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.
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
It’s a battle of old school versus new school in the Western Conference Finals as the good ol’ San Antonio Spurs look for a fifth championship while the young Seattle Super Sonics….errr, Oklahoma City Thunder strive to make their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals.
Both teams have only ONE loss between them through the first two rounds of the playoffs, a stat which really boggles the mind. The Thunder swept the Dallas Mavericks before losing just one game to the L.A. Lakers in the second round while the Spurs swept both the Utah Jazz and the L.A. Clippers. The Spurs won the regular season series between the two 2-1.
The Spurs have won 18 straight games dating back to early April, making this a run for the ages if they make it past the Thunder in any number of games.
What makes San Antonio so good? The Spurs run a quick offense with superb ball movement led by point guard Tony Parker who is having the season of his life. with Russell Westbrook running the point, the Thunder are even faster, especially in transition (especially on the fastbreak) and have been successful shooting jumpers from all over the floor. Just as important, OKC is averaging a league-low 10.7 turnovers in the playoffs while often capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes instead.
During the regular season Westbrook, NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant and James Harden were the top scoring trio in the league combining for 68.4 points per game. That is FIERCE. Sure, we’ve watched each guy go through shooting slumps are various points throughout the playoffs, but they were short in duration and clearly, didn’t cost the team wins at the end of the day.
The Spurs aren’t exactly slouches on the other end. He might be on the older side, but Tim Duncan is having an outstanding year. The big man up’d his 28.8 ppg in the regular season to a fierce 32 points even in these playoffs. Duncan also boosts a small hike in rebounding, now averaging 17.6 per game. The guy is 36 years old. Seriously. It’s beyond impressive.
Might OKC’s Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins limit him down low? Yes. The Thunder defense stifled L.A.’s bigs Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol at times, forcing the Lakers to settle for bricks, errrr, jump shots and three-pointers. Luckily for the Spurs, who, along with its own trio of stars (Manu Ginobili being the third), also have legitimate depth as NINE guys on the roster averaged 8.9 points per game during the regular season. Rookie Kawhi Leonard has come up big for the Spurs in these playoffs. San Antonio will need all of the help it can get in dealing with a tough Thunder team.
The Thunder definitely took the tougher road in getting to the Conference Finals while getting nearly the same amount of rest as the Spurs. My heart says the Spurs will win this series because of their experience level and coaching, but my eyes have seen the Thunder and the fury they play with. I see this series going seven games and boy, would it be tough to send San Antonio packing on their own home court. You guys will have to decide your own winner on this one since I can’t!
I hate to say it, but I don’t think the Boston Celtics matter all that much in this series. What I mean by that is the winner of the series depends on which Miami Heat team shows up at the arena. Is it the confused, Bosh-less Heat? The secure, pink-pants-wearing DWade, Bosh-less Heat? The Heat, with Bosh?
Surprisingly, the Celtics won the season series 3-1 against the Heat and even with players out due to injury, looked their best against Miami. The old Big Three definitely get inspired taking on the new Big Three and it shows. The great thing about Boston is the palpable emotion that drips from the pores of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, lifting not only their teammates but firing up the crowd as well, at home or on the road. Aside from the Lakers, no other team enthuses the Celtics the way Miami does.
I would give the playoff edge to the team with a true center, but neither the Celtics or Heat has one, which is pretty interesting considering the value of the position historically. I was looking forward to a Bosh vs. Garnett match up down low, but that is unlikely given Bosh’s abdominal injury.
The season-ending injury to Boston’s Avery Bradley could really hurt the Celtics as he has been integral to Boston’s defense, which has carried the team through the playoffs. Boston is holding teams to a mere 83.9 ppg in the playoffs, good for the best team defense in the postseason. It should be fascinating to watch that defense go up against the ever-potent Heat offense which is averaging 95.5 ppg. The highest score against the Celtics this postseason has been 92 points while the Heat have scored over 100 points in six of 11 games.
What makes the Heat machine run so well? LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. When they are on and feelin it, back up or else! Despite having issues at times, check out the overall playoff performances of these two. James: 29.0ppg, 8.7 rpg, 5.9apg. Wade: 23.8ppg, 4.5rpg, 3.6apg. Of course, various Heat role players step up to the plate each night which is great, although not fabulous for the sake of consistency.
Interestingly, the Celtics Big Three has been offensively inconsistent throughout the playoffs while Rajon Rondo has done most of the heavy lifting averaging 15.0ppg, 12.5apg, 6.4rpg and 2.6 steals. If Miami’s defense heats up and the Big 3 are off the mark offensively, it will make life tough on Rondo. Sure he can sore and be a one man show, but his job is to distribute the ball. Rondo alone can’t beat the Heat.
If Miami plays the way they did closing out the series against Indiana, they’ll beat the Celtics with the youth, speed and strength of LeBron and DWade along with the shot of Mario Chalmers (ok, shots…many shots… should they make it in the net). I say Miami in 7.
Who could’ve seen this coming? Every resident Staples Center team has made it out of the first round of the playoffs, each team finding itself as the lower seed the rest of the way. It’s crazy but true as the Lakers, Clippers and Kings are all on a roll, the hockey team, shockingly, finding the most success in the post-season thus far. For now, we’ll set our sights on hoops as we take a look at the upcoming Western Conference Semifinals.
5. Los Angeles Clippers vs 1. San Antonio Spurs
From the cities they play in, to their rosters, to their playoff paths thus far, the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers couldn’t be more opposite.
The Spurs swept their first round series against the Utah Jazz while the Clippers needed all seven games to sneak past the Grizzlies.
An older San Antonio team is comprised of a veteran, championship-winning nucleus while the young squad from L.A. is made up of a youthful core and a collection of drifters with little NBA Finals experience.
On paper, the Clippers absolutely have the talent to beat the Spurs in a seven game series, but I don’t picture it happening in reality.
The Spurs come into this Western Conference Semifinals series healthy and as well-rested as they come after watching games from their couches for the past week. The Clippers, in comparison, will go from Memphis to San Antonio, beginning the series on one full day’s rest which doesn’t bode well for beat up stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
In the regular season, the Spurs took 2 of 3 from the Clipps with L.A.’s lone victory coming against a Tony Parker-less team. The two Spurs wins saw a fantastic duel of the league’s top point guards (sans Rajon Rondo, obviously) where Parker got the best Paul. When Parker was out with an injury for the final meeting between the teams, CP3 had his way with the Spurs, scoring 36 points and dropping 11 dimes. Parker will not allow Paul more than two great games in this series, MAXIMUM.
Clippers bigs De’Andre Jordan and Reggie Evans can absolutely challenge Tim Duncan in the post, but Jordan, especially, will need to produce offensively and do a much better job on the boards than he did against the Grizzlies.
As much as I enjoy watching the Clippers and would give anything to see a Staples Center Hallway Series in the Conference Finals, I don’t think the Clippers are ready to take down a team like the Spurs just yet. If Chauncey Billups were playing, I would likely think otherwise, but without his veteran savvy and Finals experience out on the floor, the Clippers might have a tough time in the maturity department.
Plus, the Spurs have one of the best coaches in the NBA in Greg Popovich who has seen and done it all, and is sure to out-coach Vinny Del Negro nearly every time out.
It wouldn’t surprise me to see adrenaline carry the Clippers to a Game 1 upset over a rested but rusty Spurs team in San Antonio, but at the end of the day, I’ll take Duncan, Parker and Ginobili in six games.
3. Los Angeles Lakers vs 2. Oklahoma City Thunder
What is not to love in this series? As basketball fans, all we can hope for is that the the postseason brings more drama than the regular season series between these two did, otherwise this one will be over in a hurry.
For starters, Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and the Lakers bench need to play at a good 80 percent of their maximum efficiency if they want to have a snowball’s chance of beating the Thunder. If they step up each and every game, the Lakers can definitely win the series. They have too much championship experience and the one guy nobody else has… Kobe Bryant.
Then again, on paper, the Lakers backcourt is in big trouble. Kobe, Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake versus Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
It doesn’t seem like a fair fight, and it isn’t, which is why the Lakers will be in desperate need of strong performances from Bynum and Gasol down low. With Kendrick Perkins nursing a hip strain, L.A.’s bigs have a chance to exploit the Thunder in the paint if Serge Ibaka has to carry most of the load for OKC in the post. Ibaka had a monstrous regular season but the tandem of Bynum and Gasol could wear him down in a seven-game series if Perkins is sidelined, or playing at or below 50 percent.
While not impressive on the court this season, word out of OKC is that Derek Fisher has made an impact in the locker room and he can do even more than that in a playoff series against his former team. From helping a young team keep calm to divulging whatever secrets and information he can about the Lakers, the Thunder will be better for having Fisher on the roster in this series.
And then there’s Metta World Peace versus James Harden.
As if the Lakers learned nothing from the bulletin board material provided by Bynum opening his trap about close-out games being “easy,” Metta just couldn’t resist jumping into the trash-talk game head first.
Since his elbow made contact with Harden’s dome resulting in a seven-game suspension, Metta had to diss the concussed Thunder guard multiple times through twitter and in interviews, most recently saying he won’t be shaking hands with Harden anytime soon because he doesn’t “shake hands with subs.”
While technically speaking, Metta is accurate in the sense that typically, only the starters of each team shake hands right before tipoff, it’s not like Harden, the recently-named Sixth Man of the Year, is some fresh-legged, bench-warming scrub.
In watching the impact of World Peace in Game 7 against the Nuggets, it’s plain to see how effective he can be for the Lakers defensively, an area in which L.A. must play at the highest level to beat the offensively-firepowered Thunder.
We probably won’t see many one-on-one showdowns between these two, but the energy and animosity between World Peace and Harden will serve its purpose in sparking both teams and crowds to a level likely palpable through our television screens.
If both teams played to the best of their abilities, I think the Lakers have the edge because of championship experience, the skill and will of Kobe, and the presence of Bynum and Gasol down low. But nobody ever plays at 100 percent all of the time, so for that reason, I’m taking the Thunder, with hesitation, in seven games (maybe even six).
In a condensed season that has lacked consistency in quality of play and top-notch rivalry games, the NBA fed its hungry fans with a prime time basketball feast on Wednesday night. Both the Thunder vs. Heat and Lakers vs. Clippers games were full of excitement and intensity, fueling the competition as the league prepares for the playoffs.
The Heat and Thunder proved that in fact, basketball is a game of runs, and typically the team that puts their foot on the gas last comes out the victor. Oklahoma City couldn’t sustain its early lead as the Heat came roaring back in what turned out to be a nail-biting 98-93 finish, good for Miami’s 17th consecutive home win, which is the longest streak in the league this season.
Sitting just two games behind the Bulls for first place in the East, Miami would do itself a huge favor by pulling ahead of Chicago as home court clearly means a lot to this team which is poised to, once again, do real damage to opponents come the playoffs.
That was just one of a few pertinent messages delivered by the Heat with a victory in which they overcame an 11-point second quarter deficit and were held to a dismal 37 percent shooting overall. Apparently, some people think the Heat are a bunch of wussie, prima donnas. Now, the latter might be true but this is one tough group of players that has battled injury, top-notch defenders and physical play throughout much of their careers.
Wednesday night brought more of the same as the Thunder weren’t the least bit intimidated by the defending runner-up Heatles. It was no guts, no glory for OKC which was evident in their chippy style of play and the willingness of Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins to go one or two body slams short of WWE on LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. With the evolution of Perky in OCK comes more and more of a Celtics-like attitude of entitlement and fearlessness that the Thunder need to survive the playoffs out West.
Despite relinquishing an early and ultimately losing the game, the Thunder made just as big of a statement as the hometown Heat in the fact that they are a forced to be reckoned with on the court, both physically and fundamentally. With the media’s coronation of these two as eventual Finals foes, both teams had to send a message and both did, even though only one team got the “W” at the end of the night.
Across the country in Downtown L.A., another edition of intra-Staples Center play commenced between the Lakers and Clippers, duking it out in front of a Red and White home crowd.
It is truly fascinating how one player can change the tone of a team, and thus the ambiance of an entire rivalry.
Blake Griffin brought boatloads of excitement and confidence to the Clippers in his debut NBA season last year and while the “other” L.A. team certainly improved, they didn’t exactly instill fear in their bully big brothers wearing Purple and Gold.
But this season is completely different. Not only are the Clippers in the playoff hunt - and by that, I mean actually going to make the post season, instead of hovering between 8th and 12th out West (and that’s during a good year!) - but the team’s attitude has undergone a complete makeover with the addition of Chris Paul.
It started with the first two pre-season games on the schedule for both teams, which saw the two LA squads playing each other. From opening tip, there were no smiles and only scowls, specifically on the face of Blake Griffin, which would soon spread to the rest of his Clippers teammates.
The Clipps put the Lake Show on notice: we’re no longer the lovable underdog who you share an arena with and whose fans buy our cheap season tickets just for the two games here at Staples where you, the Lakers are considered the “road team.” We have an All-Star-caliber lineup of our own with Paul, Griffin, De’Andre Jordan and Chauncy Billups (pre-injury, of course), so don’t mess with us or you’ll be sorry.
The Clippers carried that swag right into the regular season and have not let up against the Lakers. Heading into their third and final meeting of the regular season, the series was tied 1-1, with those two games consisting of 11 individual technical fouls between both teams.
A red-hot Kobe Bryant and the Lakers put the little Clipps in their place early on in the rubber match, but the Red and White fought back with a massive run of their own, making the Heat’s comeback look lame in comparison to CP3 & company’s comeback from a 15-point third quarter deficit.
There were dunks, threes, and fouls galore in a game full of high-flying antics and brutal physicality that scared the Lakers straight, as late-game defense coupled with the hoops-heroics of Bryant and Bynum sealed a 113-108 Lakers victory.
The Clippers are now 2 1/2 games behind the Lakers who own the 3-spot in the Western Conference, at least for the time being. More importantly, the Lakers own the tiebreak as they won the season series against the Clippers 2-1.
Including the two pre-season games, each of the five meetings between the Lakers and Clippers this season were worth watching as every one of them involved a sense of urgency, rivalry, bitterness and importance. A few years ago, when the Clippers made the playoffs for the first time in what felt like forever, there was a possibility that the Lakers would meet their neighbors in the second round, but that never came to fruition as the Phoenix Suns knocked out the Lakers in round one before giving the Clippers the same treatment in the second round.
A Lakers/Clippers playoff series could easily go seven games even though I think the Lakers are a stronger team on many levels at this point.
Aside from providing ratings gold for the NBA and various TV networks, both a Lakers vs Clippers and Heat vs Thunder playoff series would be a welcome treat for basketball fans.
This is why Kendrick Perkins is one of my favorite athletes to cover as a reporter. He looks mean and scary but the Oklahoma City Thunder center is actually a really nice guy and also happens to be exceptionally honest.
A week or so after getting dunked on by Clippers forward Blake Griffin, Perkins had a lot to say, not only about the dunk itself, but about LeBron James who famously tweeted after the dunk, “Dunk of the Year! @blakegriffin just dunked on Kendrick Perkins so hard!!! Wow! I guess I’m No. 2 now. Move over #6.”
I was in Indianapolis covering Super Bowl week when the dunk happened, and when I saw James’ tweet up on SportsCenter, my first thought was, “wow, LeBron can’t help but show arrogance even in trying to compliment someone else! Go figure.” It turns out I wasn’t alone as Perkins absolutely ripped James in a conversation with Yahoo Sports writer Marc J. Spears.
Take a gander at this missile Perky launched directly at the Heatles super star:
“You don’t see Kobe [Bryant] tweeting,” Perkins said. “You don’t see Michael Jordan tweeting. If you’re an elite player, plays like that don’t excite you. At the end of the day, the guys who are playing for the right reasons who are trying to win championships are not worrying about one play.
“They also are not tweeting about themselves talking about going down to No. 2. I just feel [James] is always looking for attention and he wants the world to like him.”
I had a hot flash reading that. So juicy. So angry. So real.
Perkins - a former alter boy who once told me he needed custom-made robes to fit his large frame as a child - threw down SO hard on LeBron right there that he should probably go to church and ask for forgiveness. On the other hand, Big Perk is just speaking the truth, isn’t he?
"The people that move out the way and stuff are the people who have insecurity problems," preached Perkins. "That’s my job. How will my teammates look at me if next time I just back out the way and just let him dunk when I’m supposed to be defensive-minded, a shot-blocker? That would be a coward move on me. He’d just have to dunk on me again.”
I love that. Perkins would rather get posterized while doing the right thing than save himself the embarrassment by backing down.
I have yet to meet a reporter who knows Kendrick Perkins and doesn’t like him. While the Big 3 and Rajon Rondo possessed the top talent in Boston, Perkins had become the heart and soul of the Celtics. Perkins represented what that Celtics group was at its core, becoming an extension of Kevin Garnett in terms of ferocity, intimidation and drive.
The Thunder are lucky as hell to have a veteran like Perkins to keep the young guys on track and teach them what defense and determination are all about. In most cases, I would think a move like this by a player was a calculated way of using the media, but knowing Perk, Spears might have just asked the perfect questions that solicited honest answers from a genuine, hard-working man.
Sunday, March 25… Mark your calendars folks because LeBron and the Heat will face Perky down low and the rest of the Thunder in Oklahoma City. The teams meet again in Miami on Wednesday, April 4. I’m guessing LeBron will play with an air of oblivion, as if Perkins did not verbally abuse him in the press. As for Perkins, I expect him to put on his meanest and nastiest game face yet, using the tweet and his own comments as big-time motivation next time he takes on the Heat. A la Bart Scott, “CANTWAIT!!!”
To read the rests of Perkins’ gritty comments, click the link for the original story from Marc J. Spears: http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/news?slug=mc-spears_kendrick_perkins_lebron_james_blake_griffin_020712