So far, most experts have reduced this year’s Finals to a few storylines. The main takeaways are that LeBron’s legacy is tarnished, Duncan is easily a top 10 all-time player, D-Wade is finished, and 2014 Miami was no different than 2007 Cleveland. Some of these conclusions are accurate. Duncan probably does deserve to be in the same breath as Bird and Magic now. Wade does look pretty damn close to retirement. LeBron might as well have had Damon Jones and Candace Parker’s brother on the wings. Maybe most of all, experts are declaring the end of an era. And it’s not the one you might expect. It’s not the Spurs era, which seems to drag on year after year, no matter how old Duncan gets. It’s the end of the Big 3, proclaim overeager Heat-haters. There are a few more takeaways we can glean from this year’s Finals though that may be overlooked with all of the focus on Duncan and LeBron.
We can all breathe a sigh of relief–the Heat’s run of titles is over. Yes, they could be back next year, but we can forget about the Heat joining the illustrious threepeat club. The Heat may, publicly at least, claim to be satisfied with their four year run, but the media’s view of the Heat’s Big 3 is more complicated. Sure, they were just the second team in NBA history to reach four straight Finals, but coming away with just two isn’t exactly what LeBron and company expected. This year was supposed to be the epic rematch. It was supposed to eclipse the grueling seven game series that we enjoyed last year. Instead, we had a stinker. Well, not really. Just about everyone, aside from Heat bandwagoners, who also happen to reside in Miami, enjoyed watching the Spurs humble the Heat.
The first half of last night’s Game 3 was the closest thing to basketball perfection that most people will ever to see. The game was over four minutes into the second quarter. Sure, the Heat scrapped and clawed the 25 point deficit down to just seven points, but the outcome was hardly in question. The Spurs shot 25-33 from the floor in the first half, good for a Finals field goal percentage record. At one point in the second half, the Heat were shooting over 60% from the field, and still trailing by double digits. If this had happened when you were playing the computer in NBA 2k14, you would’ve quit because it was too unrealistic.
In the post-game press conference, LeBron claimed the Spurs’ hot start had nothing to do with a lack of urgency from the Heat. The Spurs, LeBron said, and Spoelstra earlier shared the same sentiment, simply played with a level of aggression higher than the Heat had expected or been accustomed to. In other words, the Spurs played at a level that the Heat could not match. And if the Spurs continue to play at even a comparable level, the Heat are in trouble. That much should be obvious. If the Spurs are shooting anywhere over 60% from the field, there’s almost no way of beating them. The Heat turned the ball over 20 times, way too frequently to beat a time like the Spurs, especially when the Spurs play to the level that they did last night. But other than the turnovers, the Heat didn’t play that badly. Forget about the turnovers for a second, and a team that shoots 52% from the field and 48% from the perimeter will win more often than not. Continue reading
For the past few years, for the most part, LeBron has been exalted as the greatest player in the NBA. Having won back-to-back rings and Finals MVP trophies, LeBron finally was able to put his past failures behind him. He could forget about that Game 6 loss to the Celtics in the 2010 playoffs, the game where he supposedly quit on his team and realized he had to leave Cleveland if he wanted to win. He could forget The Decision, that poorly conceived public interview with Jim Gray, where LeBron announced he was “taking his talents to South Beach,” cementing the public’s dislike for him. He could forget about the 2011 Finals embarrassment against the Mavericks, the series that cemented that LeBron was unclutch, at least in the public’s eyes. And he could forget about all those other times his play, toughness, and legacy were criticized or questioned. The most astute LeBron-haters would even point out that LeBron was one all-time great Ray Allen three away from being 1-3 in the Finals. You might think LeBron would be immune to any questions about his ability at this stage of his career, but you would be wrong. To those who incessantly criticize LeBron, the question is not of his ability–it’s of his drive, competitiveness, and toughness. After all, MJ played through the flu! Or something like that. And Kobe stayed in the game to shoot free throws when his achilles ruptured last year! LeBron, though? He had to be carried off the floor when he had a CRAMP! He doesn’t even deserve to be talked about in the same breath as Jordan and Kobe, right? That is the type of Skip Bayless-esque trollery that has cluttered Twitter for the past 72 hours, so it was particularly satisfying, even as someone who has not yet officially claimed a spot on the already-crowded LeBron bandwagon, to see James put the team on his back last night and turn in an easy 35 and 10 performance in Game 2. Continue reading
Just one week ago, the Wizards were the trendy pick to reach the Eastern Conference Finals. Charles Barkley and Bill Simmons, among others, had finally seen enough of the dwindling Pacers, and proclaimed that the Wizards would reach the final four of the NBA. Wiz fans tried to temper their expectations, having witnessed the cursed franchise bumble its way through mediocrity over the past decade, but when Charles Barkley tells you your team is loaded, you listen. Even if you don’t believe it. Anyone who’d rooted for or followed the Wizards knew eventually the team would revert back to its usual ways. They just hoped that wouldn’t happen until the sacrificial slaughtering at the hands of LeBron, as had been protocol whenever they managed to reach the playoffs.
The reasoning behind Barkley and everyone else jumping on the Wizard bandwagon boiled down to balance. The Wizards starting lineup features five players who can each score 20+ points on any given night, including a backcourt that will be the best in the league in a few years, if you listen to Charles Barkley. That balance though can easily be flipped into saying the Wizards lack a go-to scorer. John Wall is the team’s max player, the All-Star that should make the plays down the stretch, but his inconsistent jumper often dooms his ability to be a consistent scorer in the half-court. Teams that don’t have a go-to guy down the stretch usually struggle–the 2004 Pistons being a notable exception–in the playoffs. Bradley Beal should be that guy in the future, but right now, his inconsistency off the dribble relegates him to a catch-and-shoot guy more often than not. Despite the urge to anoint him a star, it’s premature to expect Beal to carry the team in crunch time. And expecting Ariza, mostly a corner 3-shooter to score the points at the end of the games is not exactly a recipe for success. Continue reading
Finally, the way-too-long NBA playoffs are here! Here’s roughly what’s at stake: the Heat have a chance to join the rare three-peat club, becoming only the fifth team to do so. LeBron has a chance to win his third straight ring, likely solidifying his status as a top 4 or 5 player of all time. The Spurs have a chance at redemption, avenging their gut-wrenching Game 6 loss to the Heat. Kevin Durant has a chance to catapult himself over LeBron, if he can lead the Thunder over the Heat in the Finals. The Clippers have a chance to reach their first Finals that would probably throw Blake Griffin into the discussion with LeBron and Durant as the best player in the league. Hell, the Raptors (THE RAPTORS!!!) have a chance to reach their first Conference Finals. (Don’t worry, that won’t happen. BUT IT COULD.) Without further ado, let’s get into our playoff picks. Continue reading
Thank God the Heat won. Those words probably haven’t been said by anyone outside of Miami, but we are lucky that the Heat did what they were supposed to do: win the Finals. If the Spurs had pulled out the upset, we all would have had to deal with an entire summer and NBA season about how the Heat need to break up the Big 3 and how LeBron isn’t who we thought he was. Thankfully, LeBron dominated Game 6 and 7 to cap off his second straight Finals MVP. His legacy path is a little clearer for all of us now. He’s on track to be one of the greatest to ever play the game. If the Heat had lost and LeBron was 1-3 in the Finals, with two so-so performances (’11 and ’13), his legacy would have been muddled forever. His accomplishments would be overshadowed by his inability to come up big when it really mattered. Last year’s Finals would have been seen as a fluke, the only time he came up huge in the clutch. Now, we can all agree with certainty that LeBron is the greatest player in the world, and the greatest player we’ve seen since MJ.Magic Johnson said it after Game 7. LeBron has the best chance of anyone we’ve seen to surpass Jordan.
Following LeBron’s passive performance in Game 3 against the Spurs, critics everywhere took the opportunity to take a swipe at LeBron and how his legacy was at stake once again. If LeBron didn’t put up a triple-double with at least 30 points, then his legacy was tainted forever. If LeBron didn’t drop over 40 in a win, he wasn’t an all-time great. If LeBron… Okay, you get the point. We’ve heard this nonsense before and frankly, it’s getting old. Maybe it’s a sign of just how good LeBron is that his standard is so ridiculously high. LeBron-haters will exist for eternity, ever since The Decision and his disappearing act in the 2011 Finals against the Mavs. We get it. You don’t want LeBron to be mentioned in the same breath as Bird, Magic, Russell, and Oscar Robertson. And HEAVEN FORBID you put him in the same breath as Michael Jordan. We get it. I too was once a LeBron-hater, eager to call Kevin Durant or Derrick Rose the best player in the league. Eventually, after LeBron reached another gear, and showed how much better he is than Durant, I conceded and began to embrace LeBron. To all the haters though: just remember that LeBron is already one of the 10 greatest players to ever play the game, and he’s only 28 years old.
1. Will LeBron avenge his 2007 Finals loss to the Spurs?
If LeBron can carry the Heat to the title this year, we can comfortably say that he is in the discussion with Magic and Larry as one of the best player ever. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have been less helpful than Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao in this year’s playoffs.
Wade isn’t even close to a shadow of himself, and Bosh’s game has slowly regressed ever since joining Miami. LeBron isn’t completely on his own, but if the Heat win the title, it will be because of LeBron. This is now the third straight year LeBron has reached the finals, and fourth time in his career, and there’s little reason to believe he won’t put up similar numbers to last year. He’s the best player in the world, and he’s a different player from 2007 when the Spurs embarrassed him. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if LeBron outdid his Finals performance from last year, and had a historically good finish to the season.
We’re going to pick up from the Heat-Pacers game 6 from halftime, with the Heat up 40-39. I’m going to adopt a diary style column, modeled after Bill Simmons’ annual Draft Diary. Every few minutes, my rambling and entirely biased desire for the Pacers to beat the Heat will be strewn out briefly. So far, the Pacers have missed between 15 and 100 layups/dunks. LeBron is carrying the Heat, per usual, as the Heat don’t look any different than his Cavs teams in the past. Wade and Bosh are banged up and providing little more than Boobie Gibson, Mo Williams, and Anderson Varejao ever did in LeBron’s throwback days. Wade and Bosh have combined to go 1-10 so far, providing for an intriguing opportunity for LeBron to do his best Jordan impressions. I can’t imagine any scenario where LeBron DIDN’T leave the Heat after next season. Wade will be as close to washed up as a superstar can be, and while Bosh may still have plenty left, he’s proved himself to be a nice 3rd option, but not an ideal sidekick.
9:52 p.m. EST: Hibbert tips in a missed lay up by George Hill, and continues his dominant series. After this series, Hibbert has to be considered one of the 3 or 4 best centers in the league. I can’t think of a single guy I’d take over him. Dwight, Bynum, and Gasol are all nice, but if Hibbert stays on the floor over 35 mpg, he is a 20 and 10 guy easily.
9:55– David West FINALLY hits his first field goal of the game. Somehow, West has perennially been of the most underrated players in the league. Check out his career stats. For seven out of eight seasons, he’s been a 17-7 guy easily and aside from his season lost to a torn ACL, he’s been fairly durable. If West replaced Bosh on the Heat, does anyone really think there would be a significant drop off?