Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Bow Down To The King, Who Finally Stood Up


Cleveland, I am really sorry.  Seattle, I could not be happier for you.

A funny thing occurred during Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder.  While fanbases for both teams were obviously glued to their TV screens, two other cities had a rooting interest in the outcome as well.  Cleveland Cavaliers fans were hoping beyond hope that LeBron James would not fulfill his promise of winning a championship for someone besides his home state.  Meanwhile, Seattle SuperSonics fans remain quite angry because the Oklahoma City Thunder used to be their team.

So there weren’t just two but four cities that were invested in this series, something that has never happened before.  For all those political science buffs: Do you remember the Iran-Iraq War?  Both the United States and Russia took sides even though, fundamentally, this was a conflict between two Persian Gulf countries.  Therefore, Heat-Thunder became the first proxy war in NBA Finals history.

And in the end, Cavs fans saw that the God-given talents LBJ brought to South Beach paid the big dividend.  He could have done it in Cleveland, so I totally understand if you guys want to remain bitter.  Because on Thursday, throughout this championship series, and from the start of the playoffs, James finally shook off the doubts emanating from last year’s cowardly performance in the Heat’s humiliation by the Dallas Mavericks and finally lived up to every connotation imaginable to his nickname, “The Chosen One.”  (And no, Tom Reed of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, finally seeing him win and thereby making tangible Clevelanders’ worst fears does not “unburden” the city.)

Numbers don’t lie (hat tip to TrueHoop):

·         An average of 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.2 assists in the series.  Would it make sense for him to be named Finals MVP?

·         He took a starring role closing out the Bastard SuperSonics, scoring 26, collecting 11 boards and dishing 13 dimes in Game 5, becoming the fifth player in NBA history to record a triple-double in a title-clinching game.

·         For the entire postseason he averaged 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.6 assists.  Those numbers have been achieved only twice in history: Oscar Robertson for the 1963 Cincinnati Royals … and James three years ago.

·         The lasting assessment of his performance last year as Miami flamed out against the Dallas Mavericks: Passive, unwilling to force the action, content to shoot mid-range jumpers.  He scored 18 points in the lane on Thursday, and he scored at least 15 points each game of the Finals.  By comparison, the most he scored in a Finals game last year was 12.

·         More comparisons between this year’s LeBron and the LeBron of both last year and 2007, when he and the Cavs were swept by San Antonio:

o   He only averaged 19.5 points in ten NBA Finals contests before this year.

o   James shot 47.2% this year, compared to 41.7% the years prior.

o   More jarring, he only hit 65.3% of his free throws in ’07 and ’11 (his win-loss record is 2-8 for those two seasons).  In the five games this year, he jacked that up to 82.6%.

·         Oh, and one more thing … scoreboard: Heat 121, Thunder 106.  Miami wins the series 4-1.

So he answered one burning question going into this lockout-shortened (maybe I shouldn’t have brought that up, lest the diehard LeBron haters find a reason to put an asterisk behind his achievement) – can he learn from the mistakes of his past?  At the same time he dispelled one characteristic I thought would become an imprint on his basketball biography.  LeBron James finally became the ass-kicker everyone thought he was supposed to be.  He may have come to Miami because he didn’t think he could win a ring without a good supporting cast.  It turns out that the only way he would win was to divest himself of the generous personality he had on the court and just friggin’ rule over the game.

Maybe I was naïve to be taken aback, but ABC aired an interview with Dwyane Wade where he flat-out said that James “is the best player in the league.”  Seeing Mr. Heat cede his alpha dog status with the team he led to a championship in 2006 is something superstars don’t do, and after last year’s debacle, deferring to someone who has a deferential game appeared to be a big mistake.  So James deserves credit for learning from his shortcomings last year.  What he did in leading the Heat to the Larry O’Brien Trophy is a perfect example of one of those self-help clichés: You have to fail before you can succeed.

Mr. James’s aggression paradoxically allowed him to act on what was his basic instinct: passing the ball.  And that brings up another thing I was wrong in predicting that the Oklahoma City Thunder would win in six games: The Miami Heat bench rose to the occasion.

Again, the preternatural combination of speed and strength allowed James to take over at will sometimes, particularly from about the last third of the third quarter in Game 6 until he was taken out of the game with three minutes left in the fourth and the title sewn up.  But it was his court vision that made his passes as deadly as his drives and shots.  Because he was selfish, because he acted like Kirby Puckett in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series when he told his Minnesota Twins teammates, “Get on my back,” he weaponized other players the Thunder had to deal (and failed to deal) with.

Besides the other legs of the Big 3, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (the latter of which played so well inside and from Threeville that you wouldn’t imagine he had an abdominal strain that kept him out half of the postseason), look at the role players that stepped up for Miami:

·         Mike Miller: In another instance of someone who formerly played for a Minnesota team who found success after leaving Minnesota, the ex-Timberwolf (and native of South Dakota, which is virtually annexed by Minnesota) on Thursday finally did what he was brought to South Beach for: drop bombs from behind the arc.  It was Miller time on seven of his eight shots from three-point range – the first time(s) he hit a three all series.  He finished with 23.

·         Mario Chalmers: Technically an ex-Wolf (he was drafted then quickly traded to Miami), he became the point guard Heat Head Coach Erik Spoelstra could trust with the rock.  Chalmers stepped up in Game 4.  While his Thunder counterpart, Russell Westbrook, turned in possibly the best individual performance for a losing team in an NBA Finals game, Chalmers’s 25-point game, 12 of which came in the fourth quarter, should not be underestimated.  He was largely guarded – or “guarded” – by Kevin Durant.  Thunder Head Coach Scott Brooks basically hid Durant on Chalmers to keep his superstar out of foul trouble.  “Yeah, I took that as a little sign of disrespect,” Chalmers said after the game.  And remember that Chalmers regulated as LeBron James was suffering cramps and saw the end of that thrilling Game 4 from the bench.

·         Shane Battier: The perfect glue guy.  Finished the Finals 15-for-26 from The Land of Three-Pointers, the highest percentage ever for a player making at least 15 attempts.  Made 5-of-7 treys (and scored 17 total) in helping steal home-court advantage from the Bastard SuperSonics in Game 2.  And he was the one who tipped the ricocheted jump ball near the end of Game 4 to a fouled Chalmers, aka Westbrook’s Boner.  By the way, did you know that he is only the second player under Duke Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski to win an NBA title?  The first?  The just-named General Manager of the Atlanta Hawks, Danny Ferry, who got his championship largely riding the pine his last year playing in the league for the 2002-03 San Antonio Spurs.

·         Juwan Howard: Actually, he didn’t do a damn thing for the Heat this postseason.  But isn’t it amazing that out of the legendary Fab Five, Howard is now the only one to have won a title at any level, professional or college?  That group will be known more for its brash youth and baggy shorts than for any championship it actually accomplished.

As for OKC, they’re in the inevitable position of having a window that is not only wide open but widening open even further.  They’ll get sturdy backup point Eric Maynor back from a right ACL tear.  He’ll replace the soon-to-be-departed Derek Fisher, whom Brooks relied on too much for dagger threes he clanged off the iron.  Maybe sixth man James Harden will erase the memory of Games 4 and 5, probably the two worst postseason performances of his young career.

The only potentially new problem (assuming that people don’t sour on Brooks) is figuring out if there are one too many alpha dogs on the team.  Westbrook still has a lot of up-and-down games; he finished Game 5 with 19 points on 4-of-20 shooting and missed all five of his three-point attempts.  But his agile, fearless drives to the basket were at times as unstoppable as James’s drives to the basket.  Of course, this raises the question, again, of whether Westbrook is too much of a ball hog when the Thunder would be a more efficient team when Durant gets most of the touches.  But that then raises the scenario that Durant is too passive, unwilling to force the action, and content to shoot mid-range jumpers.

Say … didn’t we say the same thing about James last year?  Maybe Durant will be humbled by this experience this year and learn to take it to the hole next year.  And maybe Oklahoma City will do to Miami (or whoever comes out of the East) what the Heat just did to the Thunder?  See, this is why the NBA is so much like The Lion King – it’s the Circle of Life.

So congratulations to the Miami Heat for winning its second championship, and to LeBron James for finally winning his first.  And now, seven to go!  (Just kidding!)

Posted by WilliamSou at 2:34 AM

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