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.
You would have thought that Jason Terry could have found a way to hit one more three-pointer in a 122-86 victory to make the NBA Playoffs record all his own. Instead his nine treys tied Rex Chapman, Vince Carter and Ray Allen for the most ever in a postseason game. So he will have to settle for hitting 9-for-10 from behind the arc while setting the “times running down the court pretending to be an airplane” record. As JA Adande cleverly put it, the “Lakers are letting Jason Terry turn this place into DFW airport today.” Pretty good consolation prize, I suppose.
Nevertheless, below is video evidence of all nine of Jason’s treys.
The kick-out pass that Dirk makes on the first one might be the most perfect pass I’ve ever seen. Perfect parabola into Terry’s shooting pocket.
This is a highly underrated aspect of setting up teammates. People concentrate on assists and fancy-pants dishes, but in many instances, a shooter will have to, even if ever so slightly, adjust to the pass and regather himself before letting it fly. These guys are pros so, when open, they still often hit the shot. But when a guy like Dirk makes a pass like this to a shooter like Terry, we may as well give Dirk two of the three points. Everyone in the building knew this one was about to become the FourSquare mayor of twine-ville before Terry even started his release. That’s all Dirk. Very Steve Nashian work by the big German.
In the midst of an embarrassing, sweep-culminating, Jason Terry-three-pointer-fueled, blow-out loss that ended with “You stay classy, San Diego” ejections for both Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum, it started to feel like there was no way that Phil Jackson would return to coach this Lakers roster next season. I suspect that the Zen master is going fishing. Literally — fly fishing in Montana, his favorite hobby and the only sporting endeavor I suspect he ever wants to do again at this point.
And if we can read anything into Kobe’s casual look at the scoreboard in the third quarter, I’m guessing he wouldn’t be mad at Phil if this was his last game ever. This franchise just ended it’s three-straight-NBA-Finals run about as poorly as any team could and these Lakers, as we knew them, are likely never to be heard from again.
Shame, too, because Bynum’s elbow turned this into a game that in no way belongs on Jackson’s resume.
By contrast, here’s Mark Cuban a few minutes later.