It’s only a matter of time.
Since the most eventful NBA off-season (2010) that I’ve ever witnessed in my life, every NBA fan looked at the newly formed Miami Heat, either with wide-eyed amazement or with pure disgust, and uttered those words at some point along the journey.
You couldn’t assemble three Franchise players, including two of the best this generation has seen, and NOT win a championship. Such was the conventional wisdom at the time.
And first impressions didn’t disappoint. The Miami Heat could not be stopped on their way to the 2011 NBA Finals in their first season together, a seemingly unbeatable juggernaut set to face an ageing Dallas team who defied all odds to get there. A team lead by LeBron James in his prime, versus a team lead by Dirk Nowitzki in his 13th season. It seemed like a no-brainer.
Thinking about it twelve months later, the 2011 Finals still don’t make sense to me. Not after seeing the Heat so convincingly dismantle an Oklahoma City Thunder team that surely is more talented and potent than Dirk’s Mavs ever were. But as it so often goes in the NBA, you must taste bitter disappointment before you can taste ultimate glory. And I have no hesitation to quote my wise self from last December on the eve of this shortened season: “They’re hungry and extremely hurt about the way their last season finished, and that my friends, is the single most important reason why they’ll win it all this time round.”
You could have written that sentence about Kobe and the 2009 Lakers. Or Wade and the 2006 Heat. Or Shaq and the 2000 Lakers. Or countless other NBA championship teams over the years. It doesn’t tell us anything new. And it tells us exactly why the Thunder never stood a chance this year.
Let’s talk about the Thunder first. They were phenomenal, and I don’t think you realise just how unparalleled their post-season run would have been had they overcome the Heat in these Finals. To put it simply, Durant leading Oklahoma to the title would have been the single greatest individual feat I’ve seen in my NBA-following life. No superstar of the modern era has lead their team to a title at such a young age (Durant is 23), without a veteran superstar teammate. Magic did it with Kareem, Duncan did it with Robinson, Wade did it with Shaq. A 2012 championship for Kevin Durant would have laid the foundation for perhaps the greatest NBA career we’ve seen.
But it wasn’t all about KD. Russell Westbrook, bless his soul, gave us one of the most incredible Finals performances of the modern era in Game 4. A performance that was so “Russell Westbrook” there’s really no other adjectives I can use to describe it. It didn’t result in a win, but it was incredibly important, because it showed that Westbrook belonged on this stage and avoided the possibly awkward “should we break up this KD/Westbrook duo” conversations in the off-season. That can’t be overstated enough. With the amount of pressure in an NBA Finals and a very young team, it’s so easy for something to spontaneously combust. For someone to lose their cool, point the finger, blame the system, throw a teammate under a bus, blow up at a media conference, or worse, choke.
None of that happened for the Thunder. Durant and Westbrook didn’t choke (although Harden arguably did). Sure they didn’t always make the right decisions, but they never shied from the moment, and they were gracious in defeat. In that sense, they won’t bear the burden that LeBron did after losing last year’s Finals. Their off-season will be uncomplicated – get better, get tougher, and get back to the Finals. But it could have so easily gone in another direction had their best players not performed.
And just on their best player. Somewhere between KD defeating Kobe in Round 2 and filling the “killer assassin” role that LeBron seemingly left vacant for his rivals, Kevin Durant became slightly overrated (waits for Thunder fans to curse me and close their browser). Somewhere buried in the hype of Miami vs Oklahoma and LeBron vs Durant, where we so desperately wanted to see Bird vs Magic 2.0, we lost sight of the fact that Kevin Durant is nowhere near as good as LeBron James at the game of basketball.
I say this now, but the truth is I’ve believed it for a lot longer. I’ve never raised it because the “Kevin Durant is overrated” view isn’t exactly a popular one, and I always choose to applaud and appreciate our game’s great players rather than tear them down. But given the lopsided result of this Finals, I figure it’s as good a time as any to explore it a bit further.
Kevin Durant as a basketball player, right now, is no better than Tracy McGrady was at his peak earlier in the millennium. Let me clarify a few subtle differences first. In KD’s favor, he’s a few inches taller, he has a nasty streak that T-Mac often lacked and he wants to win at all costs. From a basketball mindset point of view, give me KD any day. But here’s the list on T-Mac… 1) At his peak (2002-2004) he was the most unstoppable scorer we’ve seen since MJ with the exception of 2005-2006 Kobe. 2) For a forward playing in Durant’s position, he averaged 5+ assists in seven seasons which is a mark I’m not sure KD will ever match. 3) He played above the rim, had amazing mid-air body control (which KD can’t match) and single handedly re-invigorated the off-the-board slam in multiple All-Star games. 4) His 2002-03 season averages of 32 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists have not been matched by any one (LeBron included) since Jordan in 1992-93.
Of course, T-Mac’s prime was short and he could never get out of the First Round and when his team finally did it was because he was on the injured list. From a winning perspective, KD has already achieved more. But I’ve been amazed at just how highly regarded Durant is amongst some circles when all he essentially is is a hugely talented offensive weapon, and even in that regard he’s not doing anything we haven’t seen before. Sure his upside is tremendous, and I think that is where all the praise stems from – the thought of what could be – but as an all-round player let’s keep things in perspective people. Kevin Durant has a long way to go before he masters the game of basketball to the extent that LeBron James has, and the fact I’m even mentioning him and Tracy McGrady in the same sentence proves it.
Game 5, which is what this post is supposed to be all about (hey, I tend to get distracted at this time of year) was a blow out. As a contest, it was lame, and reminiscent of the Celtics slaughtering LA in Game 6 of the 2008 Finals. But watching LeBron James, as it has been all playoffs, was an absolute joy. So much has been written about LeBron finally embracing the style of game we always wished from him, the style of game that perfectly exploits his talents. I don’t need to rehash all that stuff, but I will say this: there is something extremely satisfying, to the very core of my body as an NBA fan, watching one of the greatest players ever discover what it takes to dominate on the biggest stage. It was as if LeBron was playing a video game, reaching the game’s final level and playing it faultlessly because he’s practised it so many times before. Like when you watch a twelve year old kid finish Mario Brothers in 15 minutes, and you literally can’t believe it because you spent six years trying to clock that game. It’s a thing of beauty.
But of course, Lebron has practised this game so many times before. He’s tried and failed many times, and unlike the twelve year old kid, we witnessed it all first hand, moment by moment. And that is probably why watching Game 5 yesterday felt so rewarding for me. Because whether you love or hate LeBron James, you went through the ups and downs with him. You saw the lofty heights, the limitless promise of his game, and you saw the gut-checking lows and shameless acts where we questioned everything we knew about LeBron James.
In the space of a few years LeBron turned from the league’s darling into the league’s villain, and no doubt much of that was his own doing. The worst thing about it though, is that now LeBron has put so many people offside that they can’t appreciate the specialness of his game. The uniqueness of his talents. It was the same with Kobe last decade, where so many fans turned a blind eye to his incredible feats because they were still bitter about the Shaq-Kobe fall-out and/or his extremely cocky demeanour and/or the Colorado trial.
Those fans, it seems, will always find a way to hate. But if you are one of them, I hope you take a moment to appreciate the significance of what LeBron James did yesterday. Yesterday, he finally put it all together, and in the process might have shut-down any other team’s chance of winning a title in the next five years.
If you don’t understand what I’m getting at, go and watch the second half of Game 5. Something happened amidst Mike Miller’s endless barrage of threes, LeBron’s constant smothering of Durant, and his amazing pin-point passes, that was very subtle to the naked eye. LeBron James, for the first time in years, played with freedom. Played for himself.
He was comfortable making the pass to open teammates (13 assists) despite everyone’s insistence that he should be the hero. In the biggest game of his career, you can’t underestimate the importance of this.
He was the one controlling the game like it was on puppet strings, despite being visibly hampered by that cramp from Game 4. For those who believe LeBron thrives only from physically overpowering his opponents, this was a sobering reality check.
He was the one telling Mario Chalmers to stop the attention-seeking antics in the dying minutes. Hard to believe this coming from the same guy who used to pose with his team in imaginary photo shoots before games.
But this was a different LeBron James. A LeBron playing with the confidence of an NBA Champion. A LeBron playing without the fear of consequences. Sure the game was in hand, and it’s easy to walk-the-walk when you’re up 20 in the last quarter of a title-clinching game. But it’s also precisely why we should all be afraid.
Let me explain.
From watching the NBA for 20 years, I’ve always believed that the only thing more powerful and more motivational than the hunger for that first NBA title, is the pride and confidence of a champion who’s been there before. It’s why former champions always pull off those against the odds victories, because they have some kind of collective muscle-memory they can draw on when it comes to crunch time in a big game. It’s that “we know what it takes” swagger, and for some players it’s intoxicating. I watched it with Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace for years in Detroit, who despite whatever damming circumstances faced them, always walked around like they owned the place. And it translated directly into their game, playing with an entitlement and fearlessness that was almost disrespectful to the opposition, who often crumbled when faced with such offensive amounts of swagger (it was an absolute joy to watch by the way).
LeBron James is now a champion, but more importantly, will start to play like one. And for a guy who’s psyche has been scarred by more crushing defeats and personal attacks than any other player in recent history, this might be the most liberating championship in any sport, ever. LeBron James playing with arrogance of a champion might just be the most unstoppable force we’ve ever seen.
That’s why Game 5 was a blow out, and that’s why the entire 2012-2013 NBA season might follow a similar pattern.
To make it all about LeBron is simplifying things of course (though he did get my 3 votes if you’re curious). Just as it was for MJ in his first championship with John Paxson raining down jumpers in Game 5, Mike Miller (2 votes) played the game of his life and connected on 7 of his 8 treys. Chris Bosh was extremely efficient, had the game’s best +/- differential with +29, and again helped to negate the Thunder’s apparent advantage in size (that they could never really exploit, as predicted). And there was Dwyane Wade of course (1 vote), who happily played the role of second-banana which was a harder transition than you might think, for a player who just two years ago many believed would lead LeBron to a championship, and not the other way around.
Since this is probably my last post before I disappear into the off-season for a while, a few more thoughts on LeBron and the basketball world in general. This was triggered when I sat down to read my post on LeBron after Game 6 of the Finals last season. It’s remarkable what a difference a year can make.
Perhaps the best thing I’ve learnt from following this sport and blogging over the past five years, is to never overreact. I understand that when you’re trying to sell newspapers or generate website hits, you need to sensationalise and make a story out of every situation. But in the last few years, it seems the NBA media and blogging community has taken this to the extreme. We critique and criticise and over-analyse moments and events more than any other sport I know, and mechanisms like Twitter only exacerbate the issue by instantly unifying the impulsive outpourings of emotional fans and observers alike. It’s not healthy, because as I hinted at early, it takes away from appreciating the game in its purity. The game itself.
There’s too many Twitter-watchers and box score-watchers out there, and not enough basketball-watchers. I don’t give a shit about PER but you can’t read an article about LeBron these days without someone quoting the stat, as if to validate his position amongst the all-time greats. In fact, John Hollinger yesterday wrote a numbers-based piece that concluded Lebron James might retire the second greatest player of all time after Jordan. I was flabbergasted. These people have lost the point.
Magic, Bird and MJ all came before the PER was invented, and were all universally appreciated and revered without needing a scientific formula to prove their greatness. It’s not LeBron’s numbers that make him great. Sure, I understand that numbers do make him more appealing to some people, but numbers can lie. Numbers can mislead. Most importantly, numbers don’t tell the full story. Proof of that is the 32-6-5 season I mentioned above that only T-Mac and Jordan have achieved in the last two decades, but that doesn’t tell us anything meaningful (other than the fact numbers can be bullshit).
Let me give you another example. Here’s the story of a player in one of the biggest games of their careers, in a close-out Finals game. He didn’t shoot the ball well, but he pulled down the second-highest number of rebounds (15) in his long playoff career. He scored 10 points in the last quarter including two huge free throws with 25 seconds left to stretch the lead to 5, and made the assist 30 seconds earlier to a teammate who drained the biggest three of the game. He scored or assisted on 5 of the last 7 points in the final minute of a championship-clinching game.
Of course, the other angle to this story is that Kobe Bryant shot a dismal 6/24 and almost cost his team a championship. But I hope you see my point.
It’s no coincidence that we as fans, and the media, are guilty of such exaggerations when it comes to players like LeBron and Kobe, because greatness is never easily accepted. We should all remember that Michael Jordan wasn’t always the greatest player of all time. Even after his third championship when he retired to play baseball, he hadn’t trumped Magic or Kareem or Russell in most people’s minds. Only when he came back as a man in his mid-thirties, winning another three rings, were we ready to annoint him the GOAT. The evidence, quantitatively and qualitatively, was there for all to see.
I make this point because just as so many people were quick to pounce on LeBron when he was down last season, many will just as swiftly spew forth hyperbole claiming his greatness. We have short memories, it seems.
Winning one championship doesn’t make LeBron James the greatest player of all time, or even a Top 10 player of all time. This championship does go a long way towards erasing our memories of the 2011 Finals, but it doesn’t make them irrelevant just yet. I said earlier that LeBron James is now ready to attack the league with the confidence of an NBA Champion, but that doesn’t mean he will. I’ve been wrong about LeBron before, several times. I think we all have.
I don’t want to end this long post-championship rant on a sour note, that wouldn’t be fair to LeBron, but I guess I’m asking everyone to keep things in perspective. We just witnessed one of the greatest players ever win their first championship, and that should be celebrated. But Lebron has perhaps another 6-8 years left in him. That is an entire career for some players, and the true measure of the man will only be made when he hangs up the boots, just as it was for Jordan.
So whether you’re a lover or a hater, a Heat fan or a Thunder-sympathiser, make sure you take a moment to enjoy what just happened in season 2012. The season that almost killed off the NBA. The season that leaves it with its brightest future ever.
And when that moment passes, forget about it. Don’t feel the need to Tweet it or tell the Internet. Just let it go, so when the next moment comes along you can enjoy it for all its worth. Because you might never see a moment like it again.
And that my friends, is the beauty of basketball.