Posted May 31 2011 10:01AM
MIAMI -- The NBA Finals are almost always a referendum on the season's dominant team. It is the nature of the pro game. If one team -- and, in some rare cases, one player -- is clearly superior to its (his) brethren, that team tends to win. When Michael Jordan was on the floor, and at the height of his powers, and had the kind of battle-hardened help he had in the 1990s, no one was going to beat the Bulls four times in seven games. Same with the Pistons and Isiah Thomas, and the Celtics and Larry Bird, and the Lakers and Magic Johnson, and the Rockets with Hakeem Olajuwon and the Spurs with Tim Duncan and the Lakers with Shaq and Kobe.
Which brings us to now.
LeBron James is the best player in the league. The Finals will be a referendum on him, and the Miami Heat.
Derrick Rose was the deserving MVP in the regular season, the way he carried the Bulls and led them to 62 victories. His team had a better record than Miami. But in the playoffs, how can you argue that anyone other than James has been the best? Yes, James has Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and Rose doesn't. But that was true in the regular season, too, and no, Rose didn't have to face Miami's defense every night. But he played great against almost all of the great defenses he faced. He did not in the Eastern finals. James' defense on him was a big reason why. We -- the collective "we" -- hate this.
We can say these Finals are about a chance at redemption for Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks, and they are to a certain degree. But this championship series is all about The Decision. You know it. I know it. LeBron, Dwyane and Riles know it. Almost everyone outside the 305 wants Miami to go down, and the more humiliating, the better. This is the last chance. Darth Vader is just about to overrun Tattoine. Dick Dastardly and Muttley are about to win the Wacky Races.
You want the Heat to lose, because you will never forgive LeBron. You want to hate him, because he jilted Cleveland, and destroyed the dreams of a city that hasn't won a pro sports championship in 47 years, and that offends our group script. He was supposed to stay until he won, and preferably on a half-court shot as the music swelled up, so he could be carried off the court in a freeze-frame we could watch over and over again. Except that probably would never have happened. And then he shivved Cleveland in front of the world to cash in a lottery ticket in a fight about as fair as Bambi versus Godzilla. Who could root for a story in which IBM crushes the plucky upstart company? Who cheered when Clubber Lang mugged for the cameras after knocking out Rocky in two rounds?
That's the backdrop for these Finals.
If the Heat win, it will justify the means by which they came together. What can you say to the guy when he got the money and the ring? And it will certainly not discourage other stars playing alone from trying to force their way to a better situation, with fellow stars. (Who do you think the Knicks are rooting for? It ain't Dallas.) And it could open the floodgates to a roll for the Heat, which will surely get better at center and point guard this summer.
But, putting all that psychodrama aside, there is the matter of a potentially great series, between a Mavs team that started the season on fire (24-5) and is ending it just as hot and a Miami team that smacked the East's two best teams around. It's a classic -- young legs vs. old ones, two teams that don't mind playing up-tempo but can grind out wins with defense, shotmakers vs. drivers, man-to-man vs. zone, and on and on. You gotta pick one. Here goes.
Jason Kidd vs. Mike Bibby
Two old pros who have been chasing a championship for a long time, and could use a ring to justify their status among their brethren. For all of his individual success, Kidd wasn't able to get the Nets over the top in successive Finals appearances in 2002 and '03, and he's well aware that his opportunities on the big stage are dwindling. His shooting has dropped this season but the 38-year-old is still diming people up, averaging almost eight assists per game in the playoffs with a sterling 3.3 assist-to-turnover ratio. Against a team like Miami that lives off of deflections and runouts, protecting the ball is crucial, and Kidd is still among the best in the game at it. Despite his shooting dropoff, the Mavs will still move Kidd to shooting guard on occasion. He's more wily on defense now than able to stay in front of people and use his size and strength; he took Kevin Durant down the stretch in the Mavericks' clinching Game 5 win and stripped him clean as Durant tried to go by. It would not surprise to see him get Wade in similar situations in The Finals.
Bibby has struggled mightily since coming to Miami, shooting an abysmal 26 percent in the postseason; even his true shooting percentage, which incorporates both two- and 3-pointers, along with free throws, has been awful in the playoffs: 34.7 percent. To be fair, it would be difficult for anyone coming in with six weeks to go in the regular season to try and find a comfort zone playing off of the Super Friends, and Bibby showed a few signs of life late in the Chicago series. But if you're Dallas, and you have to concede something, it's hard to imagine it wouldn't be letting the 33-year-old Bibby fire away to his heart's content.
DeShawn Stevenson vs. Dwyane Wade
D-Steve was thought to be a cap-balancing throw-in when he was traded along with Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood to Dallas almost 16 months ago. But Stevenson is the only one of those three still starting, though in a limited role. He starts the first and third quarters, and will make a pressure release 3-pointer now and then. But the Mavericks use Jason Terry to finish most games when they go to their three-guard rotation. I'll pay cash, though, if Rick Carlisle will let Stevenson take LeBron for a few possessions a game, so that we may relive one of the most hilarious "feuds" in recent league history.
When Stevenson was in Washington, he took an immediate and public dislike toward James, calling him overrated, among other things, but never disclosing exactly what it was that set him off. Then Stevenson invited rapper Soulja Boy to sit courtside at a Wizards-Cavs playoff game to heckle James. James responded by getting his rapper friend to record a quickie "diss" of Stevenson at a local D.C. nightclub. The friend was Jay-Z. Oh pleeeze let these two hook up again!
Now, back to the guard matchup.
Whether Wade's shoulder was the culprit or he was just tired from chasing Ray Allen in the East semis, Wade barely registered for most of the Chicago series. And yet he came alive in the last three minutes of Game 5; after his four-point play Miami's comeback seemed almost inevitable. That the Heat were able to better the NBA's top defense with their primary closer shooting just 40 percent from the floor and 20 percent from behind the arc bodes well for Miami's chances in The Finals. Even an injured Wade is likely to shoot better than that against the Mavericks, especially with four days off between games to rest the wing and get treatment.
Shawn Marion vs. LeBron James
Replacing the injured Caron Butler as a starter much of the second half of the season after coming off the bench for the first time in his career, the 33-year-old Matrix was a revelation. Since the start of March and through three rounds of the playoffs, when he's been starting most games at small forward, Marion is shooting 51 percent from the floor, including 26 points in 40 minutes in the Western Conference clincher against Oklahoma City. And Marion was outstanding defensively against Kevin Durant in the West finals, using his length, his feet, his savvy and his brains to frustrate Durant into 37.5 percent shooting. Now he gets to dance with James for a couple of weeks. If anyone has the defensive skill set to frustrate the King, it's Marion. First, he's long and can contest jumpers. Second, he hasn't lost a lot of his lateral quickness, which means he can still get to spots ahead of the offense to draw charges. Third, he's spent his entire career guarding bigger, stronger players at power forward, so taking James on is not a new challenge. (Back in the day in Phoenix, Marion guarded Tim Duncan, Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace, among others.) Fourth, being a veteran with a reputation as a strong defender, Marion could get benefit-of-the-doubt non-calls from officials. And despite all of the above, it's going to be almost impossible for Marion to slow James down.
He's on a great roll, carrying Miami for long stretches with pinpoint passing when doubled, a vastly more trustworthy jumper when singled and a great sense of when his team needs him to get going. But James has always been a near-impossible assignment on offense. Where he's gotten even better in the last couple of years is at the defensive end. I don't know what the advanced metrics say, but I know what my eyes tell me, and that is he's ready and able to take on whatever defensive challenge his team needs. Being the first and most important line of defense against Derrick Rose in the East finals was the capper. There may be one or two guys in the league that can keep Rose anywhere close to in front of them, and James is one of them. Rose doesn't shoot 4-of-23 from the floor in the fourth quarter over four games against most players or teams. This should be a great matchup at both ends, but have to give James the nod.
Of all the numbers that have been used to show how impressive Nowitzki has been in these playoffs, this one resonates the most: 31. That's the total number of 3-pointers he's attempted in 15 playoff games out of 261 total shots. It should put to bed the notion that Nowizki is a soft Euro who doesn't want to come inside with the big boys.(Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is fond of saying that public perception of a team or player usually lags about two years behind the reality of what that team or player is.) The Big Man has refined his game in recent years by taking a lot of the finesse out of it. Did you watch him back Nick Collison down, time and again, from his favorite spots at the elbows? Nowitzki probably won't have that luxury against the ball-hawking Heat D, but he is still 7 feet tall, which means he's going to get his shot off against just about everybody, even with a hard contest. No one is better at the awkward setup than Dirk, because no matter how much you bang him, at the moment of release, he is almost always squared to the basket. His balance is unbelievable. And one of The Finals' biggest subplots will be whether Miami can defend Nowitzki without fouling; he's averaging better than nine free-throw attempts per game in the playoffs, and shooting a crazy 93.3 percent (130 of 140) from the foul line.
But Bosh will do something that Serge Ibaka didn't; he'll force Nowitzki to expend some energy on D. After struggling with Kevin Garnett in the semis, Bosh dominated Carlos Boozer in the East finals. He found a comfort zone against Chicago, taking his time and busting Boozer and the rest of the Bulls' frontcourt to the tune of 23 a game on 60 percent shooting. The Bulls couldn't guard him, and he's never going to be doubled as long as James or Wade is on the floor. He's been the easy mark all season, but when it mattered most, he was the Heat's most consistent scorer, and he has to continue that against Dallas. James will certainly guard Nowitzki at key moments, too.
Tyson Chandler vs. Joel Anthony
Mark Cuban will surely tell you that he knew all along how good Chandler would be when the Mavs acquired him from Charlotte last offseason. Of ourse, if he knew that, he probably wouldn't have given former starter Brendan Haywood a $55 million extension. No, the Mavs were gambling that the 28-year-old Chandler could stay healthy and return to the form that he'd shown in New Orleans when the Hornets beat the Mavs in the first round in 2008. And he has, giving Dallas a defensive anchor in the middle it really has never had in the Nowitzki era. When Chandler is on the floor the Mavericks' defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) is an outstanding 100.31. His length is key when Dallas utilizes its effective 2-3 zone, which one should expect to see against a mediocre perimeter team like Miami. When Nowtizki calls you the best teammate he's ever played with -- a list that presumably includes his good friend Steve Nash -- that's high praise. But can Chandler avoid foul trouble, a career-long bugaboo, when he comes over to help against James and Wade? At the offensive end Chanlder sticks to the paint, the odd putback and alley-oops off sets from Kidd, to the tune of 58 percent shooting in the playoffs.
Anthony finally won the starter's job from Zydrunas Ilgauskas during the Boston series, when he did his best work; he wasn't as much of a factor against Joakim Noah in the East finals. But Anthony's presence gives the Heat much more defensive coverage inside the paint and leaves Miami less susceptible to the kinds of screen-and-roll sets that Dallas loves to run with Jason Terry and Nowitzki. According to 82games.com, Miami was 18-7 when Anthony was on the floor with James, Wade, Bosh and Mario Chalmers -- one of the Heat's best five-man units.
J.J. Barea, Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovic, Brendan Haywood vs.
Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, James Jones
This is where the series will likely be decided. Where would Dallas be without Barea -- who, as far as can be determined, has yet to be guarded in the playoffs, with an astonishing 52 assists in just 262 minutes? Where would it be without Terry, whose floor spacing has been exquisite and who is making 47 percent of his 3-pointers in the postseason? Where would it be without Stojakovic, a midseason pickup who isn't that far behind Terry (41 percent on threes)? There isn't much that can be done to defend the Mavs when those two float to the open spots in a defense and wait for Barea or Kidd to find them.
Conversely, where would Miami be if Haslem didn't come back from his foot injury? The Heat's search for interior defense and pick-and-pop play was reaching epidemic status when Haslem came back against Chicago, stablized the series in Game 2 and took Chicago's seemingly huge frontcourt advantage away. Miller came through after a season of injuries and poor play with a big Game 4 against the Bulls, and looks like he's finally playing instead of thinking. Erik Spoelstra didn't use Jones much against the Bulls after he'd played well against Boston in the semis. Can Chalmers keep Barea out of the paint and can Haslem take away his drives with hard shows or by stepping up to take charges?
Rick Carlisle vs. Erik Spoelstra
Carlisle has not been afraid to challenge his team in public; as late as March, when the Mavs blew a late lead to Charlotte, he called his team "soft" and wondered if it had what it took to win a title. He weathered the storm when Nowitzki missed nine games with a knee injury in late December and January, and kept his team up mentally after Caron Butler was lost for the season with a torn knee ligament on New Year's in Milwaukee. Carlisle trusted Barea (maybe he didn't have a choice, as Rod Beaubois never got healthy this season) and incorporates regular use of a matchup zone without his team getting, well, soft. The bottom line is that Carlisle's been an NBA coach for nine seasons and he's never finished below .500.
Spoelstra has merely guided the biggest circus this side of Ringling Bros., with daily updates on every misstep, every verbal faux pass, every bump-that-didn't-mean-anything-but-it-was-LeBron-so-maybe-it-did, every rumor that Riles was clearing his throat in the wings to zip in and take over. He's only had to find a way to keep two of the biggest egos around happy, while finding the right spots for Chris Bosh to be most effective while waiting for the ball. He's only had to win despite only having retread bigs to throw out in the paint until Haslem's return, and trying to find a point guard who could work with the Big Three. But Spoelstra, as he says, has been able to get "raw" with his players all season and not lose their focus. In fact, the Heat are playing their best basketball of the season when it counts most. That is quality coaching. Both of these guys know their personnel, know their team's temperature, know what buttons to push.
Both teams have been great at home -- Miami is 8-0 at the American Airlines Arena in the playoffs while the Mavs are 7-1 at the American Airlines Center -- but I'll take Dallas' crowd over Miami's. And both have signature road wins: Dallas' Game 6 in the first round at Portland, followed by their Game 1 and 2 wins at Staples Center, and their beatdown of OKC in Game 3 of the West finals. Miami finally broke through at TD Garden in Game 4 against the Celtics, and closed out the Bulls at United Center in Game 5. Dallas is deeper, but Miami is used to playing with a short rotation.
This is a great matchup. Forget Dallas' sweep of the two regular season games; it means as much as Boston and Chicago's regular-season marks agaisnt Miami. And talk about rooting for a tie; in two weeks or so, the Commish is going to have to hand the Larry O'Brien Trophy to either LeBron and the Heat -- who are the scourge of his league, and whose Decision special Stern derided -- or to his good and close friend Mark Cuban. Which would cause him more agita?
It's fun to say the Mavs want to avenge their '06 Finals loss to Miami, but Nowitzki and Terry are the only players left from that team, and Wade and Haslem are the only ones left from the championship Heat. No, these teams have their own reasons for winning, and it should make for great basketball. (To wit: the Mavericks lead the league in the playoffs with an incredible 114 points per 100 possesions. But the Heat is third in defensive ranking in the postseason, allowing just 101.7 per 100 possessions.)
If Dallas is to win, I think it has to happen quickly, in five games. The longer Miami locks in on its opponent, the tougher it seems to become. Can Dallas' older legs on Kidd, Terry and Marion hold up in a sixth or seventh game on the road? Can Barea and Terry continue to produce at the level they have the first three rounds? That's what I keep coming back to, those two. They've been the difference for the Mavericks in the playoffs. Can they play free and loose against a Miami defense that's going to hawk them and close out on them?
My guess is they can't, because of the pressure James, Wade and Bosh put on teams game after game at both ends. I think they can make shots and they can get stops. Really, that's it. The Big Three trump the Terrific Ten.
THE PICK: Heat in six.
West, Myers join group tasked with reshaping Warriors
In Bob Myers' other professional life, Jerry West was his part-time chaffeur.
"When I would fly to Memphis, he would pick me up from the airport himself," the Golden State Warriors' new assistant general manager said Sunday evening by phone. "And it was Jerry West. It wasn't like (he said) 'I'm sending a driver, or I'm sending somebody from the team.' It was Jerry West. And I would stay at his house.The word adversarial didn't apply. We had a very good relationship. I've known Jerry a long, long time and we worked well together. I'm excited. He's just a great voice, a voice of experience, and he's seen a lot. Whether it's the Draft, trades, whatever."
Driving Mr. Myers took place while West was the Grizzlies' general manager, and Myers was one of the top agents at the Wasserman Media Group, handling high-profile clients like Portland's Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge to Oklahoma City's Kendrick Perkins, the Lopez Twins, Brook and Robin, and Sacramento's Tyreke Evans as the second in command at Wasserman's NBA group to super agent Arn Tellem. Now, years later, Myers and West are about to work together at Golden State, after the Warriors hired the iconic West last week to sit on the team's Executive Board.
It was the latest high-profile, headline-grabbing move made by new majority owner Joe Lacob, who bought the team along with co-owner Peter Guber last year from embattled former owner Chris Cohan for $450 million, beating out the presumed front-runner, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. The Lacob-Guber winning ticket shocked many around the league, who thought Ellison couldn't lose (after all, the Warriors play in Oracle Arena in Oakland), and who never dreamed an NBA team would go for almost a half-billion.
Lacob says he wants to build a first-class organization in the Bay Area, and brought West in to advise the team on both basketball and business moves. (I can't help but think West's primary role will be to work San Francisco executives and/or money people into clearing the decks for the Warriors' eventual move back into the city, after playing the last four decades in Oakland at what is now Oracle. Among the worst-kept secrets in the league is that there is significant interest in building a basketball arena in downtown San Francisco, near the Giants' fabulous PacBell Stadium. The team's current lease at Oracle Arena runs through 2017.)
West said in a telephone interview Friday that he'll fly up from his L.A. area home 15 to 20 times next season to see the Warriors in person, and meet with Lacob and Guber whenever they want to see him.
Six weeks ago, Lacob and Guber convinced Myers to leave his lucrative agent business to be the Warriors' executive of the future, learning the other side of the negotiating table from current GM Larry Riley, who was retained by the new owners while they let interim coach Keith Smart go. Myers is the latest former agent to make the jump. Jason Levien, who had become one of the top young agents in the game, with a client list including Luol Deng, Kevin Martin and Udonis Haslem, left in 2008 to join the Kings as general counsel and assistant GM. (He only lasted 20 months before resigning in July of last year.) And Williams and Connolly's Lon Babby, who represented Grant Hill, Shane Battier, Luke Ridnour and others in a two-decade agent career, became the Suns' president last summer.
Now comes Myers, a reserve on on UCLA's 1995 national championship team who quickly became Tellem's protege after his playing days ended in Westwood. He knows being on the other side of the desk will require a different skill set.
"Experience counts," he said. "To see it from the other side, certainly the challenge is there. That was one of the things I looked at. I think negotiating is negotiating; whether it's acquiring a player or signing him to a contract. Sitting in the front office, reviewing a cap, seeing all the decisions that have to be made, that's going to be a challenge going forward. As an agent, you focus on your client. I just had to worry about making the best deal for that client. On the team side, you have all these pieces to a puzzle, and they have to work together. I didn't have to have all my NBA clients work together."
It is a mark of his reputation that I can find no one in NBA management circles that has a bad thing to say about him. Think about that; an agent, normally one step above pond scum in the eyes of general managers and team presidents, comes in from the other side of the primordial ooze to take a senior management position, taking a potential gig away from someone that these guys know. Maybe one of these guys themselves. And no one says anything other than Myers was a great hire and is as upfront a guy as you can have in the business.
"Give it some time," Myers said with a laugh. "Check back in a year when I've been on the job."
But Myers also got congratulations from other agents, who have been known to eat their young if it would get them another percent on a deal.
"That was gratifying," he said. "The goal obviously isn't to make friends; the goal is to treat people with respect. Myself as an agent, I wasn't going to always get what I wanted. The team wasn't going to get what it wanted. So you had to compromise ... a big key to the business is the relationships you cultivate. It leads to, perhaps, information, and perhaps you capitalize on that to either trade for a player or sign a player. If agents have that relationship, it gives you a chance (as an executive) to enhance that relationship with 30 teams. Maybe that's the motivation for owners hiring (former agents) also."
Tellem was almost beaming through the telephone Sunday night.
"I'm incredibly proud of him," Tellem said. "He was with me from the time he was in college, starting as an intern. I think he was with me for 16 years. I saw him bloom into a real star in the basketball world, and I think he's going to do a great job with the Warriors."
But West made it clear at his news conference that he didn't plan to be a figurehead. He's the frickin' Logo, after all, among the best ever to play, and the only former Hall of Famer who had a second career as a GM that was just as successful -- more -- than his playing career. Which is one of the things that's so interesting about the Warriors' new brain trust. Myers was a top-flight agent; West was an outstanding GM with the Lakers, then built the Grizzlies into a playoff team. Riley is the last holdover from the Don Nelson era and has his own ideas. How is it supposed to work? It would actually be easier if Lacob and Guber had put a group of idiots in a room together, but how do people who've been successful reach consensus?
Tellem has a unique perspective on a potential Myers-West collaboration. He is one of West's best friends -- not working friends, but personal friends. Tellem worked every angle he could when he represented a teenage Kobe Bryant in 1996 to make sure that the phenom got to West's Lakers, after West was blown away by a Bryant pre-Draft workout. And he was Myers' boss. "The only missing piece is me," Tellem said, and I'm pretty sure he was joking. I think.
"I have no doubt that they'll be able to work together really well," Tellem said. "It's just (that) they're not going to all agree, not that they'll be the Team of Rivals, like in the Lincoln Cabinet."
Said Myers: "I would hope part of being smart is realizing you're not right all the time. You're willing to listen to an opinion you might not share and hear a different version of the story. You want to be respectful in your disagreements, but when a decision is made everybody has to be on board. As long as you don't feel you have to be right all the time, it's great to have people with different experiences. I think that was Joe's game plan."
The first thing Golden State has to do is hire a new coach. Mike Brown, who took the Lakers' job last week, was the Warriors' first choice. Now Golden State will have to pick four finalists from a group including Mavericks assistant Dwane Casey, Lakers assistant Brian Shaw, Celtics assistant and former Nets coach Lawrence Frank -- or, perhaps, someone else off the radar. Former Rockets coach Rick Adelman, who coached in Golden State from 1995-97, may also be on the short list. Lacob has yet to meet with any of the potential candidates; he was in Africa earlier this month when the first set of interviews were conducted.
Then, the Warriors have to decide how they'll add size to a team that was last in the league in points in the paint allowed this season. They need a low-post threat to be sure, but they don't necessarily want a total makeover from the high-octane scoring team of Steph Curry, Monta Ellis, Dorell Wright and the like. When and if the Warriors get back to the playoffs, they'll want to have some people around who can score; just look at the difficulties teams with just one primary threat have had in the postseason.
But how to do it? Let the war room debate begin. The former passenger in West's car is ready to talk shop.
"I think Jerry will have multiple roles," Myers said. "I think the design was for him to help out in every area possible, not just basketball operations but businesswise. Any facet of the organization, he'll be invovled in to various degrees, depending on what makes sense. He'll take direction from Joe and from Peter, who handles a lot of the business end, and we'll work together on the basketball side."
(April 25 rankings in brackets)
1) Dallas  (2-0): Heat better not mess up at American Airlines Arena: Mavericks are 7-1 at home in the playoffs, winning by an average of 12 per game. (That average is skewed a bit by that clinching 36-point squeaker over the Lakers in Game 4 in the first round.)
2) Miami  (2-0): And this is as vulnerable as the Heat's going to be for the next, oh, five years.
3) Chicago  (0-2): Season complete. Rip Hamilton, white courtesy phone.
4) Oklahoma City  (0-2): Season complete. For the first time in five years, the Thunder probably won't be making any major personnel moves through the Draft, free agency or trades.
5) Memphis : Season complete. Grizzlies trying to keep their coaching staff from geting poached: Dave Joerger is being pursued by the Rockets to be on staff, and Damon Stoudemire is talking to the University of Memphis and the University of Arizona about an assistant's job.
6) Boston : Season complete.
7) Atlanta : Season complete. Al Horford seems to have come around on the power forward idea.
8) L.A. Lakers : Season complete. Don't be surprised if Chuck Person is the only holdover from Phil Jackson's staff with Mike Brown; the two worked together in Indy when Brown was Rick Carlisle's top assistant.
9) San Antonio : Season complete.
10) New Orleans : Season complete.
11) Portland : Season complete. Your turn, Chad Buchanan. Watch your back.
12) Orlando : Season complete. Nice touch, Dwight Howard.
13) Philadelphia : Season complete.
14) Denver : Season complete.
15) New York : Season complete.
Miami (2-0): For four months, they couldn't close against good teams. And now, all of a sudden, they can. There haven't been many three-minute stretches like the three-minute stretch with which the Heat finished Game 5 against Chicago. It was the culmination of everything that Pat Riley thought could happen when he brought the SuperFriends to South Beach -- and everything the rest of the NBA feared. It was the kind of stretch that puts fear in good teams and gives the Heat a mental edge. Well, if Miami wins the Finals, that is. Otherwise, the Heat are just the '04 Lakers.
Chicago (0-2): Derrick Rose didn't play well against the Heat. He will play better in future playoffs. But who will become his consistent second? Carlos Boozer sat on the bench in crunch time against Miami in Game 5; Luol Deng was up and down throughout the series, and Kyle Korver never could get himself going offensively. A disappointing end to a great season.
Why is everybody hating on Russell Westbrook?
The Thunder made the Western Conference finals. They had their most successful season since moving to Oklahoma City. And Westbrook was a key reason why that happened, making the All-Star team and was second team All-NBA, averaging 21.9 points and 8.2 assists in the regular season. Yet judging by the Twitterverse and other social media -- as well as studio criticism on TNT and ESPN -- he is a lost cause that has to radically change his game or be excised immediately to protect the Thunder from certain doom.
Among the many problems with a 24/7 news cycle is this: a frightening lack of patience and history.
Magic Johnson was once nicknamed "Tragic Johnson." Michael Jordan couldn't make his teammates better. Isiah Thomas was too small to lead a team to a championship. All were at similar points in their careers as the third-year Westbrook is now when the above comments were made. But in those days, millions of people couldn't communicate with one another in a second, saying, 'Me, too!" The sort of groupthink that usually took weeks, months to coalesce in the '80s and early '90s occurs within minutes today. And that makes it look more authentic than it probably is.
You hear all kinds of things. Westbrook is playing for a big contract and/or endorsements. He desperately wants to get back to his native Los Angels so he can play for the Lakers. He doesn't get along with Durant. All of those things could be true at different times -- and none of them should matter. Who isn't playing for more money? Who doesn't have pangs about the other side of the street -- or the street you grew up on? Who hasn't had beef with his boy from time to time? You think Scottie Pippen loved Michael Jordan every day of the week? You think James Worthy and Kareem were Magic fans without fail? There is no evidence that I'm aware of that the relationship between Westbrook and Durant is in any way toxic.
The biggest gripe with Westbrook is that he shoots too much -- 20 hoists a game against both Memphis and Dallas. It's also said he's forcing things time after time at key stretches, ignoring Durant and James Harden when he should have been feeding them. And the criticism is he doesn't know the nuances of the position. All of those things were indeed true at times in the postseason.
Durant took 345 total shots in the playoffs.
Westbrook took 343.
You can argue that Durant should have taken a lot more and that it shouldn't have been anywhere near that close. After all, Durant led the league in scoring, I heard a billion or so times. Do we allow anyone to grow, to mature? Does everyone have to be a finished product the second they get to the league? It's not making excuses for Westbrook to say that he's a kid and he's still learning, just like it wouldn't kill Durant to get stronger and be more active getting himself open.
There was another young player who came into the NBA as a scoring guard trying to learn the point. He didn't even do as well as Westbrook has. A flameout with four teams, he was on his way out of the league when he got lucky; the incumbent point guard got hurt, opening up an opportunity for minutes. Finally, in his fifth season, he started to learn what it meant to run a team.
Two years after that, Chauncey Billups was Most Valuable Player of The Finals.
Like Westbrook, Billups was drafted high, by Boston with the third pick in 1997, and thrown into the Celtics' lineup. But Rick Pitino thought he needed a veteran point guard, and Billups barely made it through half of his rookie season in Boston before being dealt to Toronto for Kenny Anderson. He bounced from Toronto to Orlando -- where he never actually played a game -- to Denver, and then to Minnesota, where he backed up Terrell Brandon for two years. In the second year, which was Billups's fifth in the league, the injury-plagued Brandon went down again. Billups started 54 games and showed people how much he'd grown. That summer, the Pistons signed him to a free agent contract, Larry Brown began browbeating him, and the rest is history.
Westbrook has a lot of growing to do, as a player. But this isn't a Stephon Marbury-KG situation. I don't think so, anyway. Westbrook is 22. The Thunder is crazy if they even think about trading him, unless it's New Orleans on the other line saying. "Sure, we'll give you Chris Paul." Anything else isn't worth talking about. Maybe we should wait until Westbrook is, say, 25 before condemning him as hopeless and uncoachable.
Vesely, he may not be the answer in Toronto. From Valentini Antonello:
Let me give you my opinion about [Jan] Vesely after watching play him here in Rome in Euroleague and several time(s) on telly. He is a perimeter player, he's got the game to play SF or PF but he's never played at 5 with Partizan, he won't allow [Andrea] Bargnani play out to the perimeter. Two big men playing on three point line would be a disaster for (the) Rap's offense ... although Vesely goes to the rim more than Italian, who would take rebounds? ... he' s comfortable at 3 ... I apologize for my poor English.
Your English is better than my Italian, Valentini. You're right; Vesely is no five, from what I hear; he's actually more of a 3/4. So that premise is not accurate; though the Raps could play Vesely at the four alongside Bargnani, it's probably not a long-term lineup that would work for them. So Vesely may not be in Toronto's cards. Thanks for clearing that up.
They flip the script when it matters most. From George Beauchemin:
The NBA uses a 2-2-1-1-1 format (the team having the most points in the regular season standings hosting the first 2 games) in the three first rounds of the playoffs. My question is the following: why does the league go to a 2-3-2 format for the final round of the playoffs?
One word: Travel. In the '80s, the Lakers were in the Finals seven times, which meant a lot of bone-wearying, expensive cross-country travel for not only the teams, but the media that covered them. After a while, the travel costs of going back and forth across the U.S. continent up to five times became too much, and newspapers (yes, newspapers were the dominant medium then) began scaling back their coverage. The NBA responded by making the Finals 2-3-2, meaning you'd only have to fly cross country twice -- and, thus, save money.
He thinks they're well-guarded. From Austin Mullen:
I was on NBA.com when I found your 2011 Mock Draft. I thought it was great but I think Derrick Williams would go to the Cavs 1st. They Cavs already have two decent point guards in Baron Davis & Ramon Sessions. They don't have much at the SF position. Derrick Williams would be a great fit at No. 1. Also, they could draft Kemba Walker or Brandon Knight at No. 4. One of them would be a good future point guard for them. I am a very big Boston Celtics fan and I believe that they would draft Tobias Harris out of UT. He is very athletic and can score. He can play the SF or PF position. I like to compare him to Jeff Green. Although Nikola Vucevic out of USC is a good replacement for Shaq, I think Tobias Harris would be the best pick for them.
Your logic makes perfect sense, Austin. But I think it will be hard for the Cavs not to take Irving at 1. A lot of reasons, but the most important is that his potential is higher than what Davis or Sessions can give you at this point of their respective careers -- and most NBA folks think he's the best point guard prospect in the Draft. So you have to take him. If they do that, obviously, they'll likely go for a big man at No. 4 -- though it wouldn't surprise me if they think hard about moving the pick.
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(weekly averages in parenthesis)
1) Dirk Nowitzki (33 ppg, 7 rpg, 1.5 apg, .571 FG, .958 FT): At the start of this season, there was a legitimate debate as to whether the Diggler or Pau Gasol was the greatest European-born player to play in the NBA. I think that debate is over.
2) LeBron James (31.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 7 apg, .422 FG, .917 FT): He is four wins away from actually living up to all of the hype he and his minions created last summer, which is remarkable.
3) Derrick Rose (24 ppg, 4 rpg, 7 apg, .304 FG, .846 FT): Because this kid works so hard, because he takes so much to heart, he will use the failure of his series with Miami as fuel for the rest of his career.
4) Dwyane Wade (17.5 ppg, 2 rpg, 1.5 apg, .379 FG, .800 FT): Shoulder clearly limited him against Chicago, but James and Bosh were so good it didn't matter.
5) Kevin Durant (26 ppg, 12 rpg, 3 apg, .405 FG, .813 FT): Durantula will be even better next year for the experience against Dallas. So will the rest of the Thunder.
$50,000 -- Fine for Bulls' Joakim Noah after using an anti-gay slur at a fan who'd been heckling him during the first half of Sunday's Game 3 loss in Miami.
11.4 -- Fourth-quarter points scored on average in the playoffs by Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, which is the highest postseason average by a player since Amare Stoudemire's 13.x per playoff game in 2005.
7 -- Charges levied against the NBA by the National Basketball Players' Association in a filing with the National Labor Relations Board last week. The NRLB filing accuses the league of not engaging in good faith bargaining with the union by, among other things, failing to provide the union with relevant financial information that would prove the NBA's claim that 22 of its 30 teams lost money last season and threatening to lock out the players once the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires July 1. The league disputed the claims.
1) Mike Brown will do a better job in L.A. than his critics seem to think him capable. That doesn't mean the Lakers automatically win the title, but they'll be a factor to be taken seriously, like San Antonio. He wasn't just sitting around in Cleveland for five years; he gave that team structure and defensive principles that made them a contender. No, he is not an offensive genius, but name me another head coach who'd be secure enough to stand to the side during televised timeouts and let his assistant diagram plays, and give the assistants all the credit. That's someone who's comfortable in his own skin. He'll work his butt off to make the Lakers better on D, and he's got a lot more to work with in L.A. than he ever had in Cleveland. And anyway, this all comes down to health; if Kobe gets right this summer, the Lake Show is back in business.
2) I don't know how my TNT/NBA-TV colleague Kevin McHale is going to do in Houston, but I wish him luck. He was a pleasure to work with. You can kill him for the Draft picks he made during his seemingly unending stint as president of the Timberwolves, and justifiably so. But as an interim coach in two stints with Minnesota, he wasn't badl. He will be straightforward with players and he will make the game simple for them. Now, does Mac wants to do all the travel and deal with the media that today's head coaches have to do? Does he have a defensive philosophy that is rigid and unsparing, like Tom Thibodeau -- or the man he seems to have beaten out for the Rockets job, Dwane Casey (who McHale fired in Minnesota, wrongly, when Casey had a 20-20 record in 2007)? We will all find out together. But I hope so.
3) UCLA's Malcolm Lee and Wisconsin's Jon Leuer had a very good couple of days at the Minneapolis workout for NBA prospects last week and did nothing to affect his status as an increasingly likely mid to late first-round pick. Kansas guard Josh Selby and Georgia guard Travis Leslie also played well in Minneapolis; Selby has had a strong two weeks coming off of a good performance with good interviews at the Chicago pre-Draft camp.
4) Color me skeptical, but there is yet another plan for a new arena in Sacramento. When someone writes a nine-figure check to start the ball rolling, hit me back.
5) Happy Memorial Day to all who served, to all who sacrificed their lives and livelihood and to all of the families who had to deal with all of that and move forward.
6) I didn't watch all of the UEFA Champion's final Saturday between Manchester United and Barcelona. But I watched enough to see what everyone means when they say how great Lionel Messi is.
1) I guess Rich Cho was a self-promoter and was agitating for a new contract in Portland too, like Kevin Pritchard. That was the spin that came out last year when the Trail Blazers fired the guy who rebuilt their team and removed the "Jail Blazers" stigma -- on the day of the Draft. Now what will they say about Cho, who did nothing to draw attention to himself, worked his tail off and got Gerald Wallace at the trade deadline? That franchise is a joke, and it will continue to be, in spite of the good people who work underneath Paul Allen, until Paul Allen explains exactly what it is he's looking for, or gives his right-hand man Bert Kolde the GM job.
2) THE KEY MAN: Carlos Boozer.
He struggled three straight seasons with the Lakers' great interior length. For all this summer spending to pay off, Boozer will have to dominate the likes of Kevin Garnett, Bosh or Rashard Lewis in the second or third round of the playoffs, and take some pressure off of Derrick Rose.
--Me, in my offseason rankings column, last July 26. Was Boozer bad against Miami? No; you can't be bad when you average a double-double. But he shot 40 percent from the floor, while Bosh shot 60 percent and averaged 23 a game. I hate it when I'm right.
3) Somebody, please, get Tom Thibodeau a lozenge.
4) The Lakers want to change their look? Fine. They don't want to bring back Director of Athletic Performance Chip Schaefer, who came to L.A. with Phil Jackson? I get it; they still have the great athletic trainer Gary Vitti on staff. But why did they have to fire assistant GM Ronnie Lester, one of the most respected execs and player evaluators in the game, along with several other longtime employees who worked their butts off for whoever the head coach was?
5) All you armchair critics who think sideline reporting is easy, and feel comfortable taking shots at one of the best, ESPN/ABC's Doris Burke, try it some time.
6) Note to Tiki Barber: even a passing reference to Anne Frank in any kind of context that doesn't involve a dissertation or biopic probably is going to blow up in your face. For a smart guy, you say and do some really dumb things.
Don't get me wrong, MJ was and is the greatest. But LeBron could be all means get to his level someday.
-- Hall of Famer, Top 50 of all time and Bulls legend Scottie Pippen (@ScottiePippen), Friday, 1:16 p.m., clarifying his comments earlier that day on ESPN Radio in which he said James "may be the greatest player to ever play the game because he is so potent offensively that not only can he score at will but he keeps everybody involved."
"They're Hollywood as hell, but they're a good team."-- Bulls center Joakim Noah, after the Heat's five-game conquest of Chicago, perhaps talking about this acting gem Thursday (or, of course, this understated introduction last summer.)
"It's not so much that we chose not to hire Brian because he's not qualified. I think our feelings going into it were we felt we needed a new voice with this team. The old staff had been with us for almost 11 years. We didn't end the season as strongly as we hoped. We just felt it was time for a change."
-- Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, in an interview on Dan Patrick's radio show, about why the team went for ex-Cavs coach Mike Brown over current L.A. assistant coach Brian Shaw for its coaching vacancy.
"If a player in the locker room came out, it would come and go quickly, too. I really don't think it's a big issue anymore. I think it would be surprisingly accepted, and a shorter shelf life than maybe we would imagine."
-- Suns guard Steve Nash, to the New York Times, about what would happen if an active player acknowledged he was gay in the NBA.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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