Author: Matt Moore

Oklahoma City Thunder v Miami Heat - Game Five

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


“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.

NBA Finals Heat-Thunder Game 4: Revenge of the little brother

Oklahoma City Thunder v Miami Heat - Game Four

In the NBA Finals last year, Mario Chalmers hit a huge three to give the Heat the lead late vs. Dallas. It was supposed to be his moment. Finally, finally, he would be accepted, respected, celebrated. It would be about him, and his game, his shot. It was not. A blown rotation and an answer from Dallas and the series had shifted for the final time. That was the game where everything ended for Miami, when you look back.

The Heat could have moved on from Chalmers this year, could have opted to go in a different direction. They stuck with the guy they’ve come to know as “little brother.” And in Game 4 vs. Oklahoma City, it paid off. Chalmers scored 25 points on 9-15 shooting and the Heat pulled away for a 104-98 victory, going up 3-1 in the Finals.

In every playoff series, there are what I call “You have to be kidding me” guys. Players who a team’s fans know as guys who can hit big shots, make big plays, who are playing well under the radar. Players who the other team’s fans have no expectation of anything positive from. When they deliver, those fans are left screaming “You have to be kidding me!” as a player they never feared hits big shot after big shot. Shane Battier was that player for three games. In Game 4, it was Mario Chalmers.

What’s maybe even more stunning is that Chalmers did it without just hitting open 3’s on the catch-and-shoot. He was going to the rim. He sped past defenders (including Kevin Durant for much of the game) and hit tough layup after tough layup, hanging the ball on the edge of the rim with enough back spin to slide back in. It wasn’t Dwyane Wade or LeBron James, but they were monster shots all the same.

The burden of being a young, inconsistent point guard finding your way on a team of superstars is you’re constantly being considered in the context of another level. Chalmers is notoriously confident to the point of absurdity. He honestly believes he’s as good as those players, he honestly believes he can change a game, a series, a season. In Game 4, he backed it up. He made smart decisions, and when he didn’t, he made up for it with hustle plays. Twice, Chalmers responded to turnovers with defensive pressure to force the ball back to Miami’s way.

Chalmers has constantly faced being screamed at by James and Wade for any mistake. Overthrow a full-court outlet pass? Criticism. Miss a defensive rotation? Criticism. Turn the ball over? Fail to get the ball to a star in a key spot? Take a bad shot? Constant and consistent verbal abuse. You have to live with the standards. In Game 4, there were none of those words, just glowing support post-game from the superstar big brothers. The kid had done it, he’d pulled his weight, he’d made the shots, he’d won the game.

Little brother has arrived, when Miami needed him most.

Video: Russell Westbrook with a crucial mistaken foul off jump-ball

Oklahoma City Thunder v Miami Heat - Game Four

43 points. Seven rebounds. Five assists. Russell Westbrook was pure and complete brilliance for 46 minutes.

And then he made the biggest mistake of his career.

Westbrook played the best game of his professional career, in a game where the Thunder needed each and every point, rebound, assist and play to hang with Miami after the Heat survived the Thunder’s hot start. Westbrook was fearless, relentless, and deliberate. He got to the rim, he got the mid-range jumper going, he helped his team respond to every huge shot from Miami.

And then, right when it was right there for him to change the story, quiet the critics, this happened:

In no way should this loss be put on Westbrook’s shoulders. They would have been buried beneath the Heat’s offense without Westbrook. It was a mistake, one of several the Thunder made, but just one. James Harden’s inability to convert anything resembling a major play was worse. Derek Fisher’s layup attempt that was blocked, leading to a Lebron James conversion at the other end was worse. Serge Ibaka’s rotation defense was worse. They were there, with a chance to win, because of Westbrook. It drifted past because of Westbrook, and because Scott Brooks was unable to prepare the team to be ready for how the clock functions in that scenario.

That’s how things break in a Finals this close.

Call out the defense, call out the coaching, praise the Heat.

But don’t bring this on Westbrook’s shoulders. They carried too much in Game 4.

Charlotte Bobcats hire Mike Dunlap, assistant coach at St. John’s

Image (1) bobcats_logo-thumb-250x182-19284.jpg for post 3934

Well… I mean… you know… the one thing you can say is… huh.

Yeah, that about sums it up.

The Charlotte Observer first reported and a half-dozen news outlets are confirming that the Charlotte Bobcats have hired a coach. It’s not Brian Shaw. It’s not Jerry Sloan. It’s not Quin Snyder.

It’s Mike Dunlap, former Nuggets assistant coach and current assistant coach at St. John’s.

Yeah, don’t bother go looking for his Wikipedia page. He doesn’t have one. Which doesn’t say anything about his coaching credentials, other than, you know, no one knows who he is. Dunlap has coached in the NBL, at Arizona, Oregon, and St. John’s under Steve Lavin. His last NBA gig was in 2008 with the Nuggets.

This is yet another “Wait, what?” move from Michael Jordan and the Bobcats, and you have to wonder how much salary was a part of this decision. It’s a homerun swing for a diamond in the rough. No, wait, sorry, we’re mixing metaphors. Sorry, pretty confused as to what exactly is going on in Charlotte. So now a coach with no experience as an NBA head coach and limited assistant coaching experience takes over the worst team in the league, without the No.1 pick, trying to scrape together something resembling a legitimate franchise.

Maybe he’ll stun us all and be a terrific coach out of nowhere. Just because we don’t know anything about him doesn’t make him bad. He’s got a ton of X’s and O’s coaching chops. It’s just…

It’s weird. It’s unforeseen. It’s the Bobcats.

NBA Finals Heat-Thunder Game 3: LeBron James finally suffocates Kevin Durant in the fourth

Oklahoma City Thunder v Miami Heat - Game Three

(Before we get started, there is an alternate view point here, one in which Durant was out of his rhythm because he had been benched for the final 5:40 due to picking up his fourth foul, or that he was tentative for the same reason, concerned with drawing an offensive foul. If you choose to believe that Durant picking up those fouls was legitimately what resulted in Durant’s performance, then God Bless You. May the aliens who you wear tinfoil to avoid attacks from be merciful when they subjugate your world. For the rest of us, let’s talk about what happened.)

If LeBron James had dropped this line: 2 of 6 from the field, 0-2 from the line, 1 rebound, 0 assists, 2 turnovers in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, can you imagine the roasting that would occur? The abject demolition of his character? There would be attacks that would make Sherman’s March seem like the Disney parade.

Yet there’s Kevin Durant. Two points in the final five minutes, four in the quarter, a loss, and a 2-1 deficit after Miami’s 91-86 loss in Game 3.

You can thank LeBron.

James took on the task of guarding the NBA’s scoring leader in the fourth quarter, again, and versus the first two game in which Durant was setting records, in Game 3, James frustrated and confounded Durant into a miserable performance that helped the Heat seal the win. It wasn’t the usual NBA kind of defense which is foolish and prideful. There was no “go ahead and catch it, and come at me.” James engaged Durant all over the court. Baseline to baseline, sideline to sideline. Durant would flash for a lob, James was there with him, step for step. Durant would cut to the wing behind a screen, James was right there, somehow avoiding the foul but getting through the screen. Durant was in the post, trying to use his length to get around James (a curious tactic given his strengths). Durant forced him to the baseline, so far he was shooting behind the basket.

James had 4 fourth quarter rebounds. He pursued Durant to the ends of the Earth. Oh, yeah, and he scored 8 points.

He guided him into Chris Bosh for a bock. He forced him out of his positions. He rendered him isolated, stranded on the Isle of LeBron, trying to find his way to the ball, points, to a victory that would not come. If it was thought after Game 1 that Durant was proving himself the best player on the planet with his single-minded offense force, then Games 2 and 3 are LeBron answering with his comprehensive impact. While Durant was struggling to contain James, even before his foul trouble, especially inside, James was putting together a comprehensive effort. He pressure Durant, he bodied and challenged him.

James is on another level. It is of no slight to Durant, who is a better pure offensive player, despite LeBron outscoring the scoring champ in this series. James through three games has simply been the complete package he’s billed as (outside of the assists). There was no chance for Durant, no sliver of air, and the result was a frustrating and disappointing night.

Durant can rebound from this. He can hit pull-up jumpers over LeBron all day long. He tried to challenge him at the rim, tried to get calls that weren’t coming. He can respond by hitting pull-up j’s over and over in Game 4. But the result is still the same, a 2-1 lead for Miami on the back of their MVP, not their Offensive Player of the Year, but Most Valuable Player, swallowing the young gunslinger alive. Kevin Durant was eclipsed in Game 3. We’ll have to see if he responds with an even brighter shine in Game 4. For now, the edge goes to the King.