Blair Miller > HIGH POSTS
Our leading (and only) basketball writer gives his, um, blunted, unconventional – and occasionally obsessively detailed – take on recent happenings in the hoops world.
Raptors Republic Podcast; Game 6 & Finals Thoughts – LeBron’s Legacy And Wade’s Role In It
What a game six! If the hair on your balls didn’t stand up at some point during that game you should probably just stop watching basketball. And if you don’t have balls, congratulations. These things make us do weird shit, like scream at televisions when Spurs miss free throws down the stretch.
I’m back and blunted after an illness and a few trips away from home, most notably to play an annual golf weekend in the Rocky Mountains at the always-lovely Kananaskis Country Golf Course in Alberta. Here’s a view from one of the greens – fantastic. If you’re ever out there, I highly recommend the course. Best value for the dollar you’ll ever find.
Enough about me. It’s time to get high-posting again after one of the more compelling NBA Finals games in recent memory.
Before that epic showdown, I sat in on another roundtable discussion podcast on Raptors Republic, thanks be to PHDSteve. We talked about the Finals to date – pre-Game 6 – and opined about the upcoming NBA Draft, with a focus on the Raptors and how they might be able to finagle themselves back into the festivities after having dealt all of their picks. Obviously the thoughts on the championship showdown between San Antonio and Miami bear some revision, but in the interest of, well, interest I want to touch on one salient point from the podcast, and use that as a segue to analyze Tuesday night’s great game in anticipation of Thursday night’s Game 7. I’m going to try and eschew the already-covered angles and look more at some fringe thoughts about the series. I feel obliged to direct you to another roundtable reaction of Game 6 on Grantland – it’s fantastic.
Wow – Tim Duncan put on a vintage clinic in the first half…Kawhi Leonard face-palm dunked on Mike Miller…Miller nailed a one-shoe three…Jesus worked another miracle to force OT…Dwayne Wade strengthened his role as a rock chained to LeBron’s ankle…And The King played like one….
Does The King James Version Need Revision…
In the Raptors Republic podcast we wondered if the legacy of LeBron James has been tarnished by occasionally lackadaisical play during this series. Specifically, in Miami’s last two losses during these Finals, James’ overall stat line might look good, but they also betray a lack of him imposing his will on the game(s) – something that may persist as a kink in his armor when history appraises his career years from now.
In the Game 3 blowout, LeBron had 15-11-5 (PTS-REB-AST). However, he made zero trips to the line, and shot 33 percent on 7-of-21 from the field. This was the game in which Spurs coach Greg Popovich ingeniously instructed his players not to attack James with double-teams or close coverage, but rather let him take jumpers all night. The plan worked – the Heat offense, taken aback by this rare approach, stagnated, and LeBron bricked numerous indecisive perimeter shots and failed to get into the paint enough to force the defensive rotations that Miami’s offensive spacing is made to take advantage of.
(A note about Pop’s defensive game plan from that game: The impressiveness of the strategy lies not only in its elegance, but also in the courage required to execute it. In other words, even if this IS a telltale sign for how to limit James’ influence in the future, how many coaches have the house-sized balls to be able to leave him alone like Pop did?)
In Miami’s Game 5 loss, James put up 25-6-8. His shooting was still subpar (36% on 8-of-22 FGs), but at least he got to the line nine times. But at halftime he had just 7 points, one assist and no rebounds. In fact, LeBron didn’t get his first rebound until halfway through the third quarter. It’s worth noting that Kawhi Leonard has done an excellent job of getting position on James away from the ball. Leonard is one of the league’s best young defenders, as he’s proving in this series. But King James should not be held entirely off of the glass for whole halves at a time – not by anyone.
So in those two “bad” games, James averaged 20-8.5-6.5. And to be fair to LeBron, boy did he ever answer the call in Game 6 – to the tune of 32-10-11, his fourth triple-double in a Finals game. And just as the statistical flaws in Games 3 and 5 don’t tell the whole story of how ineffective James was, that trip-dub doesn’t even do justice to the havoc he wreaked on the Spurs as the Heat completed a stirring comeback in the fourth quarter, most of it done while the league MVP was shutting down speedster Tony Parker on defense.
Should LeBron’s up-and-down performance so far in these finals really affect his legacy? Yes. Am I being too harsh? Yes. That’s what happens when the standard you’re judged against is that of Best Ever. Michael Jordan never laid a lackluster egg in any Finals game he played in. He also never lost in the Finals – something James has already done twice, and is in danger of doing again, in no small part due to said eggs. While I have no doubt that those bad games will be overlooked, if not forgotten, should LeBron end up winning several more rings in the years to come, that doesn’t hide the fact that he’s done what other Best Ever’s haven’t – faltered in some of their team’s biggest games.
…Or Is It Wade’s Fault?
In LeBron’s defense, don’t overlook the extent to which Dwayne Wade has turned into a set of shackles, as opposed to a sidekick for the league’s best player. The stats bear this out, too.
I’ve found it increasingly sad to watch Wade this postseason. Sure, a lot of it might just be due to his lingering knee injury, but that doesn’t ease the pain of watching him tiptoe through almost every game.
(Game 4’s 32-point flashback-esque outburst pretty much just adds to the frustration. Is his knee that day-to-day? What else is he saving it for, if he can call on his game, seemingly at will like that?)
Stripped of his trademark reckless abandon, Wade gets lost in the flow of most games. He has the body language of someone on the outside looking in, even though he’s on the court. If I had a made Finals jumper for each time I’ve noticed him with the ball on the right block, impotent and meek, just trying to pivot and/or flip some desperate finish up over defenders who have jumped while he’s anchored to the floor, I might have a ring of my own. It is – it’s sad.
Grantland’s Zach Lowe notes Wade’s numbing effect on the Miami offence in a typically excellent and in-depth analysis of Game 6. Lowe points out that, for the series, Miami is scoring 100.8 points per 100 minutes with James and Wade on the floor and a staggering 131.7 point per 100 minutes with James on the floor without Wade. Beyond the numbers, Wade’s influence on the series is arguably even starker. When he bumped knees with Tim Duncan and developed a limp, one had to wonder if he should even have been out there. That concern was fueled further when the Heat went on their comeback run in the fourth quarter with Wade on the bench – and almost sputtered and lost the game when Wade came back into the game with about three minutes left in regulation.
How can this affect James so directly? Miami’s offense relies (to a fault, but not LeBron’s) upon spreading the floor for James to create drives and/or ball movement. With Wade being as ineffective on offense as he has been, his crucial role in stretching the defense is all but lost. For the better part of Game 6, that resulted in San Antonio being able to put Boris Diaw on James and pack the paint with defensive help. Until LeBron led the already-storied late game surge, Wade’s inability to keep the defense honest almost cost he and his teammates a championship.
(It doesn’t help that Wade is losing his man on defense more than I lose my car keys, which is helping turn Danny Green into a record-breaking three-point hero. Green passed Ray Allen for threes made in a Finals series, with 25, and he owes a lot of that to Wade’s lack of mobility.)
Given these points, I agree wholeheartedly with Lowe, who says that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra needs to be more judicious about putting Wade on the bench in Game 7.
Lastly, I think the Wade factor does help explain James’ struggles in some of these games. That’s not to say that I don’t still think that LeBron’s legacy can be blemished by his off games in recent weeks – I do. Again – he’s held to the harshest standard there is, which is generally result-oriented. But in a fair assessment, Wade’s demise can’t be excluded from the equation.
Premature Exit; Miami Muscles Past The Velvet Ropes
As many of you ballers know, I’m not a huge Chris Bosh guy. But I’ll give him credit for calling out the home crowd fans that started to leave the game early, telling those deserters not to bother coming to Game 7. Note to South Beach douchebags: a 13-point deficit doesn’t mean the biggest game your team has played all season is over – obviously.
But the fans aren’t the only ones to blame for writing off the Heat too soon. League officials started to rope off the Miami home court to prepare for a Naismith Trophy presentation to the Spurs with minutes left to go in the fourth quarter. Is it any coincidence that LeBron and the Heat angry-surged to force OT?
Somewhat awash in the tidal coverage of Game 6 was Tim Duncan’s 11-for-13, 25 point first half. Chris Bosh did an uncharacteristically good job of playing his opponent honestly, but Duncan’s hand was hotter than Monica Belluci.
To be sure, Duncan isn’t the player he used to be. But in my books he’s the second-best winner in league history behind Bill Russell. Duncan may not finish with as many rings as Jordan, or as many storied playoff moments as someone like Magic Johnson, but the franchise built around Duncan since 1999 has changed and flowed as much as fall weather, and Duncan’s been the lone 50+ win constant in each and every season from then on. And even though he’s lost a bit of steam, he can still ball – as Game 6 showed. In fact, in this, the twilight of his career, Duncan remains so physically proficient that it calls to mind the likes of Ted Williams, John Elway or, dare I say, Michael Jordan – team athletes who can still gracefully dominate their sport up until that moment when they retire from the game, making us all happy that they left on their own terms, but also a bit respectfully frustrated because they could seemingly play forever.
Jesus Fires True…In His Last Gunfight?
Just last week, SI.com’s Michael Rosenberg wrote a heartfelt piece on Ray Allen, and how his career, though milestone-ridden, is arguably indistinctive. The man who so wonderfully played Jesus Shuttlesworth in He Got Game has split his career up among several franchises, and has never been one for seeking the spotlight. Because of this, isn’t it ironic that, after nailing three-pointers at a record pace throughout his career, winning a championship with the Celtics and drawing the ire of many for leaving to sign with the Heat this season – including his former teammate Kevin Garnett, who has childishly, disrespectfully ignored Allen ever since (though respecting others hasn’t been Garnett’s tendency for years now) – Allen’s signature moment could very well turn out to be the trey that sent Game 6 into overtime?
I can’t think of any shot during Ray-Ray’s career that reverberated quite so loudly as that one…. It was indicative of the beautiful athleticism Allen possesses, the catching of the pass from Bosh, getting his feet behind the three-point arc, arching his back enough to safely keep the ball above and away from a closing Tony Parker…all of that seemed like one fluid motion, even in slo-mo. I’ve always loved Allen’s game – I still sport a number 34 Connecticut Huskies jersey from time to time – and though his career is lacking of many hallmark moments like that Game 6 shot, it’s to his credit because his flawless shooting form and steady demeanor have leveled his basketball timeline into gorgeous repetition. Like George Gervin, the man is too smooth to stick out as much as his talent should have allowed. It’s easy to envision Ray Allen stepping away from the game after these Finals; it’s undeniable that he’s not the player he used to be. Whenever he does, he finally has a big moment in a historical game that will be a staple in any career montage. Lord knows he’s earned it. Fuck you if you think otherwise, KG.
When Will They Learn?
I’ve been shaking my head over the last day and a half, whenever any members of the sports media wonder if San Antonio is deflated after what is being called an epic collapse.
First of all, losing a 13-point lead, or allowing OT in a two-possession game with a minute to go is NOT epic. It’s practically commonplace.
Second of all, expecting the Spurs to be mentally affected by a loss is like expecting the Patriots of the NFL to slump after losing a Super Bowl. It just doesn’t happen. This is not a team with a weak psyche. This is a team coached by arguably the most grounding influence the league has. To wit: When asked how he’ll prepare his team for Game 7 after that “crushing” overtime loss, Gregg Popovich said, “I get them on a bus. It arrives on a ramp over here.” Does that sound like a leader who will let his team be down after a loss?
Make no mistake, folks. There are legacies on the Spurs to be fought for as well. They’ll be ready for Game 7.
Miami has been riding a seesaw during its last two series, having never won back-to-back games since they played Chicago. It’s fitting that in a blow for blow championship showdown the Heat will have to finally win two in a row to take the trophy. They’ve been nothing short of shit-tastic following big wins for almost a month now. Either that will change, or San Antonio will improve to 15-3 in road playoff closeout games – the most by any NBA team since 2002-03. Either way, history will be made, legacies ensconced. Can’t wait.