NBA Finals Game Five Recap

“It’s about damn time” -LeBron James

LeBron James couldn’t contain his happiness. Pulled from the game with three minutes remaining and the victory well in hand, James began his championship celebration on the bench. It’s hard to remember a Finals MVP who was that visibly happy, that willing to let the world get a glimpse inside. So many times a star player will collapse in exhaustion or cry like a baby, unable to speak to anyone. That’s not LeBron James, never has been. As he admitted after the game to Stuart Scott, he plays the game of basketball to be happy. He was never meant to play the game with the anger that drove people like Jordan. At long last, the King has a crown. LeBron James is a three-time MVP, a Finals MVP, and most importantly, he’s a champion. And I’ll be damned if he doesn’t deserve it.

To think how far LeBron James has come is to take a journey. Who can forget the immaturity, the overconfidence, and the failures that have plagued his career? There was the early promise, the game against the Pistons, the way he consistently carried the worst rosters in the NBA to the cusp of greatness. Then there was the failure of Cleveland management to find him a reliable teammate, the fourth quarter let downs, and the ugly way he seemingly quit on his teammates in the playoffs. And finally there was The Decision, the premature championship celebration/introduction, the douchey way he reminded the rest of America last year that they were not LeBron James. Some how, through all of that mess, LeBron James grew up and became the best damn basketball player since Michael Jordan. And now, he has the first of what will surely be many rings to go with the reputation.

If only all the games had been as easy as this one.

It was apparent from the opening whistle that something was off in this game. Both teams came out in sloppy fashion. They failed to take care of the basketball and it was made all the worse that the refs were calling the softest of fouls. Fans were hard pressed to tell whether Oklahoma City was ready to begin the most legendary of NBA Finals comebacks or if the Heat were going to shut the door on their last hopes.

It didn’t become clear until a graduate of the University of Florida by the name of Mike Miller made the most of what might be his last opportunity to play professional basketball. It’s been rumored throughout the playoffs that he might be forced to retire because of injuries after this season ended. Miller, who was pegged as the fourth wheel during the summer of the Big Three’s construction, has largely been viewed as a disappointment up until this game. Many around the league feel that the Heat devoted way too much money to him when that salary cap room might have been better spent on a serviceable big man. It doesn’t help that he also seems to have been injured his entire two years in South Beach. But after this performance, it all seems worth it.

To put it simply, Mike Miller did not miss.

He finished the game with 23 points on 7-of-8 shooting from three. LeBron James may have slowly eroded the spirit of the Thunder over time, but Miller appeared in a Mariano Rivera fashion to absolutely suck the life out of the Heat’s opponent. The way he so effortlessly drained those seven long-range shots completely closed out any chance the Thunder had of winning the basketball game and forcing the series back to Oklahoma City. It’s impossible to overstate just how profound an impact they had on the Thunder’s confidence. It was the sign of a player giving absolutely everything he had. He left it all out on the floor.

From there, it was simply a matter of time till the Heat got back to doing what they do best under LeBron James–having fun. The lead exploded in the third quarter when Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier got in on the festival of three-pointers that Miller started. It’s important to point out that all of this long-range shooting was possible because of the surgical manner with which LeBron James picked apart the Thunder’s defensive game plan.

For how many years now have LeBron’s critics wondered what was possible, if only he would embrace the low-post game? James finally bought into the style of play and it completely decided the series. The Thunder had no player who could match him in isolation and James punished them for it, scoring at will. When they brought help on a double team, he simply kicked it out to the above three-point shooters who found themselves more than wide-open on almost every single attempt.

He was so effective during these Finals that it was hard not to make comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki last year or, dare I say it, Larry Bird. What’s terrifying is that LeBron brings even more things to the table than either of those guys. He’s a better defender, he’s far more athletic, he’s way stronger, and he can play every position on the floor. It’s as if LeBron James is a perfect athletic hybrid of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, with a little of Karl Malone’s freakish body mixed in for good measure.

By the time all of those threes swished through the nets it was over, and the Heat’s style of play reflected it. LeBron and Wade began throwing risky passes that belong more in ESPN’s Top Ten than the NBA Finals. Alley oops started going down. The team began to have that funny problem where they actually overpass because they want each other to succeed so badly. And most of all, they were visibly having fun. Wade and Bosh joined LeBron in being unable to contain their smiles.

It’s hard not to be happy for them. The great fear when LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach was that the Heat would cheapen the value of championships in professional sports. What was the point of tuning in anymore if all the star players were just going to end up on the same team one day and hold a monopoly on all the titles? America feared that it would lose the romantic aspects of winning such as grit, toughness, the value of team play, defense, and the special way in which a player and a city can be completely defined by each other. If you asked the Heat players now, that probably was the original plan.

They found that it wasn’t that easy though. Dallas exposed them last year simply because they wanted it more. The Mavericks used the timing of having a perfectly constructed roster and the desperation of veterans late in their careers to steal a title that by all rights should have belonged to the far more talented Heat. It revealed something and it nearly happened again this year with a Boston Celtics team that simply wasn’t ready to give up despite being in the fifth year of a three-year plan.

And that’s how basketball works. There is nothing lost in this championship, no shame in any of it. Great basketball teams and great basketball players don’t break through until their elders teach them just exactly what it takes to win a championship. It’s the circle of life of the NBA and it still holds true to this day. Where would Chris Bosh be without Kevin Garnett taunting him mercilessly the last two years? Where would LeBron James be without the likes of DeShawn Stevenson, Shawn Marion, and Paul Pierce? The cycle repeated itself once again and all is right in the NBA.

Like any good cliffhanger at the end of an action movie, it’s worth mentioning that four of the Thunder’s stars are less than 23-years old. It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a free agent head coach available by the name of Phil Jackson who would like nothing more in this world than to wipe the smug look off of Pat Riley’s face, his only living peer. And finally, it’s worth mentioning that the final shot of Kevin Durant completely losing control of his emotions in the arms of his parents is one of the biggest tell-tale signs of great things to come in basketball. Durant has now tasted disappointment. He’s currently in that darkest of dark place that so often inspires so much greatness. The first fight went to LeBron sure, but Durant will be back and as any good fight fan knows, the greatest rivalries always come in threes.

Congratulations to the Miami Heat, your 2012 NBA Champions.

The real work starts now.

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NBA Finals Game Four Recap

LeBron James sat and watched from the bench as his Miami teammates put the Heat within one win of an NBA title. He wasn’t in foul trouble, he wasn’t having a bad game, nor was he shrouded in shame. No, ill-timed leg cramps prevented the Heat’s MVP from playing the final minute of an outstanding Game 4 battle with the Thunder which was easily the best game of these NBA Finals. How fitting for James, after all these years of carrying awful lineups deep into the NBA playoffs, that it was his teammates who stepped up and carried him, both literally and figuratively to victory.

And what a game it was.

The Thunder exploded out of the opening whistle for by far their best first quarter of the Finals. They hit a barrage of jump shots from all over the court, led by Russell Westbrook. The talented Thunder guard had 8 points in the first 3:45 of the game, sending a message to the Heat that no one could change the style of his game, or stop it for that matter. Before the Heat knew what hit them they were down 10 in a shocking role reversal for the script that the first quarters have followed thus far.

Miami would cut the lead to five, but again the Thunder responded with terrific play. In a surprising break, the Thunder actually had a ton of success when Serge Ibaka left the floor with two quick fouls. It forced the Thunder into a small ball lineup featuring Nick Collison at center. This was the exact lineup Scott Brook’s critics had been begging for all series. You’re never going to believe this, but it worked! It worked so damn well that the Thunder rode Collison to a 14-point lead after one, which could have been 17 if not for a near buzzer beater.

As this series has taught NBA fans though, no big lead is safe. These teams are so talented, so quick to convert lazy passes into fast break layups, so good at finding the open man. By the second quarter Miami realized that LeBron James would have to resort back to the distributor role that fans are so used to seeing him in rather than the rebounding force of nature fans have witnessed thus far. Oklahoma City had made the decision to force the other Heat players to beat them, doubling LeBron any time he tried to get the ball in the post.

In the past these were the type of moments that frustrated James. He has the best passing vision of his generation and yet so many times his open teammates would let him down. When Mario Chalmers struggled to hit much of anything in the first quarter, many wondered whether it was all happening again. And then something funny happened. A rookie out of Cleveland State named Norris Cole hit a pair of threes, one to close the first, one to open the second, and suddenly Miami found its groove.

They cut the lead to a single point within four minutes and it would take the Thunder almost that same amount of time before they scored their first point of the quarter. From there a sort of hesitant back-and-forth ensued between the two teams. Miami would seem to be seizing the momentum of the game only to see Westbrook drive with ease to the hoop and hush the crowd. Punch. Counterpunch. The Heat would never get the lead before halftime but they trailed by only three at the break.

So many fans and analysts are currently attempting to hijack the NBA Finals and turning it into a narrative of dubious officiating and the ethics of the block/charge conundrum. These myopic fools are missing the best Finals since Michael Jordan retired from basketball. The third quarter proved it.

The great signature of a legendary Finals matchup is when two teams begin executing at such a high level that it leaves the fans wondering which team will miss first. One stretch in the third quarter saw seven straight possessions end with points, six of which were field goals. It’s the type of back-and-forth that can only be described by using language out of boxing. First Chris Bosh hit the Thunder with a driving and-one layup. Serge Ibaka countered with a fadeaway around the free throw line. Dwyane Wade crossed the Thunder with a jumper of his own. Thabo Sefolosha then counterpunched with a jumper fed by Kevin Durant. LeBron James then got inside and hit them with a layup. Russell Westbrook then bobbed and weaved to one of his patented two-pointers . It seemed no one would break. And finally Dwyane Wade slipped his way to the foul line while the basketball world could only stand and catch its breath. Wow.

And there was still a quarter to play.

LeBron James came within a single rebound of a triple-double, finishing with a 26-9-12 line. Dwyane Wade contributed a very solid 25-5-3. Mario Chalmers came back from the dead and chipped in a much-needed 25 points. And yet for all of those remarkable contributions, this game should have been remembered as the Russell Westbrook game.

How to explain a player that is so uniquely talented, yet so unanimously criticized by the mainstream media? Westbrook certainly exorcised many, if not all of the demons unfairly thrown upon him by the talking heads on this night. He was easily the most dominant player on the floor, and if not for his heroics, the Thunder probably would have faced an embarrassing loss that could have haunted them for years down the road. To measure his impact, consider that Westbrook scored THIRTEEN straight points for the Thunder during a five minute stretch to begin the fourth quarter to tie the game at 90-90.

The physical nature with which he was getting his baskets was something the Finals hasn’t seen since the days of Shaquille O’Neal being simply unguardable in the low post. Westbrook is light years faster than every single player in the arena, even LeBron James is helpless to attempt staying in front of him. His violent attacks to the basket paired with his silky touch on mid-range jumpers is a set of skills that no other player in the league can lay claim to at the moment. He finished with 43 of the bravest points of the season but sadly, it was not enough.

For all of Westbrook’s gallantry, Oklahoma City’s two goats stole the show. James Harden failed to crack the double digit mark in points for the third time, finishing with a nightmarish 2/10 shooting line. One shot in particular gave fans insight into just how far he’s fallen. Harden found himself wide open with about two minutes left and the Thunder trailing by five, needing a bucket to stay in the game. He was so wide open that he had time to catch, hesitate, scan all four of his teammate’s positions on the court, and then fire off a shot before the Heat defense got around to covering him. It was the mark of a player afraid to pull the trigger, the biggest sign of a lack of confidence. This game should be the symbolic passing of the torch from Westbrook to Harden as the go-to player on which radio hosts can place their blame. And for once I don’t pity the player, not after rumors floated around on Twitter all week that Harden has been seen partying late into the night before these big games.

And finally there was Scott Brooks, he of the stubborn devotion and loyalty to his veterans. As awful as Harden has been, if the Oklahoma City Thunder do go on to lose the NBA Finals, Brooks needs to accept the overwhelming majority of the criticism. How else to explain the Kendrick Perkins lineups in spite of visual evidence that the Thunder play excellent small ball? How else to explain his decision tonight to leave Derek Fisher in late into the fourth quarter when the Thunder so desperately needed Thabo Sefolosha on LeBron James? And finally, how else to explain Brook’s ultimate brain fart, the lack of coaching he provided to his players following the bizarre jump ball sequence that decided the game.

On the play in the final minute of the game, the Thunder trailed by three and forced a jump ball with less than a second remaining on the shot clock in Miami’s possession. NBA rules state that the shot clock is to be set at five in that situation, but none of the Thunder players on the court were aware of this as it is such a rare situation. Brooks should have been screaming this at the top of his lungs to his players. Instead, Miami won the tip, and Russell Westbrook committed a cringe-inducing foul that was straight out of the Chris Webber playbook on dumb plays in clutch moments. But again, this was the fault of the head coach, not of the player. For all the talk of Phil Jackson coaching rumors, one can’t help but think he’s a potential candidate to land with this team after the awful performance of Brooks.

It’s worth mentioning that no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to win the title. It seems a foregone conclusion that by the end of the week we will be living in a world in which we say LeBron James, NBA Finals MVP or LeBron James, NBA Champion. His biggest critics will laugh that he was on the bench while his team sealed the deal, but there was something poetic about it all. For once, James could let someone else shoulder the burden.  For once, he wasn’t on his own.

Finally, he has a real team.

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