Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – May 29, 2011

Scottie Pippen is one of my favorite players of all-time.  I loved his defensive tenacity; his “do it all to win” attitude; the way he carried the team when he had to; how he supported Jordan wherever necessary and willed his teammates to rise above any obstacle. 

He is one of the 25 greatest NBA players ever…but as a judge of talent?  Some clarification is needed.  After the final whistle blew in Chicago, and Lebron and Wade’s furious rally to close out the series was finished, Pip went and made what just might be the most crazy-brilliant comment of his life. Pippen’s full quote in case you missed it:

“Michael Jordan is probably the greatest scorer to ever play the game.  I may go so far as saying Lebron James may be the greatest player to ever play the game.”   

End quote.  Cue debate. 

LeBron is curently not the Greatest Player of All-Time…let’s be clear on that.

First thing to do is break down the quote itself.  Was Pippen stating, unequivocally that LBJ is better than MJ? 

No.  His words are “may be”,  as time will eventually allow us to define the legacy of LeBron.  The most interesting part of this statement may be the context in which Pippen stated it.  Jordan definitely somewhat tainted our final image of him; pulling away from his graceful, epic shot against the Jazz by returning for two abrupt and controversy plagued seasons with the Washington Wizards. 

LeBron, on the other hand, is infront of us right now and is playing the most complete basketball of his career.  His defense has been astoundingly versatile; his offensive flurries staggering, and his crunch time play a thing of beauty.  Three times in the final game against Chicago I was certain the game was over.  The Heat would have to head back to their own floor in order to advance.  And then…they did not.  Lebron’s two three pointers – similiar to the ones he used to finish the Celtics – were things of beauty.  In the final moments, you can see his confidence in himself in the way he shoots.  These are not off balance, hurried or mistimed in any way.  He strokes them with the perfectly squared shoulders of a vet.  His drives to the basket are virtually unstoppable; and in the final moments neither Chicago or Boston had anyone they could throw at him to even slow him down – there may be no one in the league to throw at him

Yet, as I have written before, at times it appears LeBron chooses to play this way.  At other times he does not.  Are we just spoiled by how easy he makes the game appear?  He does things no one else in the history of the game has been able to.  Every aspect of his game appears effortless – the rebound in traffic, the laser-perfect pass in transition, the alley-oop, the step back jumper, the three in transition that barely ripples the net – are all things of easy beauty.  LeBron can do all these things and more, and yet this is how we always view him: we always want more from him.   We stand back and say, “alright, he is amazing…but what else has he got?”  His best is never good enough because we have become accustomed to his greatness.  Down 10?  No problem, LBJ can close out the game.  Maybe he has always been so otherworldly that he can never rise to fully meet our expectations for him. 

In the wake of The Decision, I believe one reason most people have been slow to come back to supporting LBJ is the fact that he damaged his chance to be the greatest of all-time.  Whether he could attain that status or not was and is still up for debate but we saw his actions and fateful choice in the Summer of 2010 as a betrayal.  Not just to the city of Cleveland or to the NBA as a whole – but rather to the entire idea of greatness itself. 

If there is one thing we as fans want to be able to say they have seen more than anything is the greatest player of any given sport.  One of our frequent troubles with greatness is the need for comparison to the players we have already seen.  Case in point: there will never be “another Jordan” because each NBA player follows a unique career trajectory.  Pippen was smart to clarify that in his comments: LBJ will be the “greatest player” not an MJ clone

At the end of the day, he will be the person we compare others to, as we do to Jordan.  While we may see players who resemble Jordan in style or attitude (ie. The Mamba) the most important thing to remember is that everyone is an individual and the circumstances to their rise to greatness will always be different.  LeBron has always followed his own path, be it in carefully crafting a public image or how he goes about winning.  He saw Cleveland was never going to be able to get over the Title hump.  Whether or not he colluded with Wade / Bosh is immaterial (secretly we want him to have done so, in order to make sense out of his actions) as winning was his ultimate and only goal as his determined play has shown proven this season. 

During the aftermath of the Pippen quotes, Scottie sent out a tweet further reinforcing that he “knows what he is talking about” and obviously Pip is uniquely qualified to pass judgment.  I think he saw what we have all been waiting desperately to catch a glimpse of: LeBron’s ceiling – perhaps over time he figures out how to become fully invested in all facets of every game once he gets the first taste of a title.  When Jordan was 26 he was in a very similiar position to LBJ: he had 2 MVP’s and 0 titles.  What followed was 2 three-peats and the greatest basketball witnessed on this planet thus far.  

LeBron may have physical skills that surpass Jordan – he is already“the most talented player of all-time”.   His physical tools appear to have been handed down specifically from the Basketball gods for the purpose of dominating the game.  He is still fully learning how to harness them – but at times has put on astounding displays such as his shut down D on Derrick Rose during the most critical situations of the series.  LeBron, like Jordan cannot afford to shy away from tense situations and must perform at his finest during them.  Those are the images we have of Jordan; he was at his most magnificent when it truly counted – his shot against Utah serves simply as the finest example.  (Jordan also had frequent moments where he destroyed opponents for the sheer competitive joy and losing ate him alive until he was able to remedy the situation) 

LeBron is not the same.  He began his career playing the game like a businessman – always working some kind of angle and concerned with his “brand”.  He played 7 years in Cleveland, carrying the franchise back to the top echelon of the NBA ranks.  Then – and we should have seen it coming – he decided it was all about winning.  Unlike Jordan who was consumed by winning from the outset, LeBron seems to have come to this conclusion much more organically.  We measure greatness in terms of winning and LBJ has a lot of winning to do.  He has accomplished everything in the NBA with the exception of winning a title.  He will never be satisfied with just one.

Could he become the Greatest of All-Time? 

Anything is possible – and perhaps we should not simply dismiss Scottie Pippen’s comments out of hand.  Here is a potential scenario I will submit for approval: A Plan For LBJ’s Basketball Dominance / Roadmap to Becoming the Greatest of All-Time:

1) Win 3 more MVP awards – For LBJ this could be done a number of ways…the simplest being playing crazy defense and leading the league in scoring.  Or, he could just average the elusive triple double. 

2) Win Defensive Player of the Year 2-3 Times – The most inspired part of LeBron’s play in the last two series has been his remarkable defense.  He has earned his first spot on the All-Defensive Team, all he has to do is continue to play with outrageous energy and focus. 

3) Finish the All-Time Scoring Leader and in the Top 15 in Assists – This would give him a pretty solid resume…but is still not as important as the following:

4) Win 6 or more titles…at least 4 consecutively – The hardest part of the equation.  Some great players never win one  title (Malone / Barkley) and are forever known for it.  Hakeem won 2 straight and could not win any more.  Duncan has 4 and is probably the greatest Power Forward ever.  Jordan has 6; objectively the magic number for this generation to measure themselves by.  Kobe certainly sees it as his benchmark to surpass and perhaps LBJ should as well.  Winning 6 titles grants you NBA immortality but does not necessarily make you the GOAT – despite Kobe’s belief to the contrary; Kobe’s number of three-peats?  However…if LBJ were to win 5 or 6 in a row in a talent rich era?  He would have an inside track on the best player ever (or “Most Complete Player” ever?)  Additionally, (because, really, he needs more a challenge) one of the titles would have to come with Wade injured.  LeBron has to show that he is resilient enough to forge ahead despite adversity. 

If LBJ does all that…he would have an outside shot.  More than anything we cheer for greatness.  LeBron is already one of the 15 best players in the history of the League, but he is nowhere near the top of the mountain.  Scottie Pippen was merely pointing out LeBron’s potential but the endgame is far from sight.  As the 2011 NBA Finals begin, we may be witnessing LBJ take the first tentative steps towards the legacy that awaits but that is all we are witnessing…for now.

 

 

Advertisements

Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – May 27, 2010

Lebron’s quest for a ring is in its final stages – all that stands in his way?  Conquering The Matrix.

Before we begin discussing the finals matchup with Dallas – a team, that like Chicago gave Miami trouble in the regular season – we have to continue to savour the victory from last night. 

Miami did not play their best game of the series, and nor did they play like a team with a 3-1 lead.  Chicago played extremely well: Derrick Rose did a surprisingly good job of spreading the ball around despite his seeming mistrust of his teammates.  Sure he missed 20 shots, but those are Kobe-acceptable numbers (apologizes, I just cannot resist). 

In the end, the game came down to the last three minutes and Miami scored at will and played defense like psychics – batting, swatting, deflecting and clamping down completely.  Lebron James once again proved he is so far removed from the rest of the league talent-wise that it can be downright terrifying at times.  Here was a 6-8 behemoth shutting down a 6-2, cat-quick MVP.  Then, the 6-8 behemoth turned around and nailed two 3’s with hands in his face.  Ridiculous.  It was, absolutely ridiculous.  Wade, also played his part as he suddenly kicked into the fifh gear and showed the inner “Michael Corleone” that he displayed years ago in the NBA Finals.  Remember that Wade?  Spinning into the lane and scoring at will?  Stopping everyone the Mavs threw at him?  Shooting a ridiculous amount of free throws?  We need that cold hearted, ruthless Wade. 

Chris Bosh also stepped up in the series; shooting a ho-hum 59%, 82% from the line and averaging 23.5 ppg.  For Bosh, it was a huge performance when it was needed most, with a chance to go the NBA Finals on the line.  Literally last night, it was Bosh at the line.  My first exclaimation: “Why?  Why?”  Bosh has never faced that much pressure in his entire career.  The second free throw barely rippled the net.  Game over.  Series over.  NBA Finals date set.  Thank you Chris Bosh for responding way better to the pressure than anyone has given you credit for. 

Yet, lying ahead of Miami is this:

Lebron has to solve the Matrix.

One of the most improbable NBA finals lies ahead of us – and we may be able to take inspiration from the movie: The Matrix in order to attempt to explain Lebron’s final step in his title journey.  It will also attempt to explain how a cast of cast-offs, beyond their primers, and the greatest European in NBA history are attempting to win a ring together against a collection of post-decision talent. 

If you struggle to recall the plot of The Matrix from several years ago, here is a quick refresher: A hero / “the one” (Neo = Lebron) suddenly realizes he lives in a totally false, computer generated world (The Matrix = Cleveland) and decides to fight back and stop it in order to free humanity.  He has the help of a couple of cool looking sidekicks (Morpeheus / Trinity = Wade / Bosh) and fights an out of control program named “Smith” (the rest of the league…but mostly Kobe).  In the end…he triumphs…sort of.

Lebron reflects the Chosen One in less superficial ways: Neo is drifting through life despite his outrageous potential.  My brother Just Ross and friend CP have both pointed out repeatedly that LBJ only harnesses a fraction of his immense talents.  He rarely tries to do more than he has to, and at times (early last night) he appears downright lazy.  Then, in the last three minutes he plays out of his mind and cannot be stopped.  When he “chooses to” play defense he can shut anyone down.  When he wants to score he is unstoppable.  Has Lebron entered a “Larry Bird lefthanded phase?”  Is he bored with the game, and making it intentionally tougher on himself?  Lebron may always be the greatest “what if” in NBA history.  Can he ever live up to the outrageous amount of talent he has been given?  Will he ever work hard enough to?  One of the most important things to remember about LBJ is that he is still 26.  Not even in his athletic prime.  His body is made to withstand the wear and tear of the NBA season + 46 minutes a night.  There is more to come and he will eventually develop a “go to move” and sustained defensive intensity.  It will come.  The positive first steps have been taken: he wants a ring and is willing to do whatever it takes to get one. 

His second shot at winning an NBA title will not be any easier than when he faced the Spurs the first time round.  Sure his team is definitely better, but Dallas’s rag-tag group of wily vets (Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Dirk!!!) and cast-offs (Sean Marion “The Matrix”, Tyson Chandler, Peja) will not go down easily.  OKC was a better team and could have won that series, but the experience of the Mavs wore them down…that and the fact that Dirk is challenging for the honor of Greatest Post-Season…ever. 

Moreover, the Mavs did a really good job of defending the NBA’s leading scorer – Kevin Durant, by unleashing “The Matrix” on him (who may be confused and thinking he is still playing in Phoenix with J-Kidd).  Marion did a great job of stalking Durant and holding him in check long enough to allow Westbrook to hit head-case status. 

Lebron and Wade are obviously a different story.  The Mavs may not match up as well with them as they did Westbrook / Durant.  Dallas will probably play Terry on Wade and Marion on LBJ.  Miami will throw Bosh at Dirk which will not stop him, but may give him pause enough for them to come out on top.  In the last few minutes however?  Lebron on Dirk makes the most sense. 

LBJ goes from guarding a 6-2 MVP to a 7 foot three point shooting machine.  Why the hell not?  We have already seen the most epic NBA playoffs ever (just two weeks ago the Grizz were still in it!) and having two of the league’s marquee players square off for the chance at their first NBA titles is must-see TV. 

The Finals will not be easy for the Heat, but as ESPN.com’s Rick Reilly wrote in his latest article, the Heat have backed up all their plans thus far – no reason to start doubting them now.   I feel like Lebron / Wade swing this series.  If Wade (who seems to be playing hurt) gets going like he did against Boston they will be impossible to stop.  We have two teams that have come back from being down repeatedly to win.  No game in this series will ever be over before the final horn.  My friend, Adub is struggling mightily with who to cheer for and I totally get it.  On one hand, how can you not cheer for the written off Dirk Nowitzki?  His team has been picked against in every series they have played in.  He has put a team on his back, Larry Bird style (Editors Note: Two Larry Legend comparisons in one post?  Getting thin here).  But…LBJ + Wade = NBA Title

The most epic playoffs in NBA history gets its epic finals.  My pick is the one I have stuck with all year long: LBJ gets a ring, Miami (my team!!!) wins. 

Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – May 26, 2011

THE MIAMI HEAT ARE IN THE NBA FINALS.

Exhale.

The Miami Heat used every part of what has made them one of the best teams in basketball to put away the fiesty Chicago Bulls tonight.  On display was:

1) Tenacious Team Defense – everyone helping, everyone covering, everyone accountable.  If LBJ got screened – Bosh picked up Rose.  The Heat’s zone was so tight in the last five minutes Spud Webb could not have snuck through.  In the last three minutes, Lebron deflected, defensed and blocked nearly everything Derrick Rose threw at the hoop.  It was a Marlo Stanfield-esque “My name is my name!” moment.  Lebron on Rose was one of the best defensive choices in recent history…we rarely get to see the past two MVP’s go head to head.  Fittingly, LBJ blocked the final, frantic three point attempt from the reigning MVP.

2) Scoring in a hurry – When you boast two of the top five guys in the league, it is pretty tough to figure out a way to shape your defense.  Wade and ‘Bron were as advertised.  They scored at will in the last five minutes, and Lebron’s two clutch three pointers to tie the game were absolute daggers to Chicago.  At that point there was nothing else they could do to stop the Heat.  From then on, they were broken.

3) Resilience – Miami started behind in this series and clawed their way back into every game.  There was no easy wins in this series and playing down has helped further the Heat’s determination and fuels their clutch play. 

There were some great Bulls moments – Kurt Thomas and Ronnie Brewer making great comebacks / the DRose shot with LBJ guarding him that not even Magic Johnson could have stopped in his heyday.  In the end though, the experience of the Heat was too much for the young Bulls.  Time will shape this rivalry but it is safe to assume that it is on. 

Looking ahead for the Heat: Lebron has to solve…The Matrix.

MIAMI TO THE FINALS!!!

Lebron is:

2011 = 1994 for the Vancouver Canucks!

This one was for all the kids 16 and under who never got to feel the magical run of 1994 – the last time the Vancouver Canucks made it to the Stanley Cup.

This one is for all the fans who had to watch “the best team” and the “best line” (The West Coast Express) in Hockey never amount to anything despite repeated, tantalizing promise.

This was for the Sedins who have quietly become two of the best players in hockey and have developed the correct way. 

This is for the fans, who have waited 17 long years for a chance to return to the Stanley Cup.  Who have cheered for a team that has never won a Cup in its 40 year history – and has never been in a better position to. 

What more can I say about these Canucks?  Did they win on a fluky, ridiculous goal?  See for yourself:

Sure it was one of the strangest goals in the history of hockey – but we deserved it.  It was about time we got one of those bounces.

This bounce – for all the reasons listed above – happened at the perfect time.  The hockey gods were smiling that day, and having a bit of a laugh as there are three Sharks are still looking for the puck in the corner. 

The goal was also oddly…okay nearly exactly…like one from one of the best hockey movies ever: D2 the Mighty Ducks.

Bieksa’s knucklepuck made two overtimes disappear and the city go crazy.  We needed this, we needed this team to be the one to do it.  Yet, it has not been an easy road – Vancouver won a Game 7 versus hated rival Chicago in the first round; battled through a sluggish series with Nashville; went toe to toe with San Jose in a goal scoring bonanza.  At the end of the day Vancouver was just a better team.  Ryan Kesler stepped up again and has had such a great playoffs my Hockey Wine Cellar Team may need immediate revisal. 

We now have players who are joining the conversation as legendary Canucks.  The names Burrow, Bieksa, Sedin, Kesler, Higgins will join others like Adams, Courtnall, MaClean, Linden and Bure as a part of our legacy.  These are players who took us to the Cup! 

We deserve it, and trust me, two days later the city is still basking in the glow.  40 years, no Cup but we have a shot.  Welcome back to the show Vancouver, we’ve missed you.

Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – May 25, 2011

Q: When was the last time anyone with 12 points and 9 rebounds, who shot 2/5 (40%) from three point land –  changed the outcome of a game so completely? 

A: John Paxon? 

Maybe Paxon played a similar role for the Bulls but Mike Miller made a huge difference for the Heat last night for only the 2nd time this season.  I was very excited when Mike Miller joined the Heat.  He seemed to be the perfect compliment to two players who can drive and kick back to the three point line.  It seemed he would be covered once every full-moon (James Jones led the league in 3 point percentage after all) but Miller was never able to settle into any kind of consistent role for Miami. 

In his defense, he was injured for most of the season.  Against him?  Until last night I believe I had watched him miss approximately 32 three pointers.  Not sure I saw him hit one at all during his abbreviated season.  I know shooters are streaky, but Miller seemed to be on an 0-45 streak as of late.  Last night though, the entire “bench” for the Heat played well (can it really be called a bench when you have a short 8 man rotation and Lebron is playing 46 minutes a game?  Additionally, what hole has James Jones fallen into?  Didn’t he lead the league in 3 point percentage?), even though the only true contributers on the score sheet were Miller / Mario Chalmers.  The biggest difference in this series has been the interior toughness provided by Udonis Haslem – one stat from last night showed the Heat are +11 in point differencial when Haslem is playing. 

And then there was Lebron.

What more can the man do?  He plays 46 minutes a game, scored 35 points, had 6 assists / rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals.  He defends the league’s MVP in crunch time and has held him in check for the most part.  When this series ends, we will certainly remember the crushing defense the Heat wrought upon Chicago.  No player in the league has faced the scrutiny LBJ has – my pal CP still enjoys taking every possible opportunity to slam him.  His last attack?  How arrogant Lebron is.  He claims Rose is not – yet if you look at how much better Lebron makes his teammates vs. how much better Rose makes his it is not even a contest.  During the game when the Heat were making a comeback, I turned to my friend Adub and said, “The Heat can score in a hurry.”

“No,” Adub said, “Lebron can score in a hurry.”

Lebron has led this team to within one game of playing for the NBA title.  His defense has been astounding.  He has brought the team together, a team united in a common goal of winning championships.  There are still flaws: Wade missed a wide open dunk for the second time in two games, their scoring is still not consistent.  However, they have run the Celtics and Bulls off the floor with an 8 man rotation.  The Bulls have simply not been able to keep out of foul trouble.  The way the Heat attack the basket probably has something to do with that. 

As my brother, Just Ross said: “Lebron playing D = Heat Title”

Enough said.

Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – May 23, 2011

“Take your stupid 2011 championship” – Message from my brother, Just Ross moments after Miami’s Game 3 victory against Chicago.

At times it must be tough for people to watch.  After all, we are seeing a team that came together under the most auspicious of circumstances rise higher than anyone thought possible.  Surely it would take them some time to come together; they may not be a threat this year but eventually we will have to watch out; a team with three players cannot possibly succeed in the playoffs; over-rated over-rated – These terms have been a chorus to the Miami Heat’s entire season.  Last night they took a 2-1 series lead over the best team in basketball through ridiculous defense and the inspired play of Chris Bosh. 

Of all the Heat players this season no one has taken more abuse than Chris Bosh.  At times he has responded astoundingly well: a tough game at Boston against KG after running for the bench to hide in the first contest; standing tall when he said he had to; and, of course, putting up 34 tough points on the Bulls – many of them with the outstretched hand of Joakim Noah in his face. 

Earlier this season against the Bulls Bosh shot a horrendus 1 for 18.  Last night he started off 1 of 4 and then began engaging in an astounding back and forth with the equally maligned Carlos Boozer in which Bosh finished 13 of 15, dropped 34 points and led the Heat to a victory.  He had help of course, no one is going to pretend the Heat are deeper than 8 players and both LeBron and Wade contributed big minutes, tough defense and timely assists.  Lebron is particular decided “…when we have someone going on our team, we continue to give the ball to him and continue to feed off their energy offensively” as he took more of a facilitating role during the game. 

Part of the reason for the shift away from Lebron / Wade?

Every time LBJ looked up last night he was well defended.  The Bulls did a great job of challenging his shots, as they did with Wade.  Lebron, however, made the smart choices with the ball nearly every time (he finished up with 10 assists and 0 turnovers) while Wade took an active role on the boards. 

At one point during the game my Dad looked over at me and said, “you realize you might be the only person outside of Miami actually cheering for the Heat”.   I nodded, as obviously I may well be.  Some people think the Heat’s convergence was nothing more than a cheap stunt to win titles.  I feel differently, and their joining together spoke volumes to me about the lost art of teamwork.  Why should they be punished for wanting to win?   Recently I read the fantastic Bird / Magic book When the Game was Ours and it got me thinking about the Heat and their grasp of “the secret”.  Would Bird or Magic ever have teamed up?  No, but they had top 10 All-Time teams in place already.  Lebron, Wade and Bosh never have.  Their teams have gone as far as they can carry them. 

The desire to win at all costs should not be punished but celebratedWe never punished Magic or Larry or Michael or Russell, for that exact desire did we ?  All Larry Bird or Magic ever cared about was hoisting the title; for most of their careers Lebron and Wade had to watch others do so.  Now, they want to create the kind of team Bird and Magic had in the 80’s and many have lambasted them for it.  What happens if they win?  Do we begin to appreciate what they have accomplished then? 

Some will still argue about the way the team came together: there are still reports that Lebron’s longtime girlfriend “wife”, and the mother of his two young children had absolutely no idea he was going to move to Miami. 

As an argument against the team it is beginning to grow thinner and thinner with each passing day as we can now marvel at the tangible evidence of Miami Thrice’s teamwork.  Every game another player steps up and takes the offensive slack; they play the toughest defense in the entire league; at any time they can go off and drop the fastest ten points in the history of basketball. 

Last night, there was a moment when three defenders collapsed on Lebron and instead of trying to barrel his way through, he put his head up and found a completely unguarded DWade standing under the basket.  Probably Miami’s easiest two points of the entire series.  At another point, there was no time left on the shot clock and Chris Bosh put on a spin-move clinic to get around Boozer.  It was a “remember me?  I averaged 24 a game in TO” moment and made the Heat virtually impossible to defend. 

Chicago has a tough road on the other hand: they seem to be offensively one-dimensional late in the game.  They have Rose or no one else.  There is no longer a pretense of giving Deng or Boozer (who was justifiably hot last night) the ball.  Rose drives or pulls up for his silky smooth jumper.  The more I see of Rose, the more I believe his “stolen from LBJ” MVP is legit.  He is the only reason for the Bulls to have made it this far. 

He is also Allen Iverson 2.0

What do I mean by that? 

Rose is an MVP candidate in any given year because he has the ability to score, defend and genuinely impact the game in a way that will give his team the best chance to win.  However…were he on the Oklahoma Thunder for example, he would be Russell Westbrook and we would be talking about wanting to see his passing skills a lot more.  If there is a weak spot in Rose’s game it is his quick trigger.  He rarely looks for his teammates once he has committed to the basket; and he rarely creates scoring opportunities designed for the other Bulls on the court.  Noah is quite adept at cleaning up his misses and getting great putbacks, but even when Boozer was hot and Rose well defended, he finished with 5 assists.   Lebron, despite scoring 4 more points (24 – 20) had 10 dimes last night. 

Rose will obviously learn how to involve his teammates more as he grows into his role with the Bulls, but his lack of trust in them must be slightly troubling.  The team will go as far as he can carry them – but the Heat’s defense has been sublime the last two games and Rose’s Iverson-impression may not be enough this time to lift the Bulls through. 

Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – May 19, 2011

Miami evened the series last night by defeating the Chicago Bulls for the first time this season in thrilling, defensive struggle fashion.  The games in this series may not be the most offensively exciting (Chicago shot just 34%) but the two best teams in the East are certainly on display. 

After Game One it appeared the Bulls were miles ahead of the Heat.  Their defensive rotation frustrated James / Wade and they asked Chris Bosh to attempt to beat them.  Bosh could not do it on his own.  The Heat knew they had to make some adjustments – especially on defending DRose who had his way with their point guard combo of Chalmers and Bibby. 

My suggestion for Game 2 was putting Wade on him – surely it would be better than Bibby or Chalmers.  The Heat did indeed make a change: Lebron guarded Rose for significant minutes, especially during the fourth quarter.

Lebron?  6-8 beast?  On the lightening quick MVP?

The matchup played out like a dream sequence for NBA fans: we are watching two MVP’s at the top of their games going head to head to get into the NBA Finals.   Who came out on top?  Lebron seemed to do a surprisingly good job on Rose.  He forced him into a couple of bad shots, and was able to stay with him when he drove to the basket.  At times it was surreal.  Lebron was focused and challenging Rose to try and beat him…and Rose could not on this night.

Lebron’s D also revealed just how one dimensional Chicago was last night during the fourth quarter.  Rose either drove or took a jump shot.  Occasionally he tried to kick it to Korver or Deng for a long three.  Noah does not go for much inside except off rebounds; Boozer (their top acquistion this summer) was shackled to the bench and there was no one else to take shots during crunch time.  The Bulls were living or dying last night with Rose and he could not match Lebron. 

Lebron made shots, played defense and rebounded hard last night.  In the last five minutes he was not missing anything.  At the outset, he seemed to take full responsibility for the game, putting it squarely on his shoulders. 

He missed two straight free throws.  I threw my hands up and was ready to write off the entire game; possibly the series.  Then, for the first time in two games, Lebron showed something.  Just how much he wants to win: he grabbed his own rebound off the foul shot miss; moving so quickly no one else even had a chance to react.  Then he spun and hit a short jumper. 

After the game Lebron and Wade were both quoted as saying “I just want to do whatever it takes to win” – does this show they are finally grasping “the secret?” Maybe and maybe not, but it is a joy to watch the two of them genuinely play together.  They use each other now, they set screens, they pass to each other inside.  The team is not entirely dependent on “Lebron time” or “Wade time” now. 

However, the biggest news of the night came from a player who was not in contention for the MVP (hard to believe when you have three of the best players in the NBA on the floor).  The Heat needed some sort of spark to beat the Bulls.  Udonis Haslem provided it.  After missing 69 games, Haslem returned and provided some interior toughness (+13 points) that helped the Heat outrebound the Bulls 45-41. 

This win was huge for the Heat (I will not go as far to say “must win”) and I felt Game One was an opportunity for the Bulls to throw everything they had at Miami.  Miami took the loss, got the measure of the Bulls and then made the necessary adaptions in order to win.  Miami needed to win, because they had to prove to themselves that they could beat the team that stymied them in the regular season.  There are, of course, a couple of differences in this playoff Heat team:

Firstly, Lebron is playing out of his mind in crunch time – after all the talk that James was not able to get it together during the last moments of a tough game, he has gone out of his way to do the exact opposite.  Against Boston he was unstoppable in Game 5, in a very similar way to how he played in Game 2 against Chicago.  Lebron can score at will at times and he proved it last night.  When he is on – completely on – there is no one in the league that can stop him.  The Heat may be two dimensional: but two dimensional will beat one dimensional every time.  Now that Wade and Lebron are playing together they are tough to stop.

Secondly, there really was no way a defensive rotation could stop two of the best players in the league for long – The Bulls assorted defenders were run down in Game 2 and by the end were standing still as the Heat ran over them.  For a team with such a short bench, the Heat sure seem to close out games well.  Having Lebron and DWade, definitely helps.  When one of your superstars turns it on in the last five minutes it is very tough to defend them, what with the threat of the other superstar getting hot. 

Thirdly, Miami stepped up the D – Chicago destroyed Miami on the boards in Game 1 and almost repeated that action in Game 2.  Miami played as tough as they were able and made every shot tough for the Bulls.  Holding the #1 team to 34% shooting?  Huge.  Making DRose the only offensive option in the fourth quarter?  Even bigger.   

The series heads back to Miami knotted at one and while the Heat play tough at home (and could go up 3-1) the series will likely go seven games.

Death of a Mamba II + Requiem for the Grizzlies

Why is this video so hilarious? 

Because in the days following the seeming demise of the Black Mamba – this is a press conference that could genuinely have taken place.  That is the type of person Kobe is and going forward, will continue to be.  The Mamba has a lot of miles on him and it seems he will not contend for another championship without some serious superstar help.  Perhaps Dwight Howard will join him – there would be true symmetry in that, beginning and ending his career with the most dominant center in the league.   

To some degree that has been the definition of his legacy: he won with Shaq, could not win without Shaq, won with Pau and ultimately, could not win without him.  Has he been clutch?  Earned his place in history?  Yes.  Is he better than Jordan?  Not a chance.  Not even if he wins six.  Not even if he wins seven.  The conversation ends now. 

Kobe could have won ten championships if he truly cared about winning, but he never has.  Until it was too late.  Will he be able to rise again?  I do not know given the turnover to the astounding amount of young NBA talent.  His time may be past, especially with the ascent of OKC / Memphis. 

Speaking of which…

Have we seen the start of the next great Western Conference Rivalry? 

OKC won the seven game series thanks to a “I am the King and don’t you forget Westbrook” performance by Durant.  While the Thunder are primed to be a title threat for the next decade, so are the young Grizz who resemble another (ahem) former Western Conference Champ…The Lakers!

They feature:

– A superstar who suddenly cares about winning and can lead the team through “the moment” after previously being only concerned with stats (Zach Randolph – Kobe Bryant)

– A Gasol (Marc + Pau)

– A talented head case that can make the big plays when it counts (OJ Mayo – Ron Artest)

– A “do it all talent” that works hard and can dominate at times (Shane Battier and, a pre-reality show Lamar Odom)

– A veteran who provides leadership and ridiculously clutch three pointers (Tony Allen – Derek Fisher)

Spooky when you think about it…

Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – May 16, 2011

For the first time in a playoff series in 2011, the Miami Heat are trailing. 

Last night we witnessed the blueprint the Chicago Bulls will use to defeat the Heat –a lot of rebounding, DRose carrying them offensively and tough defensive rotations.  The Bulls know the only way the Heat can advance to the finals is by duplicating what happened against Boston – DWade and LeBron need to absolutely dominate.  In Game One, they absolutely did…not. 

Instead, Chicago’s formula of rotating defenders and a ridiculous rebounding advantage wore out the Heat’s superstars.  At no point in the game did Miami seem comfortable on offense.  In the second half, when the Heat were still in the game, Joakim Noah pulled down his 8th offensive board.  At that point, I knew it was over.  Anytime you get beaten that badly by second chance points, the game is long out of reach.  The Boston series seems to have taken a lot out of the Heat.  They were oddly relaxed last night despite having not beaten Chicago during the regular season.  It is troubling that the team does not have a blueprint for victory in this series: there is not one game they can point to and definitively say “this is how we can beat Chicago”. 

I thought the Heat did a good job on DRose during the early going.  Lebron was playing really well defensively and it appeared he and Wade were amped to jump into the lanes and disrupt passes.  A few early steals helped to reinforce their prowess but then they started playing tentatively and laying back.   The Bulls are too strong on the boards for that to be a strategy Miami can employ.  This was the result:  

During one stretch, Kyle Korver was alternatively guarding Lebron and Wade.  I was yelling at the screen for them to start taking it to the hoop – for crying out loud they were being guarded by Kyle Korver!  However, they kept pulling up for bad jump shots or floating passes into the middle and waiting for more kick outs.  At one point Wade took a horrendus three when he could have easily driven right down the middle and punished whoever was awaiting him inside. 

Additionally, I thought the Heat played Rose well for the first little while.  He hit a few shots on the opening but he was not passing particularly well (who am I kidding?  He could not miss for most of the first quarter).  He is Chicago’s primary weapon and Miami showed the ability to force him into a poor shot selection.  Then though, they gave up a ridiculous number of second chance points.   Had Miami rebounded half as well as Chicago on the offensive end the outcome is a different story.  If you give Rose three chances to score, he will probably convert on one of them.  That said: the Heat need to find someone – anyone!? – who can guard Rose.  Mike Bibby gave it a good try but he may as well have been a traffic cone.  Miami’s tenacious D all season has involved Wade and Lebron jumping around and using their athleticism to recover.  Why not put Wade on Rose?  Some argue he is not quick enough to stop the diminutive Rose, but he has to be better than the roadsignish efforts of Mike Bibby or Mario Chalmers…

The positives:

1) Chris Bosh – Bosh played exceptionally well and really benefitted from LBJ making good choices with the ball.  After his 1-18 game earlier in the season at Chicago, Bosh needed a game of that magnitude to feel comfortable int he series.  I think the key matchup of the entire series is the one between Bosh – Boozer.  Whoever wins that battle should take the series (in theory since Miami dominated it last night and got blown out).  Bosh needs to continue to play well and continue to be a strong option for James / Wade.

2) Wade and James need to rebound (literally) – I know they are already carrying the offensive / defensive / leadership roles on the team but they need to take on this one as well (welcome to a three man rotation boys!).  Against Boston they were able to step up; last night they were not.  It is a heavy burden, but to win this series the team needs to fight for every ball.  Boozer and Noah cannot have their way inside. 

3) Attack the basket!  –  No one named Luol Deng / Ronnie Brewer / Taj Gibson / Kyle Korver should get the better of Lebron or Wade.  Wade getting posterized by Taj Gibson, even if the game was out of hand, cannot be allowed.  If the MoHeatos dynamic duo do not win their matchups, we may as well advance the Bulls to the Finals right now. 

The Heat seemed to be gauging the series in Game One and hopefully they have the measure of how to beat the Bulls and can come out in Game Two with a much better effort.  The keys to success are exactly what we thought they were going in: rebounding and defense.  Hopefully the Heat’s two superstars can beat Chicago’s one. 

Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – May 12, 2011

Nearly 24 hours have passed since one of the best basketball games I have ever witnessed, and I am still not sure if I can coherently put into words what transpired for me during Game 5 of the Miami – Boston series.  While the game was not outrageously good or historic in any way: it was the most tense I have ever been watching a basketball game

At one point, in the third quarter, with the Heat down six and looking finished I was unsure if I could finish out the game.  It would be too painful to watch, I figured.  Boston will extend the lead, James and Wade will leave their hearts on the floor but they will fall short.  Game 6 would be a forgone conclusion and there is no way a Game 7 would be a good situation for the team. 

Then, incredibly, Lebron and Wade seemed to realize that they are two of the top five guys in the game and assaulted the Celtics so brutally some crimes were definitely committed.  Some thoughts on each of the big three (aided by the highlights…):

Chris Bosh – You can call them “two and a half men” all you want, but Bosh may have ended KG’s career by faking the exhausted Hall-of-Famer out of his nikes before unleashing a dunk that nearly tore the roof off Miami’s arena.  All series long, Bosh has pulled up for jumpers when KG is in his face.  Sometimes he would knock them down, but more often then not, KG would change the shot.  Last night, with the tie on the line, Bosh went for it and slammed the ball with such ferocity that I was able to forget the fact he had been completely outmanned to that point.  Not the best of efforts from Bosh in this series but an important question must be asked: Just how much do you need from Bosh when Wade and James are unstoppable?

Dwyane Wade – Firstly, the fact that Kobe supplanted Wade on the All-NBA First Team is an absolute travesty.  Switch the two of them (as Bill Simmons has suggested) and the Heat would not win 50 games; the Lakers would be a much better team and we would not be envisioning a Heat – Mavs Finals right now. 

Secondly, about last night, Wade played like a man possessed.  As he has done for the entire series, Wade was willing to do whatever it took to win.  He stole the ball; chased every rebound; dunked with impunity and truly played alongside Lebron.   This was not the typical scenario of one of them standing in the corner waiting for some piece of one-on-one brilliance.  Rather, they played off each other brilliantly.  In one stretch, Wade got angry at KG and played some of the best basketball I have ever seen.  It was Jordanesque.   Wade ran down the court, dunked and then knocked away KG’s pass with perfect timing.  He was unstoppable all the way into the final frame.  All the credit may go to LeBron for his final shots, but the lion’s share belongs to Wade.  He rose far above the challenge this time.  The Heat were not going to lose as long as he was on the court. 

Apparently you can beat a contender that traded its best post player; was playing with a one-armed point guard; had more injuries than Canucks defensemen Sami Salo (once ruptured his testicle…); was banking on Shaq playing significant minutes and was led by Jermaine O’Neal.  Let’s face it: you are not beating two of the top five guys with that lineup. 

Although, at times they made a nice run at it.  Ray Allen could not miss in the first three-quarters.  Paul Pierce played hard despite foul trouble (and was torched repeatedly by LBJ).  The venerable KG did his best but at the end they were holding together scraps.  This team was a shadow of itself.  In what playoff scenario did the Lakers / Celtics go a combined 1-8 in round 2?

Lebron James – James saved the best for last.  He shook off a terrible shooting performance in the first half to effectively kill the Celtics Big Three in the second half with some of the most clutch play he has demonstrated.  His three pointer with less than two minutes left sparked one of the best basketball sequences of his entire career.  That three, on the heels of a big stop and Bosh’s career defining slam, killed the Celtics completely (I had wanted to send my buddy, ADub a message saying “I think that just killed the Celtics” but was petrified Ray Allen would come right back and hit some crazy 30 footer with three guys in his face).

At that point in the game, the Celtics were dead on their feet – O’Neal, O’Neal and Rondo were all struggling to even get upright – and truly it may have been Bosh’s thunderous dunk that finished them off, but Lebron’s three was the headshot.  He had Boston in his sights JFK style and this was the kill shot.  This was the moment he came to South Beach for; the moment he dreamed about.

At first, I had a huge feeling of dread and yelled “Nooooooo!” because LBJ loves that shot and hits about 30% of them.  If he missed it would have led to some sort of long / bad rebound to Boston + a soul killing Ray Allen 3 that would have led immediately to Game 7.  But…

Lebron grasped the moment and did not let it go. 

The ball made a faint whisper as it scorched through the net.  After that?  We were watching someone play NBA Jam and Lebron was on fire.  Incredible can barely describe how he played for the next minute.  Another three, over Paul Pierce, then a steal and series clinching jam in quick succession.  LBJ scored 10 points in the last two minutes and turned a close game into a blowout. 

The Old to Young turnover continued: first the Spurs, then the fall of the Mamba (greatest quote ever: Kobe telling writers he is going to remember all the “********” who said he was done.  Quick note to Kobe – without Dwight Howard, it ain’t happening), followed by the loss of the Celtics.  My brother – a Celtics fan – had a great reaction.  He sent me the following messages as the game was going on:

“I can’t even watch Lebron strut around, you didn’t earn ****”

“This conversation is over.”

“Only a Grizzlies win could temporarily cleanse the burning hatred of rage I have for Miami”.

Needless to say, Just Ross did not have a good conclusion to the evening.   

Either the Hawks or the Bulls await the Heat in the Eastern Finals (I am cheering like crazy for the Hawks!!!  Have never cheered for an opponent this hard before, ever).  The toughest test may be next, but LBJ and Wade will be right there to put the team on their backs, and given the rest of the team (imagine how many points the Heat would score if ANYONE else on their team played respectably?  James Jones / Mike Bibby / Mike Miller all gagged on totally open looks.  LBJ would average 10 assists easily.  I cringed every time Wade or Lebron gave up any type of shot to create something for someone else…even wide open.  I would have murdered James Jones if he missed that open three with no one around him for 20 feet).   

The Heat…is rising! 

(Editors Note: Please strike that last, horrific pun from the record, in a season of terrible puns, that was without question the worst yet)