When Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury in late April, you could hear the sighs of relief coming from Memphis, San Antonio, and Los Angeles. Suddenly, the West was wide open.
The playoffs have little to nothing to do with the regular season. Judging teams on how they do in the playoffs suffers the same limitation as any statistic is prone to: it’s one way of looking at something, but it doesn’t cover everything.
Last year, OKC ran over the Spurs for 4 straight wins after being down 0-2. Westbrook was a big part of that. There isn’t really a team in the league that has a one-on-one answer for him. You take him away from the equation, you take away the Spurs’ greatest threat in the West.
The Spurs may be the only team in the league that has all the ingredients necessary to beat Miami in a 7-game series. These ingredients include:
–A big man who impacts the paint on both ends of the floor
–A forward who either lets you single cover LeBron as much as possible and/or forces LeBron to exert energy defending him
–A point guard/team who don’t turn the ball over
Some teams have some of these ingredients. The Knicks have a forward who’d take up a lot of LeBron’s energy in Carmelo, and the Knicks don’t turn the ball over. But the Knicks don’t have a two-way big man.
Indiana has the big man in Hibbert and the forward in Paul George. But the Pacers are a turnover machine.
The Spurs have a two-way big in Duncan. They have that type of forward in Kawhi Leonard. And they have a great point guard and a team that doesn’t turn it over the way others team do.
Two years ago, the Celtics and 76ers played a 2nd-round series that went 7 games. The Celtics prevailed and would go on to give the Heat all they could handle before succumbing in Game 7. Both Boston and Philly were widely regarded as having “successful” seasons. And the reason they both had successful seasons was because Bulls’ guard Derrick Rose went down with a knee injury in late April (sound familiar?). When Rose went down, along with other Bulls suffering season-comprising or –ending injuries (sound familiar?), the 76ers, easily the worst team in the playoffs, suddenly found themselves matched up with an opponent prime for the picking. The 76ers won. Their next foe, the Celtics, had expected to be facing a healthy Bulls team that always gives them fits…instead, they got the 76ers, a team that had no business in the 2nd round of the playoffs. Boston won and proceeded to take on Miami, who was missing Chris Bosh because of an injury. The Heat had just beaten the Pacers in a tough series; the Pacers benefited from Bosh’s absence, just as Boston would for most of the series. Then Bosh returned, and so did reality, and the Heat beat the Celtics and then went on to win the title. After the 2012 season, the Pacers, Celtics, and 76ers were all judged to have had successful seasons, despite each of these successes coming against opponents who were limited after an injury to a star player.
2013 is a strange time in sports culture.
For instance, this is an actual headline from Sports Illustrated’s website today:
WHO NEEDS IT MORE?
A CASE FOR THE HEAT/
A CASE FOR THE SPURS
Can you imagine National Geographic running a headline like that?
WHO NEEDS IT MORE?
A CASE FOR MEN/
A CASE FOR WOMEN
More strange signs of the times: I think if you ask most basketball fans, especially those outside the Tri-State area, who was better, Patrick Ewing or David Robinson, they’d pick Robinson. And I think the reason most people would say this is because Robinson has 2 rings, and Ewing has none.
I think Ewing is the 3rd best center I’ve ever seen. When I type that sentence and look at it, I believe it would look wrong to many people. I think after Shaq and Olajuwon, Ewing’s the next-best big man of the past 25 years. I base this on his performances over many years, and in particular, on his performances against his peers.
Olajuwon was better than Ewing. Better hands. Better footwork. Better athlete. Better, period.
Shaq was more dominant than Ewing. When they met head-to-head, Shaq often produced 37 PTS/16 RBS/2 BLKS stat lines. Nobody else ever put up those numbers as regularly against Ewing. However, Ewing, was usually putting up 33PTS/12 RBS/3 BLKS lines against Shaq.
Ewing matched up quite favorably against Robinson. Patrick was stronger, and a better jump-shooter. The Admiral was quicker, certainly fleeter in transition, and maybe the only center I’ve ever seen in my life who was far superior as a scorer than Ewing. But when they matched up, I remember: Ewing more than held his own. Until 1999, Ewing was considered the better player.
Often, when we discuss how “great” someone is, we elide over the greatness they were paired with. This is the biggest reason Ewing suffers in historical comparisons. He never played with a Hall of Famer. His teammates combined for 3 All-Star appearances from 1988-1999. Meanwhile:
Shaq’s 2nd year in the league was Penny Hardaway’s rookie season. If you’re too young to have watched young Penny Hardaway, you will never understand how good he was (other guys on this list: Grant Hill and Antonio McDyess). People called them the next Magic & Kareem, and they really did look like they were on their way. Then Shaq went to the Lakers, joining a team with two All-Star guards (Nick Van Exel & Eddie Jones) who’d just traded for the draft rights to a Phildelphia high-schooler named Kobe. 8 years later, Shaq was traded to a Heat team that had 2nd-year stud Dwayne Wade. He’d then go from Miami to Phoenix, to play with a two-time MVP point guard in Steve Nash and the still-healthy-and-thus-still-nasty Amar’e Stoudemire. Shaq ran out the string by aligning with LeBron for a year and then ending his career with the Big Three Celtics.
Before Tim Duncan’s arrival, Robinson was seen as a great regular-season player who always came up short in the playoffs. He was eviscerated by Olajuwon in ’95 and beaten repeatedly by the Malone/Stockton Jazz (who, ironically, are now remembered, unlike Robinson, as “great but not great enough to win”). In fact, Ewing, Olajuwon, and Shaq all got the Finals before Robinson did. Robinson was fortunate to get injured badly one year.
The year Robinson was hurt, his team won the draft lottery and took Tim Duncan at #1.
The year Ewing was hurt, his team had picks 38 and 44. They drafted DeMarcon Johnson and Sean Marks.
The #1 pick in the draft that year? Michael Olowokandi, best remembered for imprisoning a girlfriend in his closet.
And that’s why Gregg Popovich is an all-time great coach and Jeff Van Gundy’s working in television.
Tonight, supposedly, is the night LeBron’s legacy is cemented.
If your frontal lobe twitched when you read that, don’t be alarmed. It’s merely your brain sending out soothing endorphins to block the pain of being told for the 9,885th time in the past 5 years that “tonight…is the night LeBron’s legacy is cemented.”
Here’s LeBron’s legacy, in a nutshell: he’s the best player you or I have ever seen. Doesn’t mean he’ll win the most rings. Doesn’t mean he plays the game the way you’re used to thinking it should be played. Doesn’t mean he cares about the things you think he should be preoccupied with. It means a 6’8” 275-pound man who can do everything on the court and is bigger, faster, smarter, and better than anyone I’ve seen come before him or since is the best player I’ve ever seen. When Jordan was 16, he made his varsity team in high school for the first time. When LeBron was 16, he was the consensus top pick in the draft. As a junior.
His Achilles heel, we’re reminded ad nauseum, is that he doesn’t show up in the big spot. Actually, that’s become more nuanced, since he is an NBA champion: now, the indictment is that LeBron doesn’t show up in the big spot all the time. When he was missing shots and turning the ball over at the end of Game 6, and when it looked like the Spurs were going to win, you could anticipate a thousand monkeys at a thousand laptops writing LeBron’s 9884th epitaph.
But Miami flipped the script. They won. LeBron had a lot to do with it. In fact, here are LeBron’s lines from the past 2 games:
Game 5: 25 PTS/6 REBS/8 AST/4 steals.
Game 6: LeBron 32 PTS/10 REBS/11 AST.
For anyone else, those numbers would get a standing ovation. For LeBron…not so much.
If Miami loses tonight, LeBron is not even one of the top 4 reasons the Heat will have lost. Of greater significance:
1) MIA has played 3 of the type 5 defenses in the league for nearly 6 weeks. That’s rare, and that’s draining, and that adds up.
2) Chris Bosh & Shane Battier have been fighting above their weight class those 6 weeks. Battier’s exhausted, and the difference in his performance in last year’s Finals versus this year’s shows it. Last year, Miami went through Boston and Oklahoma City to win the title, two teams that don’t feature physical, brutish front lines. This year, Battier’s spent more than month dealing with Carlos Boozer and David West; Bosh, who left Toronto thinking his days playing undersized at center were behind him, has been stuck battling Roy Hibbert and Tim Duncan.
3) Wade is ALWAYS bitching to the refs while his man’s getting away in transition (full disclosure: LeBron does this, too. But not as much).
4) The Miami Heat have the worst homecourt “advantage” of any team I’ve ever seen in any sport. Ever. Heat fans make Atlanta Hawk fans look like Yankee fans. Heat fans: ever wonder why Knick fans are always so arrogant about NY’s chances to beat MIA in the playoffs, whether in the ‘90s or today? Because of you. Chicago, Indiana, Boston, Detroit when the Pistons are good—no one wants to play a must-win on the road in those places. Playing in Miami is like a neutral-court game.
Jerry West didn’t win a title until the end of his career. Same with Oscar Robertson. Same with Wilt Chamberlain. Do we look back and say they weren’t great until they were champions?
As for the other ghosts we don’t like to raise…well, every great player has had playoff stinkers. Even our most revered saints. St. Michael had bad games in big spots:
‘92 Game 6 vs. NYK: 9-25 FG, 21 pts, 7 TOs (outplayed by Ewing AND John Starks)
’96 Game 4 vs. SEA: 6-19, 23 pts
’97 Game 4 vs. UTA: 11-27, 22 pts
’98 Game 5 vs. UTA: 9-26, 28 pts
Plus, MJ cost his team 2 titles after his revered all-consuming obsession with winning led to gambling losses so large David Stern informally suspend him for all of ’94 and most of ’95.
Larry Bird had consecutive Finals games with less than 10 points, and only one won title that didn’t come against the freaking Rockets (Bird’s first title came against a sub-.500 team. Don’t adjust your eyes. You read that right. A sub-.500 team in the Finals).
Magic Johnson was once coach-killer Tragic Johnson.
Among his peers, LeBron is mostly found wanting when compared to Kobe, the one guy, supposedly, who can match Jordan’s godlike blood-lust for winning, winning, nothing but winning. Here are two Game 7s put up by Mr. Bryant:
’07 Game 7 vs. PHX: 0-3 FG in the 2nd half after scoring 23 in the first half with his team still in it (trailing 60-45)
’10 Game 7 vs. BOS: 6-24 FG
The Lakers lost the Phoenix game. They came back to beat Boston.
Can you imagine if LeBron James doesn’t make a basket in the second half tonight, or goes 6-24, and Miami loses?
No one has ever come into the league with the pressure LeBron has. If he turned out to have the career of a Hall of Famer, like Paul Pierce of Clyde Drexler, he’d be labeled a failure. If he turned out to be Durant or Malone and put up historic numbers that aren’t accompanied by a handful of rings, he’d be labeled a failure.
Tiger Woods was really the first “next” Michael Jordan. Ask Tiger about the differnet media landscape now versus then. When MJ and then-girlfriend Juanita learned she was pregnant and they weren’t married, they asked the Chicago sportswriters to keep the story quiet. Guess what? They did.
When MJ was suspended for gambling, the NBA went along with the story that he’d decided to become a baseball player.
Can you imagine Tiger Woods rolling out of that SUV, doped up and bloodied, asking the press to keep it quiet?
LeBron lives in an environment no one but he can imagine. The Decision turned against him, in part ‘cuz it was a douchey thing to do, but also because it violated the fetishized faux-MJ myth, that a true competitor like Jordan would never, ever “choose” to play with his rivals. This BS elides over the fact that the Bulls drafted Pippen after MJ’s 3rd year, after which point, perhaps not coincidentally, MJ finally started winning playoff series.
Magic joined a team that had Kareem in his prime and would soon add HOFers like James Worthy.
Bird was joined in his second season by Robert Parish and Kevin McHale.
Cleveland gave LeBron Larry Hughes, Wally Szcerbiak, Mo Williams, Old Antawn Jamison, and Old Old Shaq.
If the Heat lose tonight, it doesn’t make LeBron less great. It doesn’t make Jordan any greater, or Kobe. Or even Duncan. You know what it means if the Heat lose tonight?
It means the Spurs are really, really good.