NBA Playoffs Cavs Celtics Game 6: The LeBron referendum

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James_solo.jpgUsually when a sportswriter makes the statement “Game X is the most important game of Player X’s career” it belies a rather pathetic lack of imagination and a pandering to traditional cliched writing. Every playoff game is the most important one, because every one could end up defining his career. What do people remember more, Hakeem Olajuwon’s performances in the Finals, or his domination of David Robinson? That’s what can happen. You have to approach every game like that, because these things aren’t scripted.

So please understand the gravity of the situation when I say that Game 6 in Boston of the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals is the most important game of LeBron James’ career.

The once-and-future-King may never reach his throne if he were to fail tonight to carry his top-seeded Cavaliers to a win. James, as you may have heard in about a billion ways and we told you the other night, had a performance that puts a blemish on his ridiculously brilliant career, one which threatens to submarine his entire legacy if Boston closes out at home as any Finals contender would do.

James’ performance has been shredded from coast to coast. We’re not talking “oh, hey, bad time to have a bad game” territory. We’re talking “maybe this guy just doesn’t have the will of a champion, because he had zero effort” land. It has brought about what may be the most staggering repudiation of a player’s status as the pre-eminent Greatest Player of Our Time. James faces a mark against his permanent record that would be akin in the job marketplace to “once set fire to his boss’ office while engaging in inappropriate behavior with the cleaning lady on the boss’ desk.” That’s what “doesn’t have the will to be great” means in the NBA for a player of his status.

One thing that’s been occurring to me over the past two days, along with how ridiculous it is that people are questioning whether he is the best player in the NBA* , is that James has never needed the drive to succeed. He just has. Since he was probably 13, he’s been a phenom. A legend. He was the best player on the court, until he arrived in the NBA, and then he was probably second or third at worst, and then only for a few seasons. He made the Finals at age 22. He was the MVP at 24. He’s averaged 49.9 wins per season since entering the league. He has had the full weight of Nike behind him since the beginning. He has been the crown jewel of the league arguably for the last four seasons. He’s never been faced with a situation where he was legitimately challenged to the degree he is now, never faced with so much pressure to be the difference between a win and a loss.

This isn’t to say that this should be all on him. Every great player has had great players step up to provide support when the shots aren’t falling. And the Cavs have never, not with all their trades, not with all their time to do do, have never brought in a true number two option for James. They thought it would be Antawn Jamison, but Jamison has ran into a matchup nightmare in the Celtics. It’s just not every game you have to check Kevin Garnett who suddenly feels 30 again. Shaquille O’Neal brought 21 points on 11 shots in Game 5, but it was largely irrelevant. And Mo Williams? Do we really even need to bring him up?

So tonight James is on his own. 1 on 5. And if he wants to live up to the expectations that have been built for him, or that he has built for himself (depending on who you talk to), he’s going to have to put it all on his shoulders.

Or elbow, as it were.

And by playing, by not sitting out, by not opting for surgery, if indeed he needs it as the rumors continue to suggest, he has opened himself for this. The elbow will not be accepted as an excuse. It will not be considered brave that he tried to play through a severe injury. It will be only that he shrunk in the biggest moments. His Game 5 in 2007 will be a footnote. His Finals appearance will be overshadowed by the valley of nothingness his past two years. And with the very real possibility of him relocating to another franchise in the next two months, this may be his last shot at a championship for a few seasons.

This is how quickly things can change. This is how fast you can go from the best player, on the best team, headed to a championship, to a weak-willed self-entitled player that lacks the killer drive.

The truth, of course, lies in the middle. But that doesn’t lower the expectations on him for his career, for his season, for tonight.

If anyone can rise up in this situation, well, it’s probably Kobe Bryant. But it’s also Dwyane Wade. And Paul Pierce. And Steve Nash. And LeBron James. He can do this.The Celtics are gameplanning for him, but it does not mean they can stop him. When he chose to in Game 5, he drove, he collected fouls. Were he to execute as he is capable of, he could simply foul out the entire Celtics’ frontcourt. But he has to accept the hit, and he has to commit to the drive.

Maybe the jumpshot will return. Maybe the two days of rest will be enough for the elbow. Maybe the constant hammering by the media will motivate him to be what he needs to be. Or maybe the shots will just drop.  But this is not a situation where James can rely on the favorable fortune that has been bestowed on him throughout the last 15 years of his life. Tonight, he cannot be a passive recipient of fate.

Tonight, he has to be the whirlwind instrument of it.

*Does anyone remember how brilliant he was in the regular season? I recognize the importance of the playoffs, but those games did count, and without them, you don’t make the postseason.

Celtics GM Danny Ainge: “Who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team?”

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Isaiah Thomas is the best and most popular Celtics player, leading his team to the No. 1 seed in the East and the Eastern Conference Finals — both significant steps forward for an up-and-coming team.

Yet, from the moment the Warriors landed the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, the talk about Thomas has been about his future with the Celtics: If/when they draft Markelle Fultz, will the Celtics want to pay Thomas max or near max money next summer? Do they want to be locked into four or five years with an undersized guard who will start that contract at age 29? Do they extend him this summer at a likely better price? Trade him?

Celtics GM Danny Ainge doesn’t understand all the talk. He certainly didn’t sound like someone looking to trade Thomas this summer speaking to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

“All I’m saying is those are things I have to worry about that even I don’t like to think about. And I know that those are going to be difficult decisions at some point. But we want to keep Isaiah.

“All I know is that he’s had an amazing year, and who doesn’t want Isaiah Thomas on their team? Like, you’ve got to be kidding me…

“Why do the fans need to worry about how much money he makes?” he said. “I can understand if Isaiah and his wife and his agent are worried about that, but I don’t understand why that’s a conversation that needs to be had in the media.”

Two things I want to unpack from all that. First, that’s a “get off my lawn” take from Ainge that completely misses the mark with where sports fandom online has shifted. It’s not that he’s wrong at the core of his argument — we all should appreciate the season Thomas just had, Celtics’ fans in particular. Thomas is a joy to watch play and one of the good guys in the league on top of it. Name anyone in the NBA who has gotten more out of his natural abilities than Thomas — the man has put in the work to rise way past expectations. He needs to be appreciated and lauded for that.

But here’s the thing: Fans more than ever like to play GM, and they now have the tools to understand the tough financial decisions that fall on Ainge and others in his shoes. Let me explain it this way: The NBA Finals start June 1, but as a website, the NBC NBA page will draw way more traffic around the NBA Draft at the end of the month, then free agency in July will blow that away. Always does. Player movement — including both rumors of trades and talk of free agents and moves teams should make — is a much bigger draw than the games themselves. That’s not just the NBA, it’s true of the NFL and MLB and NHL and the Barclays’ English Premiere League and on down the line.

Second, Ainge may not like the speculation, but the questions are valid — he and the Celtics have some hard decisions coming up. At the core of them is the question of patience: Push their assets into the middle of the table now, get a couple of players ready to win next season, and make a run at LeBron James and the Cavaliers, or be patient and build to be better than Cleveland in three years (then sustain that for five or more years beyond that)? Ainge has been on the patient side of that equation from the start, and likely will be again — don’t expect him to trade that No. 1 pick or do anything but bring Thomas back. He can be a decision for the summer of 2018.

Then again, he has shopped Thomas before. Ainge is as good or better than any GM in the league of keeping his cards close to his vest, he’s impossible to read.

That said, the smart money is on him being patient. There’s no need to trade Thomas now, that’s the kind of rash overreaction that got the Knicks where they are over the last decade plus. Ainge can wait things out.

 

Adding Durant and thinking dynasty, it’s championship or bust for Warriors’ legacy

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The Golden State Warriors have been the best team in the NBA for three seasons now. That’s not my opinion, that’s LeBron James‘ — here is what he said after advancing to his seventh straight NBA Finals.

“That’s been the best team in our league the last three years, and they added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year, so that makes it even more difficult.”

Adding Durant did make them more difficult to beat, but it also added to the Warriors’ burden — after a 67-win season and a historic 12-0 sweep into the Finals, the series that their season will be judged on is the one still to be played. They may as well be 0-0 because the second they added Durant it was championship or bust in terms of how they want to be seen.

Win and a pattern of dominance over years starts to come into focus, they will have a couple rings and beaten LeBron — who will go down as one of the all-time greats in his own right — to get them. Lose and this season will be viewed as another failure.

The Warriors want us to look back on them in 10-15 years and see a dynasty. They talked quietly about it last season during their chase for 73 wins — they saw that as a part of their resume as one of the greatest teams of all time. That’s part of the reason for the push last year. They, like LeBron, are chasing the ghosts of greatness at this point, and the Warriors had a Jordan record in their sights.

Regular season marks are nice, but in the NBA the great teams’ legacies are built around championships. Plural. If you’re going to go down as one of the dominant teams of an era — like the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, or Jordan’s Bulls, or the Celtics and Lakers of the ’80s, etc. — there needs to multiple rings on fingers. The Warriors have one, but their historic season unraveled last year when a combination of LeBron’s utter dominance, Draymond Green‘s suspension, Andrew Bogut’s injury (that one was underrated as an issue) all came together to snatch victory from their hands (and help cement LeBron’sa legacy).

The Warriors need the 2017 title for their legacy.

Not just the team, but the legacies of Warriors players will be impacted by this series. Injured or worn down or just in a shooting slump (or, most likely, a combination of the three), Stephen Curry struggled defensively and was outplayed by LeBron last Finals when the Warriors needed him. Curry has been fantastic through these playoffs, but like the team he will be judged as much or more for the games to come than the ones already played. Fair or not.  Can Green keep his head about him when LeBron pushes his buttons? Durant is back on the Finals stage, will he rise to that moment?

The championship or bust mentality is too often the prism through which fans — and media — view sports. It’s unfortunate because it clouds the joy of the game itself, the growth of players, of guys doing the unexpected and rising to heights we did not expect from them. Isaiah Thomas‘ brilliant season in Boston is not diminished because it didn’t end in a ring, to use one easy example. But there are hundreds more like that around the league. Championship or bust blinds people to the little things that can make the game joyous.

However, the Warriors have put themselves in a different place. They are chasing legends. They have the wins and the statistics to make a case, more importantly, they also have a style of play being copied (even by college teams) and is changing how the game is played. That is a hallmark greatness.

Now they need the rings to go with it. They need more than one, but it starts with this year’s title — it is championship or bust for them. Fair or not. If the Warriors want to be mentioned in the pantheon of all-time greats, it will take the 2017 title to be part of it.

Underdog Cavs insist they have plenty of bite for Finals

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — They are defending champions and decided underdogs.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, however, say they aren’t using any snubs to get ready for the NBA Finals.

Set for a third straight championship matchup against Golden State, the Cavs are ignoring the Las Vegas odds makers and others who don’t think they have a shot at beating Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant & Co.

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue doesn’t feel his team needs the underdog label for inspiration, saying being in the NBA Finals is “enough motivation alone.”

Kevin Love was reminded that Warriors forward Draymond Green said earlier this season that he wants to “destroy and annihilate” the Cavs in the Finals. Says Love said: “He wanted us, and he has us starting next Thursday.”

 

Check out Kawhi Leonard’s highlights from this past season (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook and James Harden were putting up the bigger numbers, they were drawing more attention. And while MVP is a regular season award, nobody has boosted their MVP credentials more in the postseason than Kawhi Leonard.

He had a really impressive regular season, too. Since we’re on a long break between games, enjoy the highlights of Leonard’s season. He may enter next season as the MVP favorite.