Maybe we should let LeBron finish his career before we decide his legacy

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Magic Johnson made a lot of friends around the Internet when he smacked around LeBron James the other day. Charles Oakley joined in. Cracking on LeBron as not all he could be has become a national past time. Saying he is not clutch because he doesn’t have a ring has somehow become accepted truth for people, the heart of LeBron’s legacy.

Except, maybe we should wait until LeBron finishes playing until we decide what his legacy will be.

I will give you four reasons why.

1) LeBron is 26 years old. He has nearly a decade of basketball ahead of him (well, assuming the lockout ends in our lifetime). He is just entering his prime. While the whole “not five, not six…” thing was arrogant, it would be foolish to assume he will never have a ring or a few rings. And if you don’t think those are redemptive of a reputation, ask Dirk Nowitzki.

2) Magic Johnson was not seen as clutch or a winner for a while. This seems ridiculous on the surface — Magic had an NCAA title and an NBA ring by the time he was 25 — but as Rohan Cruyff reminds us at SBN in 1894 Magic was seen as a guy out for stats and flashy play who didn’t care about winning.

Make no mistake: until the Lakers’ 1985 breakthrough against Boston, Magic’s failures were no less extensively highlighted than LeBron’s. In ’84, the Los Angeles Times published a story entitled, “Earvin, What Happened to Magic?” The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, not to be outdone, referred to Johnson as the “tarnished superstar” and “the goat of the series.” Public opinion has swung as quickly and forcefully against the 26-year-old James, who like Magic in ’84, has a ways to go before his “legacy” or all-time standing can seriously be considered.

I grew up in Los Angeles, and this is spot on. We know now how off that perception of Magic was, but at the time it was accepted truth.

3) At age 26, Michael Jordan had no rings and was considered a failure. Up until his first ring, many people considered Jordan a selfish gunner who would never win, as Tom Haberstroh reminds us at ESPN. Again, that perception was off, but in our society you are not clutch until suddenly you are. It took time for Jordan to win rings and cement his legend as one of the greatest ever to lace up sneakers. If you defined MJ at age 26, you’d get a guy a lot like LeBron.

By the way, if you’re going to throw Kobe Bryant out there, let me ask you this — if LeBron came into the league on a team with Shaquille O’Neal in his prime and veterans like Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Glen Rice, Brian Shaw and many others on it, how many ring would LeBron have? If you just said zero, you’re wrong.

4) LeBron James is more clutch than he gets credit for. I am not going to argue about the last two games of the finals against Dallas in 2011. Or Game 5 against Boston in 2010. LeBron is not perfect in the clutch and has work to do. But that is only half of the story, as Zach Lowe broke down at Sports Illustrated.

But to label James as ”un-clutch” or fearful of big moments based on the second half of the 2011 Finals and Game 5 against Boston in 2010 conveniently ignores the rest of his résumé, including the two series that immediately preceded the last season’s Finals — series in which LeBron destroyed Boston and then Chicago in crunch time. It ignores the 2009 conference finals against Orlando, in which James averaged an insane 39-8-8 line and won Game 2 with a legendary buzzer-beater. It ignores his 25 consecutive points against the Pistons in 2007 and that in 2008 he almost single-handedly defeated the Celtics, the eventual champions, in a seven-game series the Cavaliers had no place winning.

The point is that things are not black and white with LeBron, they are shades of gray. He is not a disaster in the clutch, he has good and bad games. And at age 26 it is far too early to define his legacy. Rings are a magic balm in our society, they changes our perception of players. We don’t know how we’ll perceive LeBron in a decade.

That doesn’t sit well with those who hate LeBron, because it requires patience and nuance. But it is the truth. They key parts of LeBron’s legacy have yet to be written.

Celtics’ Terry Rozier on Game 3: “We needed to get our butts whooped”

Associated Press
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Cleveland dominated Game 3 Saturday night. They played harder, to start. The Cavaliers’ defensive pressure on the ball was better, they were sharper rotating out to shooters and covering passing lanes. Cleveland’s role players stepped up and helped LeBron James.

Boston, meanwhile, wilted in the face of that pressure Saturday, something it has done a few times on the road these playoffs. The Celtics got away from the things that got them to the Eastern Conference Finals. Guard Terry Rozier put it more bluntly, via A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston:

“I feel like we needed this (loss) to get us back … to get us ready for Monday,” Rozier said.

Rozier later added, “We needed to get our butts whipped. Come back to reality and take care of business on Monday.”

Cleveland is a championship team — from LeBron James on down through the core guys, they all have rings. They have been down before, and heading home it was expected they would play with force. Cleveland’s back was against the wall and they responded.

From the Celtics’ perspective, they also got a little too fat and happy and were not ready for what the Cavaliers came with in Game 3.

Now the pressure is on Boston to push back, to get back to their level of execution and do it under pressure. Make the Cavaliers prove the improved defensive effort was not a one-off game. The Celtics must move the ball and play with some pace, then see if the Cavaliers can keep it together in the face of crisp play.

When this series heads back to Boston Wednesday, it will either see the Celtics in control up 3-1, or the series will be a best of three (with the Cavs still having to figure out if they can win on the road). At home, the Cavaliers are going to play with force again and have some depth. We’ll see if Game 3 was enough of a wakeup call for Boston.

PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

AP Photo/Tony Dejak
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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.

Luka Doncic named EuroLeague MVP at age 19

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Luka Doncic, the likely top two pick in the upcoming NBA draft, has led his Real Madrid team to the EuroLeague finals at age 19.

Now he has been named the youngest player ever win the EuroLeague MVP.

For those unfamiliar, EuroLeague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer — the very best club teams from around the continent face off against each other. On this biggest of European stages, Doncic has been a force. He is a gifted passer with great court vision. He can take his man off the dribble. He can hit threes. And he knows how to be a floor general and run a game. Did we mention he’s just 19?

Doncic said before the start of EuroLeague that he hasn’t decided what he is going to do about coming to the NBA or going back to Real Madrid. Don’t buy it. This is like asking a major college basketball star right before the NCAA Tournament if he is coming back to “State U” next year, they don’t want to say “no” right before the tourney so they give a non-committal answer. Same here. He’s not leaving millions on the table, he’ll be in the NBA next season.

And he’ll bee good.