NBA Playoffs: Heat can’t survive career-low scoring performance from LeBron

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For the fourth time in the 2011 NBA Finals, the Heat came into the fourth quarter with a big lead. For the second time, they came away with a loss, this time by a final score of 86-83. And for the second time, the Heat’s failure to secure a victory can be traced directly back to the play of LeBron James, who spent the regular season and the first three rounds of the playoffs clearly establishing himself as both the league and the team’s best player.

In Game 2, LeBron didn’t shoot much, but it was his fourth-quarter performance that was the real problem: James was efficient for the first three quarters, then, along with Wade, hijacked the offense and fired long jumpers as the Heat watched their lead dwindle away and a commanding 2-0 series lead turn into a tie series.

In Game 4, LeBron was off from the opening tip to the final whistle. Even though he was guarded by the 6-4, 38 year old Jason Kidd for much of the game, James never looked to be aggressive offensively, and missed easy shots when he did. James made some nice passes and had some nice rebounds, but the Heat desperately needed some scoring from James to put the Mavericks away, and he responded with the lowest-scoring game of his playoff career, with zero points in the fourth quarter.

LeBron has had some tough playoff exits in the past, but the blow was always softened by poor performances from his supporting cast, even in the infamous Boston games that ended his time with the Cavaliers. That’s not the case here. The Heat’s bench outplayed the Mavericks’ in terms of +/-, Wade was again spectacular, and Bosh added 24 points on his own. After this loss, LeBron has nobody to blame but himself.

It was hard to imagine how LeBron could have thrown away the goodwill he earned with the dominant all-around and crunch-time performances that beat the Celtics and the Bulls, but he seems to be finding it.

This is now a best-of-three series, and there’s no doubt that these next three games will be the most important ones of LeBron’s eight-year career. The Heat sweeping the Mavericks with Wade as the clear head of the snake would have been an interesting compromise for LeBron’s legacy; he would have finally gotten that elusive ring, but would have had to rely on a teammate to bring it home for him.

That’s still in play, but now there are two other possibilities. If the Heat lose, this will be the absolute nadir of his career. I didn’t think that LeBron’s public perception could reach a new low after his final Boston performances and the “Decision” fiasco that followed it, but that possibility is now in play. On the biggest stage, LeBron has failed to deliver, and the Heat would already be planning their parade if he had.

On the other hand, LeBron could realize just how important these next three games are to his legacy, turn things around, and put the Mavericks away with one or two dominant performances, which will make the Heat’s two losses a little-known footnote in the Story Of LeBron.

The Heat can win with LeBron playing a role other than that of the primary scorer and crunch-time assassin. They cannot survive James playing passively and waiting for his superstar teammates, the teammates he sacrificed his public image to play with, to hand-deliver him a ring.

With the NBA Finals coming down to the wire, just like three of the four games played in it so far have, LeBron needs to step up and make his mark. The fans know it, the media knows it, his coach knows it, and his teammates knows it. Over the next week or so, we’ll find out if LeBron has what it takes to silence his doubters once and for all and win a championship, or if he’s content to have more games like this and be the laughingstock of the NBA until he finally gets that championship ring on his finger.

 

Tyronn Lue says he has secret plan to fix Cavaliers’ defense for playoffs

AP Photo/Phil Long
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Only one team that ranked outside the top 12 in points allowed per possession during the regular season won an NBA title. The 2000-01 Lakers, who were 21st in defensive rating, are the lone outlier.

The Cavaliers rank 22nd in defensive rating this season and have been even worse lately.

But Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue says he has a plan. He just won’t reveal it yet.

Lue, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“We’ve got to hold back. We can’t show our hand early because … these are some good teams and we don’t want them to be able to come into a series and be able to adjust to what we do. We just have to be able to play our normal defense until we get there and then we will see what happens.”

Also:

“I think the rebounding hurt us. Rebounding. But it will be different once some other things happen. … Their two-guards, their threes, they still crashed the boards. But we have something to fix that. Just not right now.”

What precisely those plans are, Lue wouldn’t tell us. And here’s the other part — he’s not exactly sure they’ll work.

“I’m not confident, but we’ve got to” get the defense fixed, Lue said. “We have to.”

The Cavs ranked just 10th in defensive rating last season, among the worst marks for an eventual champion. But they cranked up their defense in the playoffs, especially late. Cleveland held the Raptors 4.8 points per 100 possessions below their regular-season scoring rate and the Warriors 7.8 below theirs.

Lue also unleashed a 3-point-heavy attack in the playoffs last year after sitting on the strategy through the regular season.

So, I have some faith Lue will implement a better defensive gameplan when it counts. It also helps to have LeBron James, who can still play elite defense when not in the slog of a long regular season.

But the Cavaliers’ defensive deficiencies right now are glaring. This roster appears to lack defensive potential, and their many miscues keep them well below whatever that potential is.

The challenge in elevating this defense to championship-caliber will be immense, maybe even unprecedented.

Mavericks’ Salah Mejri dunks while getting shoved in the gut (video)

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The Mavericks built a 13-point lead over the Thunder with 3:30left thanks to plays like this Salah Mejri dunk on Nick Collison.

Unfortunately for Dallas, Russell Westbrook happened.

Willy Hernangomez dunks on Andre Drummond, Pistons’ playoff chances (video)

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Andre Drummond and the Pistons couldn’t slow down anything.

Not Willy Hernangomez. Not the Knicks. Not Detroit’s plummeting playoff hopes.

After a 109-95 loss to the Knicks last night, the Pistons — who’ve lost four straight and seven of eight — are 1.5 games and two teams out of playoff position.

Terrence Ross 360 dunks his way back into Raptors fans’ hearts (video)

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In his first appearance in Toronto since the Raptors traded him to the Magic, Terrence Ross did what he has done best throughout his career: Delight Toronto fans with a dunk.

And of course the fans appreciated it, because their Raptors cruised to a 131-112 win.