot—a three-pointer with 18 seconds left on the shot clock or a head-down bull rush to the basket without initiating the offense—knowing he was about to get the hook. Watson’s career has been a constant wave of doubt.
His entrance into the league was a 22-day visit in Charlotte followed by a prompt dismissal. He then clung onto the Golden State Warriors for dear life with two 10-day contracts, playing well enough to stay on board. In his last four games Watson’s played 33 minutes of basketball. As far as normal rotation players go, Watson’s the Whitey Bulger of these playoffs; unseen, a man who’s vanished.
This headline could have gone in any number of ways. Dr. Richard Kimble-based. Def Leppard drummer/Hysteria pun-full. Perhaps even a Jim Abbott reference. But we’ll keep it simple — just like Rajon Rondo did with his post-game comments describing his grotesque elbow dislocation he suffered and subsequently returned from in the Celtics do-or-diesque Game 3 win over the Heat tonight. “I thought I could try to change the game’s momentum by getting to the ball defensively,” said Rondo. “I only need two legs for that.”
If you haven’t seen the injury and want to, here is the brutality in image, GIF and video form.
Matt Moore does a good job expressing how we shouldn’t go overboard on asserting that Rondo’s return won this game for Boston. But this dude is tough as railroad spikes, and this will still be forever known as The Rondo Game. In a way, it’s a microcosm (in terms of importance/immortality) of Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals in which doubtful-to-play Willis Reed limped his way into the starting lineup and hit a few shots early to help propel his Knicks to the title. In reality, if you’re going to credit one man with New York’s 113-98 victory over the Lakers, it must be Clyde Frazier, who put up 36 points, 19 assists and 7 boards. As Clyde famously said, “Willis provided the inspiration while I provided the devastation.”
Sticking to that, tonight, Rondo brought the inspiration while KG most certainly brought the devastation. Garnett’s 28 points (on 20 shots) and 15 boards were a true flashback to his MVP days and, along with a great night for Paul Pierce, gave Celtics fans new hope that the old champs may be able to knock off the young upstarts yet.
In any event, here are a few post-game thoughts from Kevin Garnett on Rondo’s effort.
“Shorty’s a real tough dude and I seen him play through some hellafied* injuries. I saw his face and I knew he was beat up.”
“I’m not going through the list of injuries that yall are unaware of … but I’ve seen him play through some horrific injuries.”
“When he came in, I was just like ‘that’s typical Rondo.'”
“I dunno what he’s gonna be like when he’s 35, but—for right now—he’s … showing a lot of heart. A lot of grit.”
Who knows if he will play in Game 4, but even if he doesn’t and the Heat ultimately beat the Celtics, no one will ever forget this game.
Lastly, below is the most marquee play from Rajon after the injury: him picking Chris Bosh’s pocket with his left hand, something he barely used post-injury, and dunking with his right, the hand he used to snatch one-armed boards, drive to the hoop and throw cross-court bounce passes.
* I wasn’t sure whether this should be “hellafied” like “qualified” and “dignified” or “hella fide” like “bona fide.” AP Style Guide proved no help. Makes more sense with the former, but my first instinct was the latter.
Finally, it has come to this. Those pesky Bulls had to crash the party, had to make this series take place one round early, but never mind them. While Chicago sweeps the Hawks, all eyes will be on this.
Heat vs. Celtics, Evil vs.Good, free agency vs. the trading market, tampering vs. a little help from your friends, individual Rucker Park basketball vs. championship-level synergy.
Sunday afternoon, it begins — and all we have to do is sit back and watch, pens drawn, narratives abound.
That said, those of us who want to watch a basketball series and not the ultimate battle of clashing basketball philosophies that don’t clash at all are in for a treat as well. Seven All-Stars will take the court Sunday for the start of a four-to-seven-game series. At least 6 future Hall of Famers will play. And if we’re lucky, Hubie Brown will be in the announcing booth, pointing out every important thing we’re watching.
But what exactly do we need to be watching when they tip-off?
According to Newmann and Oliver, Pierce checked LeBron 69 percent of the time, with Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green and Marquis Daniels (no longer with the team) filling in the rest. But against Pierce, LeBron shot just 43 percent from the field and his efficiency plummeted to depths rarely seen from him. In fact, LeBron scored 75 points per 100 possessions with Pierce covering him, down from his 93 points per 100 possessions when guarded by all other Celtics defenders.
We’ve seen this going on in previous Lebron vs. Boston series. Though Boston guards Lebron in a team-wide manner, having Pierce spearhead the defensive effort is key – more than ever when the defensive monstrosity that is Jeff Green is the primary second option. Boston needs Pierce in prime shape, hoping that working on Lebron won’t take the same toll it has taken on his offensive game in the past.
Where’s Dwyane Wade?
In four games against Boston this year, Dwyane Wade is shooting 28% from the field. His true shooting percentage isn’t much better, at a disturbingly low 38%. He registered 21 turnovers to 21 assists, and got to the line only 5.8 times a game (after averaging 8.6 for the year). The narrative dictates that Wade is clutch and Lebron is not, that Wade shows up for the playoffs and that Lebron does not, and that Wade is a good person and Lebron is not, but with Lebron’s averages against Boston on par with his season numbers (29, 6.5, 6.5 on 56.2 TS%, albeit 5 turnovers), the onus to show up will be on the former Finals MVP.
Will Rajon Be Rajon?
In three wins against the Heat, Rajon Rondo had 43 assists. In one loss, he had 5. This is obviously a very cut-and-dry way to look at things, with millions of other factors going in to every one of those 4 regular season games, but the difference is simultaneously astonishing and extremely logical. When Rondo is at the top of his game, penetrating at will and finding his teammates, this Boston offense is a completely different beast. When Rondo is not well, the offense boggles down to a 9-7 March or a 4-4 April.
Who Plays Center?
Joel Anthony has risen from national punchline to cult hero, and with good reason. The handless +/- monster has had a strong effect during the regular season series between these two teams, playing fantastic defense on Kevin Garnett in Miami’s blowout April win. In fact, the Celtics have only scored 89.7 points per 100 possessions with Joel on the court, compared to 99.6 when Zydrunas Ilguaskas is out there.
The picture flips on offense. By replacing Joel’s dunk air-balling goodness with Z’s pick-and-pop acumen, the Heat’s offense vs. Boston jumps a staggering 14 points per 100 possessions. Balancing the two centers (perhaps occasionally playing centerless when Boston trots Garnett out to the pivot) will be key for the Heat.
(Just for kicks, in case one of you still thinks Erick Dampier is a valid NBA center: Miami has scored 54.4 points per 100 possessions against Boston with Damp on the floor. It should be noted that this took place for only 6 minutes all season, but hey, why take notice of sample sizes when making fun of Erick Dampier?)
The center position is just as important from Boston’s side as well, if only because of the increasingly unlikely scenario that Shaquille O’neal ever takes the court again. Shaq was a key part of Boston’s torrid start to the season, which included two closer-than-the-score-indicates wins over these same Heat. Miami has no one on it’s roster who can handle Shaq.
Sadly, it seems as if 39 years of humongousness have finally done the Diesel in.
The Supporting Casts
Miami is the big 3 and nobody else, while Boston is a TEAM. Right? Anybody?
This line of thinking should probably go down the drain at this point. Beyond Boston’s 4 all stars, the team has been absolutely atrocious. Adding on to the Jeff Green outlash is just plain cruel at this point, but Glen Davis hasn’t looked much better, and Jermaine O’neal looks about as creaky as the frequent and generic punchlines make him out to be. Delonte West is shooting 27% in these playoffs so far, and while this probably improves considerably, he’s hardly been the model of consistency these past few years. Boston’s fifth best player might be Nenad Krstic at this point, which says a lot.
Meanwhile, Joel Anthony has been fantastic defensively, and the James Jones/Mario Chalmers combo are shooting a combined 39% from three. Hardly spectacular, but with rest between games and enabling Lebron, Wade and Bosh to play upwards of 40 minutes a game, the Heat don’t really need spectacular. All they need is to drag Boston’s supporting cast down with their’s, which at the moment, seems very plausible.
Who Shows Up?
A simplistic question, without much analytical standing.
Yet, this will decide the series.
Miami has shown a disturbing lack of urgency throughout this season. The reasons as to why now become completely irrelevant – from here on out, Miami runs the risk of it’s season ending. The urgency should accompany that prospect.
Similarly, we have no idea which Boston arrives. The Celtics aren’t as bad as their post all-star play indicates, but expecting them to flip the switch all the way back up, even if they did it last year, is an extreme leap of faith. And as impressive as they looked in the final 2 games against the Knicks, they were also very close to losing twice on their home floor, to the Knicks.
Prediction, Just Because It Has To Be Done
The Heat are not going to blow the Celtics out. Boston is too proud, the defense is too good, and Miami still lacks the cohesion to pull it off. And Boston is not going to blow Miami out, because Miami has the two best players in the series, in a sport where this sort of thing matters. (Don’t give me the “New York had the two best players in the series too!” bit, because we know better.) It will be a close series, with low scoring and high drama. But this Boston team needs too many things to go just right, and unlike last season, when everything did go just right, I don’t think Lebron skips Game 5.