LeBron James and a golden transformation

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A year ago, LeBron James didn’t exist.

After mourning in his house over the loss of the NBA Finals for several weeks, dealing with the way his entire world had been turned upside down, how the public had revolted against him, James was simply absent. He rarely made appearances if ever at the NBA-NBPA meetings in futile efforts to resolve the lockout. He didn’t bring his weight to the negotiation. He didn’t do publicity tours or release cartoons or even commercials. He wasn’t making terrible, facepalm-inducing comments. He was just silent.

He didn’t exist.

Twelve months later, and James’ statements have been made with his actions. And his exposure is not in the form of boneheaded press conference comments or a television special in a plaid shirt, but in the simple step to the podium and a grasp of his legacy.

If the NBA Finals were the rise of James as the undisputed best player in the world and a dramatic shift in his legacy, Sunday’s win over Spain in the gold medal game of the 2012 Olympic games was the cementing of that identity. Draped in the American flag on NBC, when asked about his accomplishments over the past year, James responded with nothing complex, controversial, or self-centered. It was simple.

“This is all about USA.”

In truth, the Olympics showed maybe even more than the NBA season what James’ stature is. On a team of the greatest players in the world, James was the rock. When the offense stalled, James would force his way to the rim with his singular athleticism. When the ball movement became stagnant, James would probe, post, and dish, drawing multiple defenders and leaving players like Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony wide open on the perimeter. It was an elite showing of his all-around, every-position skills.

Late in the fourth, Rudy Fernandez foolishly went to challenge a ball-fake from James, leaving the lane wide open when Marc Gasol rotated to cover an off-ball screen. James detonated to the rim and finished with authority. His three-pointer minutes later was the kind of shot he said he was done with, but its satisfying fall through the net a reminder that there is no shot he can’t hit, no ability he does not have in the bag.

James was not the spokesman on the team, nor the emotional leader. That was Kobe Bryant. Similar to Magic Johnson’s role in ’92, Bryant was the player that spoke first and most authoritatively for Team USA. He spoke on the identity, on their goals, on who they were and why they were there. James, Durant, Melo they all deferred to the five-time champion playing in his final Olympics. But on the floor, just like it was with Jordan, it was apparent. James was the best. Kevin Durant’s scoring ability cannot be bested, and it was a collective effort by Team USA to form a cohesive identity. But James’ ability to defend, create the break, pass in transition or in the post, and to attack the rim separated him.

James is the best player in the NBA, in America, on the planet. And if alien life is discovered and they know how to play basketball, you have to like James’ chances there, too.

James will still be hated by many and there is an undercurrent of rumor that James hasn’t changed his personality, that his new identity is simply the result of a new PR team that has focused on shifting how he relates. He’s no longer as candid, and that’s a good thing. He’s no longer as loose-lipped, and that’s a good thing. He’s abandoned his perimeter game by about 80 percent, even in a game with a shortened three like under FIBA rules. He’s somehow taken the vast number of talents he has and made them make more sense together, linked them to one another.

Maybe he’s not more likable. But it’s impossible not to respect what he’s capable of, and how he leads by example.

The 2012 Olympic Gold Medal in basketball will be remembered for the talk of how they match up with the Dream Team (hint: they don’t), for Kobe’s last run, for Kevin Love’s coming out party and Kevin Durant stepping to the stage as the deadliest shooter in the world (if he wasn’t already). But there will also be the knowledge that there is no step back for LeBron, no reconfiguration of his identity, no regression. After three months of the best basketball he could play, he threw another six weeks on, added his gold medal, and left no doubt.

The King has his ring, and the gold to go with it.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue on Kyle Korver’s playing time: Brad Stevens ‘threw us for a loop’ by not playing Semi Ojeleye

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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LeBron James is obviously the Cavaliers’ best player. Cleveland’s second-best player? Usually Kevin Love, but Kyle Korver has made a case lately.

So, how did Korver play just 19 minutes, including none in the first quarter, in the Cavs’ Game 5 loss to the Celtics last night? That was his playoff low, besides Game 1 against the Pacers, when he was still recovering from injury.

Blame Boston coach Brad Stevens removing Semi Ojeleye from his rotation.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue:

Well, initially, he’s been putting [Semi] Ojeleye in, so that’s been kind of Kyle’s matchup when he comes in the game. He didn’t play him tonight, so it kind of threw us for a loop.

This won’t slow the talk of Stevens being a genius. He neutralized one of Cleveland’s best players simply by not using a limited rookie.

Still, Lue’s strategy held some merit. Korver is a defensive liability, but Ojeleye’s offensive limitations make it hard to take advantage. Ojeleye’s biggest strength, his physical strength, is of limited utility in trying to stick tight to Korver on the perimeter.

In Games 1-4, Cavaliers with Korver on and…

Ojeleye on:

  • Offensive rating: 111.9
  • Defensive rating: 102.1
  • Net rating: +9.9

Ojeleye off:

  • Offensive rating: 97.0
  • Defensive rating: 109.5
  • Net rating: -12.5

That said, Korver is too good to plant on the bench. Other perimeter options – J.R. Smith, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and Jeff Green (who actually played fine last night) – are just so unreliable. Lue shouldn’t just wait for the perfect matchup to use Korver.

But will Lue get it, anyway?

Stevens:

We believe in Semi and we think he’s a big, huge part of our team. It would not be a shock if he plays a ton for us in Game 6.

Lue better develop a plan for using Korver in Game 6 Friday, with contingencies based on Stevens using or not using Ojeleye. I wouldn’t trust Stevens’ declaration one bit, and Lue doesn’t want to get thrown for a loop again.

PBT Extra: Rockets showed defense, resilience, can Warriors show same in Game 5?

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Game 4 was an epic game, and the Houston Rockets proved they are a serious threat to knock the Warriors off the top of the mountain. They took Golden State’s big punch to start the game (a 12-0 run) and Stephen Curry haymaker in the third, cranked up their defense, got a great game from Chris Paul, and evened the series at 2-2.

Heading back to Houston, we can expect more of the same out of the Rockets Thursday night — they know a win in Game 5 puts them in a very dominant position in the series.

The question is, do the Warriors have another gear? That’s one of the topics I get into in this PBT Extra. For a few seasons now, the Warriors have been able to play lockdown defense and hit tough shots in the clutch, with Kevin Durant making them especially hard to stop, but in Game 4 when it got tight they looked tired and slow. Houston’s ball pressure threw Golden State off its game, and fatigue had set in for the Warriors. Can they not only go on big runs but slow down Chris Paul, James Harden and the Rockets’ attack?

Thursday night is going to be interesting.

LeBron James recalls six turnovers with striking precision (video)

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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LeBron James showed off his memory after the Cavaliers’ Game 1 loss to the Celtics, detailing every play of the beginning of the fourth quarter:

He was at it again after Cleveland’s Game 5 loss to the Celtics last night.

Asked about his six turnovers, LeBron perfectly described six turnovers:

The turnover LeBron very noticeably said went off Jeff Green‘s hands was actually assigned to Green. So, that meant LeBron omitted one of his own:

Still, this was incredibly impressive. It was also maybe a little passive-aggressive, the way LeBron notes the ball going off Green’s and J.R. Smith‘s hands.

So, it was quintessential LeBron.

Celtics top Cavaliers in Game 5, setting up Game 7 in Boston?

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LeBron James and a couple Cavaliers teammates left the court well before the Celtics dribbled out their 96-83 Game 5 win Wednesday.

The Cavs are already moving on.

Game 6 will be Friday in Cleveland, and the Cavaliers – down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference finals – must win to avoid elimination. The way Boston has played on the road, it’s even easy to look ahead to Game 7, which is scheduled for Sunday in Boston.

Still, the Celtics bought themselves leeway with their decisive win in Boston tonight. They led by double digits the final 20 minutes, breaking the Cavs’ momentum after two straight wins in Cleveland.

“It’s tough going on the road, playing against somebody else in their house with their crowd,” said Jayson Tatum, who had 24 points, seven rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks tonight. “So, we were just comfortable. We came back home and defended home-court like we have all playoffs.”

Boston is now 10-0 at home this postseason – but just 1-6 away. Fueled in part by that historic split, no game in this series has been close. All five have been decided by at least nine points, and the average margin of victory – 18 – is in the 97th percentile for largest ever in a 3-2 best-of-seven series.

So, just as two big Celtics wins in Games 1 and 2 didn’t deter the Cavaliers, this one likely won’t, either. The Cavs should be heavily favorited in Game 6.

Beyond, if it gets that far? That’s a much bigger tossup.

Teams up 3-2 in a best-of-seven series have won 85% of the time. But Boston is missing a key reason it secured home-court advantage, including a chance to break the 2-2 at home rather than on the road – Kyrie Irving. And LeBron James is downright scary in a Game 7, even on the road.

The Celtics at least took care of business tonight, showing a far greater sense of urgency than Cleveland. Brad Stevens changed his starting lineup, inserting Aron Baynes for Marcus Morris, and tightened his rotation to just seven players until garbage time. Boston ran the floor much harder than the Cavs, decisively outrebounded them and beat them to loose balls. Even in altercations, the Celtics had a man advantage.

LeBron (26 points, 10 rebounds five assists and six turnovers) never made his presence felt in the way usually necessary for the Cavaliers to win. Cleveland’s four other starters combined to score just 24 points, two fewer than LeBron did himself.

After Boston seized control early, the Cavaliers made few adjustments in strategy or effort – as if they’re saving those for later.