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.

DeMarcus Cousins ejected after elbowing Russell Westbrook in head

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DeMarcus Cousins‘ history of flagrant fouls certainly didn’t help him here, but if anyone elbows a guy in the head, he’s going to get tossed.

And that’s what Cousins did here.

Midway through the third quarter in New Orleans, Cousins blocked a putback attempt by Russell Westbrook, then grabbed the rebound. Westbrook tried to reach in across Cousins’ body for the steal, and Cousins cleared out space with his elbow — right to Westbrook’s head. Cousins walked around saying “no, no, no” afterward, and he likely thinks the officials had it out for him here because he was just getting a guy off him, but we go back to the original point — elbow a guy in the head, get tossed. The league is cracking down on blows above the neck. Westbrook did not leave the game.

The Pelicans went on to come from 19 down to win the game 114-107, behind 36 points and 15 boards from Anthony Davis.

Damn, Paul George with the in-game bounce pass alley-oop to Jerami Grant

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The game has been close (as of midway through the third quarter), but that didn’t stop Oklahoma City from putting on a show in New Orleans.

Paul George had the ball on a 2-on-0 fast break and decided to throw the playground bounce-pass alley-oop, which Jerami Grant got up and finished with authority. This could be one of the dunks of the year.

We’re going to see that highlight for a while.

Jusuf Nurkic’s agent says big man wants to stay in Portland this summer

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Last season, after his trade from frustrated backup big in Denver to new starter in Portland, there was a honeymoon — the Blazers went 14-6, their defense was better, and Nurkic was a big man setting big picks for quick guards in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

This season the honeymoon is over, things have been up and down, but far from time to say the marriage should end, as he is a free agent next summer. Nurkic is the only real starting center on the roster (even if coach Terry Stotts left him on the bench in the fourth quarter in favor of Ed Davis a few games back). Nurkic is averaging 14.6 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, and the Blazers’ defense is 1.5 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. However, his effort level has been up and down, and his shot is off, with a true shooting percentage of just 49.4, and he is shooting just 56.6 percent in the restricted area.

Nurkic wants to stay in Portland, his agent told Ben Golliver in a story at Sports Illustrated (that story is worth the read for the Nurkic origin story, which is amazing).

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

The two sides talked extension before the season, but Portland understandably wanted to make sure there was more to this relationship than just a honeymoon. It gave Nurkic a chance to drive up his asking price.

Portland and Nurkic likely will find a long-term deal next summer because it just makes sense for both sides. There are not a lot of teams with max free agent money next summer (4-6, I was told by an insider), or a lot of money to spend in general, and both DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus would be centers on the market who rank ahead of Nurkic. Portland will offer more than other free agent destinations, if not as much as Nurkic dreamed of, and they will find common ground.

But there is a lot of season to play out before then. The Blazers feel like a team that should be better than its record so far, and Nurkic is part of that untapped potential. If things change, that’s good for Nurkic — and the Blazers.

Celtics look to push win streak to 16 vs. Mavs

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DALLAS (AP) — The Boston Celtics aren’t yet halfway to the NBA record for consecutive victories, a mark the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers still hold, but at 15 in a row, they are in rare territory.

Since 1946-47, there have only been 35 instances of a 15-game win streak or longer. And of all the legendary Celtics teams, this squad already holds the franchise’s fifth-longest win streak. A victory Monday night against the Dallas Mavericks, who are an NBA-worst 3-14 overall and 2-8 at American Airlines Center, would tie the 1964-65 Boston team’s 16-game win streak.

If the Celtics (15-2) get the win, they would climb closer to the 1959-60 team’s 18-game win streak, and then comes the club mark of 19 in a row accomplished by the 2008-09 team.

This version of the Celtics has to be considered the most unexpected to string together so many wins. The team has a slew of new players, starting with guard Kyrie Irving, and Boston lost another prized newcomer, forward Gordon Hayward, in the season opener.

After starting 0-2, Boston hasn’t lost. Yet, it’s not exactly as if the Celtics are steamrolling the league. For the Mavericks, who are coming off snapping the Milwaukee Bucks’ four-game win streak Saturday, the fact that Boston has actually had to rally to get a handful of its wins must be seen as an opportunity to steal a decision.

In fact, four of the Celtics’ victories during the streak have come after Boston trailed by 16 points, including a 110-109 win against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday.

“Most of us have never been on a winning streak like this,” Irving said following the win over Atlanta. “I don’t know if we even know how to pay attention to all the hoopla that goes on in terms of the excitement of it. I just think that every single game we take it as a challenge.”

Irving has been accepting that challenge with tremendous success after asking to be traded away from Cleveland, where he won one title with LeBron James and lost twice in the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors.

He closed out those same Warriors last week, scoring 11 of the last 15 points in the final 4:21. The clutch play has Irving already being talked about as an MVP candidate.

“He’s so good in those moments that you want to give him the appropriate amount of room,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told the Boston Globe about Irving. “Maybe it’s finding a matchup. Maybe it’s creating a two-man game with Al (Horford).”

Irving will be a major test for Mavs rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who has displayed some tremendous flashes while also showing he is a green 19-year-old with one season of college ball under his belt.

Dallas, one of the league’s lowest-scoring offensive teams, is relying heavily on Smith and Harrison Barnes to carry the load. Dirk Nowitzki, 39, has dropped off significantly, averaging just 10.3 points a game, his lowest output since his rookie season in 1998-99.

Unlike the Celtics, Dallas has lost its share of games by being unable to close out games late. On Saturday, the Mavericks won a rare game going away, blitzing the Bucks with a franchise-tying 19 3-pointers. Guard Wesley Matthews said he thinks all the hard work is starting to pay off.

The history-chasing Celtics will put that claim to test.

“We can actually see everything that we’ve been trying to do come together, and hopefully that just carries the momentum into the off day where everybody’s feeling good,” Matthews said after Dallas’ victory. “We’ve got another tough battle Monday against Boston, who is the hottest team in the league right now, but it’s another opportunity for us.”