Heat Subsiding: Does Championship Buy LeBron James Any Slack?
Ahhhh yes, the so-called “coronation of King James” finally happened Thursday night as the Miami Heat beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-1 for the NBA Championship. LeBron James, the self-proclaimed King, earned his crown in his ninth season in the League, leaving everyone asking questions like “is this redemption,” and “does a title signify the pinnacle for James and will it quiet the haters?”
With one notch on his Championship belt comes a level of respect for James that even the toughest of the haters must acknowledge. You don’t have to like the guy or forgive some of the crappy choices he’s made in the past, but with this title comes the confirmation that LeBron is more than just a superstar; he’s a winner.
James has experienced a true career evolution, but in reverse. As a high school phenomenon, James was, without earning them, handed the keys to the kingdom -based on talent, not results- before making an NBA roster. While he was a celebrity from Day 1 and showcased an arsenal of offensive skills in his very first season as a Cleveland Cavalier, it took James a few years to get his defense up to par, which elevated his game and reputation significantly.
Since becoming the complete package circa 2009, the question seemed to be not “if” but “when” James would win a Championship and enter the elite ranks of the NBA.
For years, nobody doubted James’ talent, instead, using non-basketball reasons to pick the man apart. From the rumored affair between ‘Bron’s mom Gloria and Delonte West, to Handshake-gate vs. the Magic, to The Decision and The Heatles, much of the James-hatred was self inflicted.
The criticisms of being unable, and even worse, unwilling to take “big” shots tainted James’ on-court image just enough to change the question to, “will he EVER win a title?”
Individual talent is no longer good enough for those playing team sports. The debate exists, “can you be at the most elite level without a Championship ring?”
Look at Dan Marino, or Peyton Manning before he finally led the Colts to a Super Bowl victory in 2006?
With career averages of 27.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 48 percent shooting in 39.9 minutes per game, PLUS a host of hardware including three MVP awards, four NBA All-Defensive First Team honors and eight All-Star appearances, all that remained was a Championship to put a bow on an already-Hall of Fame worthy career.
John Stockton & Karl Malone, TOGETHER, never won a championship. Eglin Baylor never won a championship. Charles Barkley never won a championship. Reggie Miller never won a championship. Dominique Wilkins never won a championship. Patrick Ewing never won a championship.
These guys are some of the best to EVER play the game of basketball, an opinion backed up by the fact that each one is a member of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. Had James failed to win a title during his career, he would still be in great company. That said, he would be haunted forever, just like the men listed above remain, to this day.
Michael Jordan won his first of six Championships in his seventh season. It took Shaquille O’Neal eight years, and poor Dirk Novitzki toughed out 13 seasons before winning it all.
While second place is indeed the first loser, there is something to be said for the fact that James had already been to the Finals twice, with two different teams. Neither the Cavaliers nor last year’s Heat team would’ve made it there without James on the roster.
Every great individual basketball player needs a good team surrounding him (or her) to win at the highest level. It took James a LONG. ASS. TIME. to get the right people around him on the court, clipboarding on the bench and sitting in the front office before he could possibly put on a ring.
After Miami’s Big Three went through all kinds of trial and error in its first season together, the players finally fell in place this year as the Heat figured it all out. Miami completely dismantled a Thunder team that looked unstoppable, losing a mere three playoff games heading into the Finals.
There would be no taking a backseat for James in the Finals this year, no sir. He did not defer to his teammates. James was the first option, period. That says a lot when Dwayne Wade is on the court as well. I don’t care if Wade looked old and beat up at times, he’s still a damn good basketball player who was dwarfed by LeBron in this series, a few specific moments aside. James averaged 28.6 ppg and 10.2 assists in the series, earning him the title of Finals MVP.
After the series-clinching Game 5 win, Wade said of James, “I don’t know if I could be happier for another guy, another man to succeed in life as I am for him.”
Talk about a different tune. Not so long ago, word would occasionally leak from Cleveland depicting a young, cocky and often times selfish player who was so untouchable that the head coach was afraid to discipline him, causing resentment among fellow Cavs players. Now, it sounds like James is clearly adored by his Miami teammates, including Wade, the brightest of stars in his own right.
The haters will keep on hating. “Well, how many rings will he get? I mean, Mark Madsen has more rings than LeBron.”
True. But who cares?
In my book, all it takes is one, therefor James can finally rest on top of the mountain and enjoy the view.
So close, yet so far, seems to be Tiger Woods’ motto these days as the golf legend continues to seesaw between success and disappointment on the course.
I suppose it’s no fault of Tiger’s that people overreacted to his U.S. Open lead after 36 holes. Since when should a halftime lead ever be presumed safe, in any sport? While perhaps tickled with a minor sense of excitement, Tiger knows that Saturday is just the beginning, especially in a Major Championship.
On the other hand, tied for the lead going into the third round at Olympic was no a shock as Woods won the Memorial Tournament heading into the U.S. Open, enhancing his resume with top five finishes in five tournaments played this year.
Just when you think El Tigre has all of the pieces in order for a 15th Major victory, the puzzle falls apart and ends up in a scattered pile on the scorecard. What we witnessed with Tiger’s Memorial victory and subsequent U.S. Open collapse mirrored that of his Arnold Palmer win and Masters meltdown.
Tiger can easily go from unbelievable tee shots and back-to-back birdies to literally scaring the birds in the sky with ugly swings before landing in the trees and taking out their nests. Let’s not even discuss his putting issues.
Every golfer experiences days, rounds and even entire tournaments plagued by inconsistent play, but we still can’t come to grips with the fact that Woods is now just like “ever golfer,” something he never was before.
People love to champion the underdog while hating winners, and now Tiger somehow fits both bills. He’s the Yankees and the Mets at the same time.
Love him or hate him, golf is not the same without Tiger in contention. Period. His presence alone creates a unique drama that no other golfer can generate.
The good news for the sport is that Tiger is finally back on his game, as much as any golfer can be after more than three years of professional misery. Rome wasn’t built in a day and athletes don’t exactly become winners overnight (well, aside from Jeremy Lin). It has taken a long time for Tiger to rebuild his physical game and more importantly, his mental fortitude. He has the tangible tools to win more Majors, but his mind seems unable to sustain the top-notch physicality and focus that guided him, pre-personal life collapse.
Tiger will win another major and he’ll do it soon. It might take the rest of this season, getting a few more PGA Tour wins under his belt, before winning a Major next season. That seems like more of a natural progression than winning a Major this year.
Will he ever be the Tiger of old? No, primarily because he lost too many critical years of his professional youth and at age 36, he is now bordering on plain old “old.” But Woods has too much talent not to find enough of his former self to win a few more Majors.
From 3-0 to 3-2: Is A Historic Tide Turning On The Kings?
The Kings went from trying to make happy history by winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in the franchise’s 45-year existence to possibly ending up on the wrong side of history with a hockey collapse of epic proportion.
In a seven-game series, a 3-0 lead looks insurmountable regardless of the sport. A deficit of that magnitude has never been overcome in an NBA playoff series. The Boston Red Sox were the first to break the barrier in their legendary ALCS win against the New York Yankees en route to the World Series title in 2004.
Compared to baseball and hoops, Hockey teams are entitled to have hope when down 0-3, albeit just a tiny sliver. Three times in NHL playoff history has a team climbed out of the huge 3-0 hole to win the series.
As a No. 8 seed ripping through the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Kings have not only taken the hockey community by surprise, but it’s own home city of Los Angeles has been transformed from a collection of beach-going basketball and baseball fans to a population of people warmly embracing the cold ice of hockey along with the excitement and edge the fight for the Cup creates.
Winning 10 consecutive road games in this year’s playoffs (12 dating back to last season) en route to series victories over the 1, 2 and 3 seeds out West had the media and most fans crowning the Kings invincible heading into the Cup Finals against the also surprising New Jersey Devils.
Beating the Devils twice in Jersey only continued the clamor for the Kings, despite both games being decided in overtime and the Devils actually outplaying L.A. in Game 2. But Game 3 in L.A. was all Kings as the home team crushed the visiting Devils 4-0 making the sweep look pretty realistic.
The Kings had twice led three games to none in these playoffs and lost the fourth game at home, so it shouldn’t have shocked anybody that a desperate Devils team staved elimination with a Game 4 victory, sweeping the brooms aside. But the Kings are better on the road than on home ice making a Game 5 win all the more difficult for the Devils.
The Kings have vastly improved over the last few months (after a trade and coaching change) as the players have become so in synch with each other that L.A.’s lines seem to move in flawless formations with each man knowing exactly what each of his teammates is doing and where on the ice he’s doing it.
L.A. has won games while being outplayed because the Kings players have consistently been in the right place at the right time for rebounds, redirects and deflections near the net, on faceoffs, etc. Despite playing extremely well in Game 5, the Kings lacked their usual “right place, right time” magic. Missed shots that lingered deliciously close to Martin Brodeur and were ripe for the taking went untouched by the Kings who were often times nowhere near position when it came to rebounds and second chances. The Kings were off-kilter while the Devils were carried on the back of Brodeur.
With Bryce Salvador’s shot deflecting off of L.A.’s Slava Voynov and into the net, along with captain Zach Parise’s goal, the Devils found themselves with the “right place, right time” style typically fit for the Kings.
With the 2-1 victory, the Devils became the first team to force a Game 6 after losing the the first three in the Stanley Cup Final since 1945 and only the third team ever (out of 26) to do so since adopting a seven-game series format in 1939.
Only the 1942 Maple Leafs have overcome a 0-3 deficit in the finals to win Lord Stanley’s cup. 33 years later, the New York Islanders turned the 0-3 upside down on the Penguins, beating Pittsburgh in seven games in the 1975 quarterfinals.
But what has me worried is what I watched with my own two eyes while I lived in Boston in 2010 as the Philadelphia Flyers became only the third team (in 167 tries) in NHL history to overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a series. The momentum shift was palpable in that series, like a ship swaying back and forth on choppy waters. The ship finally settled in Philly’s favor after the Flyers took Game 5. That was the turning point, the halfway mark.
It’s easy to say, “boy, it sure is hard to beat a team four straight times.” Heck, I thought there was NO WAY that after winning 20 straight games, the Spurs could lose four in a row to the Thunder. It just didn’t make sense.
But it does make sense, especially in a sport like hockey where one mistake can cost an entire game. The first two games in this series could’ve gone either way. The series easily could have returned to L.A. with the Devils leading 2-0. That’s why it is so hard to predict “if the Kings lose Game 6, they’re done. The momentum will be clearly on the Devils’ side and it’s over.” All of the momentum in the world can’t stop one guy from making one mistake, turning the tide.
If the Kings do lose Game 6 at home, Game 7 will prove to be one fierce battle for the crown as it will truly be anyone’s game. I say Kings in six, or Devils in seven.
If you’ve watched even one NBA playoff game this year, you’ve probably heard “the end of an era” used in reference to (insert any old team here). The cliche might be warranted, depending on the team.
Should the Celtics big three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen dissolve in any fraction during the offseason (win or lose against Miami, or Oklahoma City), “end of an era” would seem appropriate considering the impact those men had on the franchise.
Then we have Boston’s western counterpart in the Lakers, who were there every step of the way as the Celtics established their long-awaited reemergence as a league power.
After a failed attempt at trading Pau Gasol in the offseason, the likelihood of seeing the Lakers nucleus of the Spaniard, Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant remain in tact for 2012-2013 is slim. Dismantling the L.A. trio would certainly signify the end of the Lakers latest championship era.
But we’ve seen this act before. When Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson left L.A., the Lakers were doomed. That was the end of an era. That is, of course until the Lakers acquired Gasol from Memphis for peanuts (thanks again, Jerry West). Then a new era of winning began as the Lakers made three straight NBA Finals appearances bringing home two Championships.
L.A.’s second title in the latest era came against the Celtics, who, after January 1, 2010, were a .500 team. The Big Three was too old and too injured. They weren’t even expected to win a first-round playoff series, much less make it to a Game 7 of the Finals and come within minutes of title No. 18. No, that era had ended with a regular season loss to the 12-win New Jersey Nets.
How ‘about the San Antonio Spurs? How many times have they been “done?” Who would’ve imagined a 36-year-old Tim Duncan would average more than 15 points per game and 9 rebounds per game while the 30-year-old Tony Parker would have the best statistical season of his career? This “old” team was the fastest and most entertaining Spurs team I’ve seen in the last five years. The Thunder are the only team with comparable ball movement and quickness. Who’s to say with good health and a few minor adjustments that the Spurs can’t get right back in the saddle next season?
"Out with the old, in with the new," is inevitable for any dynasty or successful NBA team. The Chicago Bulls spent plenty of time in the toilet after the Jordan era and have just recently returned to glory in the last few years, thanks to Derrick Rose. After one magical run led by Shaq and Dwayne Wade back in 2006, the Heat needed LeBron James and Chris Bosh to get back to the Championship ranks.
Neither the Bulls nor Heat are that “young,” as the average player’s ages are 27.9 and 28.6, respectively. In fact, when you look at the last ten NBA champions (Mavs, Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, Heat and Pistons), most of those teams were comprised of “mature” players with a sprinkle of youth and veteran savvy mixed in.
That’s where the Oklahoma City Thunder enter the equation. The Thunder are the seventh youngest team in the NBA with players on the roster averaging 25.8 years of age. OKC’s nucleus of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden is barely old enough to get into the club as KD & Westbrook are 23 years old and Harden, a mere 22. That said, we’ve watched this team get to the top the old fashioned way, by working hard and improving every single year, climbing its way up up the mountain.
When a team this young makes it this far (which is extremely rare in general in the NBA), I would usually peg it as an anomaly with few expectations for the future. But the Thunder seem to be the real deal after disposing of the Mavs, Lakers and Spurs -three of the last four NBA championship teams- in one postseason.
Just because the Thunder are legit and likely to stay atop the NBA standings for the foreseeable future doesn’t mean that the torch has been passed for good. I look at it like a game of tug of war. The Celtics, Lakers and Spurs are all on one side of the rope while the Heat and Thunder are pulling from the other end with neither side able to force the other into the mud pit.
Does that mean there is room at the top for all five teams? Nope! Somebody has to give, it’s just a matter of who gets pulled down first.
If two of the Celtics’ Big Three remain on the roster next year and Boston makes it back to the Finals, clearly, they still won’t officially be over the hill, despite our best efforts to put them there. The Lakers can trade Gasol and still end up with a team in title contention. Should Gregg Popovich rest the Spurs elders from time to time throughout next season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see San Antonio win it all.
For now, we’ve got the Thunder in it to win it, and the possibility of the new Big Three or the old Big Three trying to show those young bucks from OKC how its done.