Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Warriors Win, LeBron Loses

Curry and the Warriors are flying high after winning the NBA Finals (SFGate)
Three games. That's how long it took the Golden State Warriors to figure out that they were the better team, and how to start playing like it. That's how long it took the Warriors, winners of 67 regular season games, to realize what they were up against: a 53-win team (from, it must be said, the weaker conference) without two of its three best players. That's how long it took Golden State to realize that they could pretty much let LeBron James do whatever he wanted, because in the end he simply didn't have the supporting cast needed to win a seven game series against the best team in the NBA.

The tide turned in Game 4, with the Warriors staring at an improbable 2-1 series deficit and faced with a must-win scenario in Cleveland. They came out and crushed the Cavs, winning by 21--the most lopsided game of the series. Aside from the first quarter and a few moments early in the third, Cleveland was never really in the game. Golden State quickly pulled away, both in the game and in the series.

Steve Kerr starting Andre Iguodala for the first time this season in Game 4 changed the entire dynamic of the series. Not only was he a force to be reckoned with on offense, scoring as many points (22) and draining as many threes (four) as MVP teammate Stephen Curry, but he also stifled James with his defense, limiting LeBron to 20 points on 7-of-22 shooting.

Freed from the bench, Iguodala re-emerged as the two-way force he was during his 76ers days. The former point-forward led the team in minutes in Game 5, stuffing the box score with 14 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists (a team-high), and three steals (also a team-high), helping Golden State to a 104-91 victory. He was at it again in last night's series-clincher, dropping a team-high 25 points while chipping in five rebounds and assists along with two steals. Fittingly, Iggy was named Finals MVP for helping Golden State get over the hump, even if he couldn't hit a free throw to save his life.

The award just as easily could have gone to Curry, though, who averaged 26 points, 6.3 assists, and 5.2 boards per game. He never seemed to tire despite averaging over 42 minutes a night, logging just 20 fewer than LeBron over the course of the series. Curry was a true warrior, fighting his way through double teams, mesmerizing Cleveland's defense with his remarkable ball-handling skills, and coming up with big shots when he needed to. After earning his fair share of criticism for struggling with his shot early in the series, he bounced back to provide MVP-level production and lead his team to the promised land.
James did all he could, but in the end it wasn't enough (Yahoo Sports)
In reality, the true MVP of this year's NBA Finals did not play a single minute for the Warriors. Disregarding wins and losses, LeBron James was far and away the most valuable player of this series. He averaged close to 46 minutes per game, which is almost unfathomable. He outscored Curry by nearly 60 points--roughly 10 per game--while also leading both sides in rebounds and assists. James's performance was nothing short of legendary, and yet it wasn't nearly enough.

One has to wonder how the series would have played out had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love both been healthy. At the very least, their presence would have relieved some of the massive burden placed upon LeBron's broad shoulders. The series probably would have gone seven games. Cleveland could have won.

But without them, the Cavs never stood a chance. No matter how well James played, it was never going to be enough. He's only one guy, after all, and one mortal being can only do so much. His ragtag supporting cast immediately brought to mind memories of the last and only other time Cleveland made the finals, when a 22 year-old James dragged them there in 2007, only to be squashed by the Spurs in four games. James has changed a lot since then--he has matured by eight years and is infinitely more comfortable on the game's greatest stage--but the rest of the Cavs proved just as useless.

To his credit, or perhaps to his detriment, James kept them involved throughout the entire series. He trusted them the same way he'd trusted Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, feeding them for open looks and giving them every opportunity to contribute.

Problem is, James Jones, Iman Shumpert, and Josh Smith are not Wade, Bosh, and Ray Allen. I wouldn't trust those guys with a 20 point lead during the regular season, let alone in crunch time during the freaking NBA finals.

But James seemed not to notice nor care just how incompetent his teammates were. He kept dishing them the rock, almost instinctually, often passing up good looks close to the rim to hit them for open shots on the perimeter. More often that not, they bricked those shots, which is why there won't be a Game 7 tomorrow night. James executed, but the rest of his team did not.

LeBron's selflessness has always been a double-edged sword for him, at once his greatest asset and undoing. Nobody with LeBron's size and scoring ability should be able to pass like he does, always finding his teammates with laser passes in the most unbelievable of places, like he has eyes in the back of his head. It's his Steve Nash-esque court vision that makes him a cut above the Kevin Durants and Kobe Bryants of the world. He has the eyes of a point guard in the body of a bulldozer.

It was obvious from the start, however, that Cleveland wasn't going to win this series with LeBron playing the role of facilitator. The Cavs were only going to win if James took over and averaged 40+ points a night. With his supporting cast reduced to ashes, LeBron needed to adopt the Kobe Bryant mentality for this series, the give-me-the-damn-ball-and-get-the-hell-out-my-way mindset. If he truly is the greatest player in the world, which this series proved he is, then he needed not just to play like it, but to act like it. He needed to get mean. He needed to be selfish.

LeBron may be able to do that for spurts, but he has proved incapable of doing that for prolonged stretches. He is too nice, too trusting of his teammates. He's hardwired to pass the basketball, to get it into the hands of open comrades. He shares too much. He's too generous.

It's also hard to be a killer when you run out of gas, as James and his teammates clearly did. He missed six of his last nine shot attempts last night and was a non-factor in the frantic final two minutes, when Josh Smith, of all people, nearly willed Cleveland back into the game with a barrage of unlikely threes. James, passive and exhausted, seemed to quit when his team needed him most, settling for lazy jumpers rather than attacking the hoop with his customary ferocity. He played to the score rather than the clock, and in the end it might have cost the Cavs the game.

When the chips were down and all hope seemed lost, LeBron reverted into the passive, gun-shy, scared little kid who disappears during the game's critical moments, like he's melted right into the court. There one minute, gone the next. Poof.

I'm hesitant to criticize James too much because he really gave it his all in his series. Without his heroic performances, the Cavs would've been swept. A lot of people seem to think they wouldn't have even made the playoffs without him, which I don't necessarily buy (if the Celtics and Nets could make the playoffs, then a team with two legit superstars definitely could, especially in the East) but still see their point. James single-handedly made this series interesting, even if he couldn't carry his team to the finish line. He played his heart out.

If only he'd had some help.

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