2012 NBA Finals Heat-Thunder Game 5: Thy Kingdom Come

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“We learn little from victory, much from defeat.” – Japanese proverb

“It’s about damn time.” –  LeBron James on winning the NBA championship

He’s there. After the Heat’s 121-106 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, he’s finally there.

LeBron James has reached the place where so few stars reach. He is certified. He is bonafide. He is the best player in the land, the best player in the start, the middle and the end of the game, the NBA MVP, the NBA Finals MVP, and an NBA champion. There will be talk of how many more he must or will win. But it does not take away what he has accomplished, what he has shown, what he has surrendered in his pursuit of being great.

James entered the league as the most heralded player in the history of the league. There were no doubters. He was always “the Chosen One.” He was the singular most athletic player to ever enter the league with his skillset. And from the start, he wowed us. We looked to the future, for what he would accomplish. And we expected, always expected, because his marketing team told us to, because pundits to, and by extension, he told us to.

But it never came.

There was greatness, but it was always followed by defeat. Disappointment and debate about whether he was overrated, a sham, a product of hype and not product. Hardware defines this league. It’s the lens through which legacy is measured. Without it, James was nothing but numbers in the eyes of so many. Some have tried to note that what made him great was his production, that he was the player. But he needed the results.

He has them. He’s there.

LeBron James is a champion.

To focus on comparing him to Michael Jordan is flawed. No one is. But to the same point, no one is LeBron James. Nothing showed that like these playoffs, like these Finals. James’ dominance was not two-dimensional. It wasn’t just scoring points and defending his man on the other end. It was the modern NBA player, brought to the nexus of ability. It was working the post, scoring on the drop-step hook, challenging the pick and roll, providing help, recovering, blocking the shot, grabbing the rebound, running the floor, finishing at the other end. Repeat. Over and over again.

In Game 2 it was scoring, in Game 5 it was passing. And scoring. And rebounding. James’ first triple-double of the season lands in his final game of the season. No player since Wilt Chamberlain has been able to impact the game on so many levels at such a high level from so many positions. And James plays in an era of legends. His game is the drive and finish, the drive and kick to the open shooter, and now the post-move to the drop-step hook. It’s the offensive rebound for the muscling putback, as he showed in the willingness to do the dirty work for maybe the first time in his career. It’s the timely three-pointer. It’s the board over bigger opponents. It’s the no-look whip pass. It’s the ability to do all these things, lock down the best player on the other team, and do it for 40-plus minutes a night.

James learned something from that defeat last year, learned something from this season, and it all clicked in the Boston series. He put away those childish things and became a man. No more dancing before the clock struck zero. No picture-taking miming. No laughs. James was simultaneously at peace and more driven, more business-like and yet enjoying his game. He brought it all together. Maybe that’s what we learn most from his playoffs performance.

James may have needed to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to win the NBA title. But it was James that brought the team together. It was James that made the model work. It says something about the greatness of his game that he was able to take a team of stars and still be the most important player on the team by a mile. He was the scorer, the rebounder, the point guard, the creator, the playmaker, the shotblocker.

But move past that. That’s basketball stuff.

James lead in these playoffs, for maybe the first time in his life. He wasn’t waiting for other people to tell him what to do. He did not try to be Michael Jordan hitting mid-range jumpers. He said “I am bigger than you. I am badder than you. I am better than you” and then he entered the post and obliterated the Thunder. They doubled? He found open shooters.

Those players are going to hit those shots because that’s what happens when you’re open. Instead of Michael Jordan, James won the title like Hakeem Olajuwon, being more talented inside, and getting the ball to open shooters because of doubles. He took responsibility for his actions. Last year, last year’s Finals, the failures throughout his career, the team’s struggles this year. He looked inside himself. We can’t know what that process was like or what we found when he saw that mirror. But we know what he showed us when he came out of it.

There is more to a King than lineage.

LeBron James discovered it, and in doing so has taken his rightful place. Nothing can take away this moment, nothing can change his legacy. He’s not through, he hasn’t lived up to “not 2, not 3…” or whatever standard you want to find. But you also can no longer list him as the man without a ring. That era is over.

Crown him. Witness. Give that man his ring.

Long live the King.

Rockets easily overcome James Harden’s horrid shooting night, win Game 2 over Timberwolves

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James Harden shot 2-for-18 – the worst field-goal percentage (11%) on so many attempts in a playoff game in nearly a decade and the worst ever in a first-round game.

The Rockets still won by 20 because of their stout defense, a strong supporting star in Chris Paul and Harden’s foul-drawing ability.

Houston’s took a 2-0 series lead with a 102-82 win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday. Game 3 will be Saturday in Minnesota, but the top-seeded Rockets have seized firm control.

Every No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seed to take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven first-round series have won it. There’s little reason to believe Houston will become the exception.

The Rockets are no longer as reliant on Harden, the likely MVP who seemed to wear down last postseason.

They buckled down defensively before letting up in a fourth quarter that was entirely garbage time. Houston forced more turnovers (16) than allowed assists (15) and contested shot after shot.

It’s becoming increasingly clear the Timberwolves have no quick solution to the Karl-Anthony Towns problem, and it’s not simply a matter of deciding to feed him more. Yes, he can get favorable post matchups against the Rockets’ switching scheme. But Minnesota lacks quality entry passers. The Timberwolves are also short on shooters and need him to spread the floor – even if that skill is less-helpful after a switch. Towns scored just five points in 24 minutes tonight.

His teammates were barely, if at all, better. The focus has turned to Towns, but this was a far-wider letdown.

On the other hand, Paul (27 points and eight assists) led Houston’s offense. Gerald Green (21 points and 12 rebounds) got hot. Even Harden (7-of-8 on free throws) chipped in thanks to his elite foul-drawing ability.

The Rockets aren’t always the most enjoyable team to watch, and that was the case tonight. Mostly, because they put this game out of reach long before it actually ended.

Donovan Mitchell outplays Thunder Big 3 in fourth, Jazz win to even series

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Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell had 13 points in the fourth quarter.

Oklahoma City’s big three — Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony — were 0-of-15 shooting in the fourth.

That, in a nutshell, is how the Jazz bounced back from a 19-0 Thunder run in the third quarter that had OKC in charge of the game. It’s how Utah got the win Game 2 win, 102-95, to even the series as it heads to Salt Lake City.

“There was a time out (after the OKC run) where there was a just a determination, and we felt like we would rely on our defense, and that’s what we did,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said after the game. “Donovan, obviously, his aggressiveness on the offensive end fueled us there.”

It was what fueled them all night. In Game 2, the Jazz defense was more settled and like itself than the opener, and that forced more isolation ball out of Oklahoma City — they had eight assists and nine turnovers in the first half. The Thunder were still getting buckets because Playoff P and Westbrook are just great scorers, but it wasn’t nearly as efficient as it had been.

For the Thunder, it was often the Russell Westbrook show, and he was scoreless in the second quarter and had just a couple of free throws in the fourth.

All of that made this a game it felt like the Jazz needed to win — there are few chances to steal a game on the road against a good team, and this was one. The game was defensive and played in Utah’s style.

Which is why it was devastating when the Thunder had their 19-0 third quarter run, turning a deficit into a 10-point lead. In that stretch, the Jazz missed shots, took a few bad ones, and turned the ball over in that run. Mitchell even missed an uncontested dunk in there.

When Mitchell struggled, other guys stepped up.

Derrick Favors had a huge game for Utah, finishing with 20 points and 16 rebounds, eight of them offensive. He was particularly impressive in the first half, when Mitchell struggled (with George draped all over him). Utah had nine offensive rebounds in the first half, six of those by Favors. Utah’s dominance on the glass was big for them, Utah got a second chance on 37.5 percent of their missed shots in the first half, which is far too high a percentage. Steven Adams battling foul trouble had a lot to do with that.

“The biggest thing for us, Derrick Favors played his ass off,” Mitchell said after the game. “When we were missing shots he was getting rebounds, I think he had a double-double almost at the half [note: he had 10 points, 8 rebounds at the half]. Without Fav we wouldn’t even be at this point.”

The other key was Ricky Rubio. He was being more judicious about when to shoot and was looking to set up teammates. However, when left open and able to shoot in rhythm, Rubio was hitting, he was 5-of-8 from three on his way to 22 points and nine assists. Rubio struggled with his shot inside the arc (1-of-8) but he hit the big buckets and kept the floor spaced when asked. he had seven fourth-quarter points.

But the fourth belonged to Mitchell, who showed exactly what he meant to this team all season — they are not in the postseason without him. Mitchell finished with 28 points to lead the Jazz.

For the Thunder, the shots that fell in Game 1 did not in Game 2, much as it has been night to night for this team all season. George had 18 points on 21 shots, Anthony had 17 points on 18 shots, and Westbrook had 19 points on 19 shots. Combine that with Adams being in foul trouble most of the night and it was not the Thunder’s game.

Now the onus is on them to steal one in Utah, starting Friday night.

LeBron James starts hot, scores 46 in Cavaliers’ Game 2 win over Pacers

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LeBron James attempted no shots in the first 10 minutes of Game 1.

Less than half that long into Game 2, he scored all of the Cavaliers’ points as they built a 16-1 lead over the Pacers.

LeBron dominated early, and Cleveland held on for a 100-97 Game 2 win Wednesday. The first-round series is now tied 1-1 with Game 3 Friday in Indiana.

LeBron finished with 46 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two steals. It was his highest-scoring playoff game in his second Cavs tenure.

More than any point since he left Cleveland for the Heat, LeBron’s team is built for him to carry it singlehandedly. He was obviously always the leader and best player, but at times, he could let Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving cook. Now, LeBron has no teammates worth deferring to – only teammates who can flourish when LeBron positions them to succeed.

LeBron showed a willingness to accept that challenge tonight in a way he didn’t even in Game 1, when he had a triple-double. That bodes well for the Cavaliers as they undertake what they hope will be a long playoff run – and maybe even as they approach LeBron’s free agency.

But as well as LeBron played tonight, the Pacers battled back. Victor Oladipo missed a game-tying 3-pointer with 27 seconds left after Cleveland blew its coverage and left him open.

“We got lucky,” LeBron said. “We gave up a wide-open 3 to Oladipo, and he missed it. I’d rather be on time and on target than being lucky.”

Cleveland was also fortunate with Pacers coach Nate McMillan’s handling of Victor Oladipo’s early foul trouble.

McMillan sat Oladipo just more than a minute into the game. Oladipo picked up two quick fouls, but both were offensive – more fluky than indicative of a problem. During the regular season, Oladipo committed four fouls (necessary at that point to foul out tonight) every 58 minutes he played. Oladipo returned in the second quarter but got pulled again midway through the period with a third foul, a questionable call as Kevin Love jumped sideways into him on a shot. Oladipo committed three fouls (necessary at that point to foul out) every 44 minutes during the regular season.

Oladipo finished with three fouls. Indiana was +11 points in his 28 minutes and -14 points in the 20 minutes he sat.

That could bode well for the Pacers going forward. Many of the Cavs’ advantages tonight might not continue throughout the series. In particular, Kevin Love left the game late with a thumb injury.

But Cleveland’s biggest advantage remains: LeBron James. He showed tonight just how much that still matters.

Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin, dies

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The Spurs may be in the playoffs, but all of that takes a backseat now for Gregg Popovich.

Spurs:

With deep regret the San Antonio Spurs announce that Erin Popovich, wife of Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich, passed away earlier today. Erin and Gregg were married for four decades and were blessed with two children and two grandchildren.

“We mourn the loss of Erin,” said Spurs General Manager RC Buford. “She was a strong, wonderful, kind, intelligent woman who provided love, support and humor to all of us.”

The organization asks media to respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

What devastating news. Hopefully, Popovich had time to make peace with this eventuality, but that doesn’t make it easy to handle.