Warriors Have Been Better Without David Lee

The Golden State Warriors have been the biggest surprise of the post-season—if you’re a neutral fan and you’re not on their bandwagon, you’re definitely in the minority. There may not be a more exciting player to watch right now than Steph Curry, and his team plays a brand of high-tempo basketball that’s very easy on the eye.

Although Mark Jackson’s side won 47 games in the regular season, and reached the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season, very few people were predicting that they’d triumph over the Denver Nuggets in the first round. And the few people that did favour the Warriors would’ve had their faith severely tested when Andre Miller hit the winning lay-up for the Nuggets in Game 1, and David Lee tore his hip flexor, seemingly ruling him out of the playoffs.

But fast-forward a couple weeks and the Warriors, led by the breathtaking shooting of Curry and Klay Thompson—already being dubbed the greatest shooting backcourt in NBA history—and fantastic contributions from their rookies, are tied with the mighty San Antonio Spurs, having dispatched the Nuggets in six.

Although Lee inexplicably returned to action in Game 6 of the Nuggets series, his minutes and contributions have been minimal—offering his team emotional, rather than tangible on-court benefits. Lee had a fantastic regular season on the offensive end. That much is true. He led the league in double-doubles and was the only player to come close to averaging 20 and 10. But the Warriors are winning games without him; and more than that, they look like a better-balanced team in his absence.

With Lee going down after Game 1, Mark Jackson made the inspired decision to play small-ball. Jarrett Jack was moved into the starting lineup, Klay Thompson shifted down to the 3, and rookie Harrison Barnes played the power-forward position. Against the Nuggets, a team that doesn’t post-up its big-men, the change worked like a charm. Barnes, and the Warriors’ other talented rookie, Draymond Green, weren’t overawed by Kenneth Farried on defense, and were able to drag him out of the paint on offense, as both men are a threat from downtown. Eventually Jackson forced George Karl to match his small-ball by playing Wilson Chandler at power-forward.

Jackson’s small ball lineups have continued into the Spurs series—Carl Landry started at the 4-spot in Game 4, and his ability to hit from mid-range also drags the Spurs’ big-men away from the rim. And while the likes of Barnes and Green do a great job stretching the floor—Lee can hit the midrange jumper, but not the 3—their defense has been a big reason why the Warriors haven’t missed Lee. Although Lee snags his fair share of rebounds, he’s a distinct minus at the defensive end; so much so that analytics aficionado, Kirk Goldsberry, gave a presentation at the Sloan Conference dedicated to the general awfulness of Lee’s interior defense.

And on the subject of defense, the rejuvenation of Andrew Bogut has also been a major factor in the Warriors not missing Lee. Bogut has looked like a different player in the post-season. Not only has he defended the basket the way he did at the high point of his Milwaukee days (check out his recent D on Tim Duncan), but he’s been able to offer something at the offensive end too. Bogut has taken over from Lee as the screener in the Warriors’ pick-n-roll, and has shown they he can roll to the rim and finish when the defense tries to close on the ball-handler (primarily Steph Curry).

And as Grantland’s Zach Lowe recently pointed out, Bogut is a much better screener than Lee, whose screens are weak and often fail to create enough separation between Curry and his defender. Bogut is a brute of a man—when he sets a hard pick most defenders have a tough time recovering, and Curry with the smallest amount of time and space is deadly.

In Lee’s absence, Curry and Thompson have taken advantage of the extra space on the floor and come into their own. They’ve taken Lee’s shots and thrived with greater offensive responsibility. Ultimately, for an NBA team to flourish, two scorers are sufficient. The Warriors have more than enough offense with Curry and Thompson scoring 20-30 points, and the likes of Jack, Barnes, Green, Landry, and Bogut all contributing. With Lee’s pourous defense, and the emergence of Golden State’s young-guns, it would seem like the Warriors all-star has become somewhat expendable.

This all may seem a tad bit unfair on Lee. He’s a good offensive player and has had a great year. And sometimes it’s fashionable to claim that a team is better when one of their stars go down—those they said the Celtics were better without Rondo look a little foolish now. But the Warriors’ less than impressive second half of the season, and 10 high-pressure post-season games, is a pretty decent sample size with which to make a case.

As is the case with Amar’e Stoudemire in New York—another terrible defensive player—it’s hard to see a scenario where the Warriors get better with Lee playing big minutes. In all likelihood Lee will still be a Warrior come November—his contract, about $45 million over the next 3 years, would be prohibitively expensive for many teams—but it will be fascinating to see how Jackson attempts to work Lee back into the starting line-up, and how it affects their overall balance.

Lee’s play undoubtedly helped the Warriors get to the post-season, but without him, they’ve reached another level.

Speculation On Rose Needs To End

The highlight of Tuesday night’s Pacers-Knicks Game 2 was undoubtedly Iman Shumpert’s thunderous put-back dunk. While the monstrous throw-down had the immediate effect of pumping up the MSG faithful, and acting as a catalyst for a much improved Knicks performance, it also put the spotlight straight back on Derrick Rose—not that it had been off him for very long. The fact that Shumpert, who tore his ACL on the same day as Rose, was able to exhibit such explosive power and athleticism, was seen by some as another indictment on Rose’s unwillingness to suit up and play—hey if he can do it, why can’t you?

Whether or not Rose plays this season has been the dominant NBA storyline for the past few months. He’s been cleared to play by team doctors, warmed up with the team prior to games, and has participated in full-contact scrimmages for months now. But still, he doesn’t feel ready to return. Rose has stated repeatedly that he won’t return until he feels 110 percent—until he fully recovers the muscle memory in his left knee. All perfectly rational.

When Rose tore his ACL last April the worry among many was that, given his hypercompetitive nature, he would try and return too soon and run the risk of reinjuring his knee. The idea of him taking the whole season off wasn’t offensive to anyone, in-fact, it seemed like the sensible idea. Since that point, however, Adrian Peterson won the MVP and almost broke the single-season rushing record, Shumpert returned, and David Lee came back—albeit briefly—after tearing his hip flexor. None of this, however, should have anything to do with Rose returning. His knee isn’t Shumpert’s knee, nor is it Peterson’s, but the success stories of others have contributed to a growing public perception that Rose is somehow cheating his team.

That notion is ridiculous and unfair. There’s nothing weak or irrational about a player wanting, not only to be psychically ready to return, but mentally ready too. Only Derrick Rose knows how his knee feels, and he’s the only one who can truly make an educated decision about when he should return. No player took more punishment over the last three years than Derrick Rose. No player since Allen Iverson has put his body through more. He’s earned the benefit of the doubt on this one. The Bulls, with or without Rose, aren’t winning a championship, or even getting past Miami, despite their valiant efforts thus far. It makes no difference to their overall chances this season whether he plays or not.

If Rose decides to sit out the season, then it’s probably the correct decision. His big mistake, however, has been his failure to end the ‘will he, wont he’ speculation by not coming out with a definitive answer regarding his status. If he’s not going to suit up for the playoffs he should just come out and say that’s he’s done for the year. The lack of a concrete statement probably reflects the fact that in his own mind he’s still not 100% sure that he isn’t coming back, but telling the media that he’s shutting his season down, wouldn’t prohibit him from making a U-turn and coming back later. What it would do is mercifully end the constant chatter and distraction in the short-run.

The Bulls aren’t blameless in this saga either. It’s hard to understand why the media were told that Rose was cleared to play when he was clearly not ready to return. They did the fans and Rose a disservice in that regard.

If Rose makes a shock return in these playoffs, then great, the playoffs will be better for his involvement. If he waits until next season, then that’s fine too. Again, he’s earned to right to come back on his own terms. But as long as there continues to be no definitive statement on his status—as long as he’s game-to-game, or his return is ‘up in the air’—the discontent among Bulls fans will continue to grow, and the focus will remain firmly on him and away from events taking place on the court.

Rondo’s Temper Is Hurting His Team

Remember when NBA players were actually good at fighting? Nope, me neither. But I’ve watched plenty of grainy YouTube clips featuring the on-court exploits of those notorious pugilists from a by-gone era; an era when throwing hands was reluctantly tolerated, and the likes of Willis Reed, and, unfortunately, Kermit Washington made today’s tough guys seem a lot less scary.

And please, don’t tell me that Shaq can fight, or was a tough guy—I’ve seen him try to punch Brad Miller.

Wednesday night’s brawl between the Nets and Celtics reminds us that, thankfully, most recent NBA fights end up in awkward pushing/wrestling matches, with no one getting seriously hurt—and that there is zero tolerance for those kinds of on-court shenanigans nowadays.

Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace were ejected, Kevin Garnett should’ve been, and of course, Rajon Rondo, the player who did the most to escalate the brawl, left to have an early shower.

Rondo’s ejection, of course, snapped his somewhat pointless streak of 37 straight games with double-digit assist numbers, but more importantly, it again highlighted the irritating, and worrying (if you’re a Celtics fan) discipline problem that the uber-talented point-guard seems to have.

For some die-hard Celtics fans/ex-players, Tommy Heinsohn included, Rondo’s involvement in last night’s fracas was admirable. He was standing up for his teammate Garnett, and fighting a much bigger man in Humphries—sending the message that the Celtics won’t be pushed around.

Okay, sure, he went after the bigger man, but anyone that Rondo chooses to scuffle with is going to be bigger than him—unless he wants to fight J.J. Barea or Nate Robinson.

More to the point, Rondo’s behavior was self-destructive, bad for his team, and generally in keeping with the petulant side of his personality we’ve seen too many times since he’s been in the league.

Rondo undoubtedly has an ‘eff-you’ kind of edge to his game, which is great, if it’s channeled in the right way. He’s one of the most gifted players in the NBA, and one of my favourites to watch for the way he can take your breath away with moments of pure genius. But he can also be a liability at times. Forget the basketball stuff, the lack of a jump shot or criticisms of that kind, for now. It’s the shoving officials, throwing balls at officials, and starting fights, that should worry Doc Rivers right now.

Rivers said of Rondo after the Nets game: “You want to be on the edge, but you don’t want to take it over the edge. And he’s done that a couple times”.

Therein lies the conundrum for Rivers and the Celtics: How do you keep Rondo in check without completely stifling his competitive edge? It’s a delicate balancing act, for sure. Really, however, part of that should be on the player himself.

Pick you moments, Rondo. Sure, get in Dwayne Wade’s face during big games, even trash talk LeBron James if you dare, but fighting Humphries because Garnett flopped is not picking your moments.

Rondo’s lack of smarts when it comes to this stuff is more infuriating given the states of his team’s offense when he’s not on the court. Forget the Big-3, Rondo is now the Celtic’s franchise superstar. Everything revolves around him, and his team relies on him more than ever right now. They need him on the court playing like the transcendent, amazing player that he is, not playing the tough guy.

Sorry Rondo, this isn’t 1975.

Lakers Officially Hit The Panic Switch

Judging by Kobe Bryant’s sudden desire to engage in public feud’s with former players — see the weird and pointless Smush Parker back-and-forth for details — it might not be too long before we hear about Mike Brown’s deficiencies as a head coach. As of this afternoon, that’s former Lakers coach Mike Brown, of course. Like a mafia boss giving someone the kiss of death, Jim Buss’ assurances just a day ago, that Brown was safe, were no more than empty rhetoric.

The Lakers officially flipped the panic switch by firing Brown after just five games — albeit after a dismal 1-4 start to the season, with the only victory coming against the winless, and absolutely atrocious, Detroit Pistons. The four Lakers losses haven’t even been close. They’ve turned the ball over far too much, let opposing teams dominate them on the glass—with a Pau Gasol-Dwight Howard frontline, no less!—and have generally seemed disinterested on defense.

Defense, of course, was supposed to be Mike Brown’s forte, which was probably a large reason why he was fired. The much-criticized Princeton offense, which was actually Bryant’s idea, although not fully utilizing the potential of their team, is not really the issue. Bryant is shooting well over 50% from the field, and over 40% from downtown, while Gasol hasn’t looked terrible on offense either.

The writing was probably on the wall after the recent Jazz defeat—contrary to what Howard and Bryant said to the media post-game. Bryant’s ‘death-stare’, which Brown could probably feel burning through his tailored suit, was surely a strong visual sign that he’d had enough of a coach who, let’s face it, always seemed like a strange fit in Los Angeles.

Let’s not forget, LeBron James got a little sick of Brown in Cleveland, too.

That being said, the timing of Brown’s firing is puzzling. They could’ve given him the boot last year, and brought in a new face who would’ve been better suited to handle the inevitable chemistry issues the Lakers were going to face. Without making too many excuses for Brown, it hasn’t helped that Nash got hurt—Steve Blake is not a starting point-guard—and Howard hasn’t been himself coming off of back surgery. The Lakers are going to turn things around regardless, they’re too good not to, and they likely would’ve turned things around with Brown in charge.

Think back to the rocky moments of another coach of a stacked super-team: Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. It took Spoelstra over a year to get things right in Miami. Remember when the Heat were 9-8 and LeBron James was ‘accidentally’ bumping into Spoelstra while returning to the bench, or when Dwayne Wade looked on the verge of punching him in last season’s Indiana series? Those were rough times, but the Heat stuck with their man. I’m not saying that Mike Brown is the best coach for this team, but the Lakers’ move appears even more rash when compared with the ‘keep put’ approach of Pat Riley and the Heat.

One thing’s for sure, there are plenty of names being thrown about as potential replacements—Mike D’Antoni being one of the favourites because of the Steve Nash Phoenix connection, and the fact that Bryant loved working with him during his Team USA stints. Other potential names included Jerry Sloan, Nate McMillan, and Brian Shaw. Stan Van Gundy, for obvious Dwight Howard-related reasons, won’t be up for consideration—although that would be an amazing hiring for comedic purposes.

The Lakers have made their move. Fairly or unfairly, Mike Brown was the sacrificial lamb, and now they have to go out and perform on the court. They’re running out of excuses.

Stoudemire Should Come Off The Bench

Of the many questions surrounding the New York Knicks coming into this season, perhaps the biggest was whether Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire could function together in the frontcourt. The evidence up until this point doesn’t make for pretty reading for those dreaming of a cohesive Anthony-Stoudemire-Tyson Chandler frontline.

The Knicks played some of their best basketball last year when Stoudemire was hurt—with Anthony taking full control of the offense—and it seems like no coincidence that Stoudemire was at his best in a Knicks uniform before the trade that brought Anthony to MSG.

As much as the players and management have waxed lyrical about Stoudemire’s importance to the team’s offense, many Knicks fans won’t have been too devastated with the news that Stoudemire was going to miss the first 6-8 weeks of the season. And the fact that the Knicks have looked fantastic in their victories over Miami and Philadelphia won’t have changed many people’s perceptions about the Knicks looking better without Stoudemire in the starting line-up.

Granted, we’re only a few games into the season—a ridiculously small sample size with which to make sweeping judgments about any team—and the Knicks won’t always hit as many shots from downtown as they’ve done in their first two games, but the Knicks’ frontcourt issues have been evident for more than a year now. It’s obvious to anyone watching , unless you bet on NFL football, that Anthony is best suited to the power forward position. At the 3-spot he gets exposed on defense, trying to chase down quicker, more agile, small forwards. At the power forward position he’s far more comfortable defending his opposite number. He’s strong enough to post-up on offense, and possesses a speed advantage over most opposing players at the 4-spot.

To put it simply: Anthony’s a better power forward than Stoudemire. The Knicks benefit on offense from having their best player function in his preferred spot—whatever he says publicly—while on defense, they’re far more solid with Anthony at the 4. It’s well known that Stoudemire is a frequent proponent of matador-style defense, and with Anthony getting exposed at small forward, the pressure on Tyson Chandler to bail the team out is huge. While accepting his Defensive Player of the Year Award last season, Chandler jokingly (but somewhat truthfully) acknowledged Anthony and Stoudemire’s role in his success—having to bail them out numerous times can’t help but make you look like a hero.

But the Knicks can’t just rely on Chandler if they’re serious about contending for a championship, which is why having Stoudemire and Anthony start together is a risky proposition. The Knicks just have too many players who coast/are generally horrible on defense—the likes of J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton and Steve Novak—so allowing Anthony to play with defensively solid frontcourt players enables him to do what he does best, and limits the damage defensively. So far this season they’ve started Ronnie Brewer at small forward, an elite perimeter defender who has given them the stability they need on defense, and has allowed Anthony to concentrate on offense, and defend slower power forwards.

It’s difficult to imagine Mike Woodson benching Stoudemire for long when he does return. He was moved back into the starting line-up fairly quickly last year after returning from injury. However, if the Knicks are still looking cohesive by the time he’s ready to return, Woodson should give serious consideration to playing Stoudemire in a 6th man role. Stoudemire won’t like it, of course, but for the good of the team, it would be the correct decision.

Stoudemire is still above average on offense, despite his alarming decline over the past two seasons, and he can offer the Knicks that scoring punch off the bench. If Woodson wants to continue getting the best out of Anthony, on offense and defense, keeping him at the 4-spot is essential.

Like the old adage goes: if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.

Boom Or Bust Season For 76ers

The revamped Philadelphia 76ers are an intriguing enigma for those compiling their preseason previews and power-rankings. No team seems to have a higher ceiling—some have predicted that they’ll win the Atlantic division—or a lower floor, as others predict that they’ll fall out of the playoff picture altogether.

Many people, myself included, while wanting to believe that the 76ers are going to be a major contender, see a team with the potential to self-destruct.

The reasons for believing that the 76ers are going to be a major player in the East are clear—and they begin and end with Andrew Bynum. Bynum, the NBA’s second best centre, is now the best centre in the Eastern Conference—it’s not even close. With Dwight Howard shipped off to the West, there is no one that opposing big-men, and coaches, should fear more.

Last season, an injury-free Bynum showed what he could do at both ends of the floor. His footwork and low-post game was the best it’s ever been, while his play down the stretch in games was extremely impressive—check out his percentages in the final minutes of close games.

Recently there’s been talk of teams like the Miami Heat opting for small-ball lineups—not needing to play a genuine centre— but Bynum’s presence on the 76ers may put a wrench in that idea. I love that LeBron James can guard all 5 positions, and sure, he may be able to guard makeshift centres like Kevin Garnett, but he isn’t guarding Bynum down low. No chance.

As well as the potential 25-12 monster that is Bynum, the 76ers should also be better at the point-guard position this year. Jrue Holiday had somewhat of a coming-out party last season, particularly against the Celtics in the playoffs. He should continue that upward trajectory this year.

And then there’s Evan Turner. The uber-talented former 2nd overall pick showed flashes of brilliance last season, and he presents numerous match-up problems at the 2-spot, with his size, quickness, and rebounding abilities. Doug Collins will be hoping that he takes his game to the next level this season.

Given the factors just listed, it’s entirely logical to assume that Philadelphia are a solid playoff team, however, there are an equal number of reasons why they might also unravel. Although the signing of Bynum undoubtedly improves them in the frontcourt, the loss of Andre Iguodala in that same trade makes the 76ers substantially weaker on the perimeter. Having just praised the attributes of Turner, it’s worth mentioning that at this stage of his career, he’s no Iguodala when it comes to perimeter defense.

Iguodala was a huge part of Philadelphia’s highly ranked defense last season, and his loss means that much of the onus will be placed on Turner. Turner’s expected to play minutes at the 3-spot this year; mitigating much of the match-up problems he poses playing at the 2. At the same time, new additions Jason Richardson and Nick Young, while adding an outside shooting presence for Philadelphia, aren’t exactly shutdown defenders—Young being a particular liability at that end of the floor.

Then there’s the issue of locker-room cohesion and harmony. Fairly or unfairly, Turner has a reputation for being a difficult player to deal with, while we all know about Nick Young’s history as a member of a Washington Wizard’s team that took dysfunction to a whole new level. But the biggest problem could be Bynum’s tendency to act like a petulant child.

Bynum may have put up monster stat-lines last year in L.A., but he was also a monster pain in the behind. Just ask Mike Brown. He sulked his way through games, refused to sit with teammates during timeouts, got ejected from games, and of course, jacked up that ill-advised three that resulted in his benching. With all that baggage, Doug Collins, a highly-strung individual, with a tendency to self-destruct when pushed by a volatile superstar, might not be the ideal coach for Bynum. Just read about Collins’ checkered history with Michael Jordan for a potential precedent.

Of course, there’s also the small issue that Bynum hasn’t even suited up for the 76ers yet in preseason. It might be hard to clash with Collins if he doesn’t even get on the court. Remember, last year was also unique in that Bynum managed to play a full season—something rare in his injury-riddled career. Bynum has struggled with knee problems all summer and underwent a platelet enrichment procedure in Germany. I would be a little nervous if I was a fan in Philly.

That the 76ers are talented is not in doubt. They have enough potential scoring in Bynum, Holiday, Turner, and Thaddeus Young, while also possessing a top-15 NBA player, in the aforementioned Bynum. But there are big question marks on defense, as well as major injury and personality concerns with their star big man.

If everything comes together, you’re looking at a genuine threat in the Eastern Conference, but if the 76ers’ weaknesses on and off the court are exposed, the wheels could come off this team very quickly.

Nuggets Attempt to Break the Mold

The proven way to achieve success in the NBA is to build around a marketable superstar—either one that you’ve traded for, or have been lucky enough to draft. This isn’t rocket science, of course. Every team that’s won a championship in the past 20 years or so, has had that single dominant player who can carry his team’s scoring load—be it Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, or Tim Duncan.

In-fact, no team except the 1998-99 Portland Trailblazers has even succeeded in winning a single playoff series without an all-star on its roster. Those Blazers had players that went on to become all-stars later in their careers, but none had that designation on their resume during that aforementioned season.

And there have been teams that have excelled in the playoffs, despite being below average as a whole, because they possessed that all-world star. Think Dwayne Wade on the 2006 Miami Heat, or Dwight Howard leading an underwhelming Orlando Magic team all the way to the Finals in 2009. Neither of those two teams will go down as all-time greats. The ’86 Celtics or ’96 Bulls they were not.

On the other hand, a good, solid team, with balanced scoring, but no real superstar on the roster—no one that can truly demand that all-important double-team—tends to hit its ‘NBA ceiling’ pretty quickly. That ceiling tends to be the first or second round of the playoffs. Over the past couple seasons, Denver Nuggets G.M. Masai Ujiri has constructed such a team—and very admirably given the circumstances.

Two seasons ago the Nuggets faced losing their disgruntled superstar Carmelo Anthony, with much the same surrounding drama that the Magic just went through with Dwight Howard. Unlike the results of the Howard trade, however, Ujiri and the Nuggets succeeded in getting solid pieces back from their trading partner—in this case, the New York Knicks.

The Nuggets were forced to construct a new identity, however, one built around utilizing their speed, athleticism, and scoring by-committee—as opposed to relying on a single transcendent talent. They’ve undoubtedly had some success in the process. Last season the Nuggets gave the Lakers all they could handle, forcing a Game 7 in L.A, by playing to those aforementioned strengths.

Of course, in Game 7 of that series it was Lakers forward Pau Gasol who stepped up and put on a performance worthy of the term ‘superstar’. The Nuggets youngsters, Ty Lawson, JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried, who had performed fantastically well up until that point, just didn’t have that same gear to transition into.

This off-season, Ujiri has continued to fashion the Nuggets into a run-and-gun style team—a team that uses the high-altitude of Denver to it’s advantage, and attempts to wear it’s opponents down. The Nuggets upgraded significantly in the 4-way Dwight Howard trade, picking up immensely talented swingman (and recent Olympic gold medalist) Andre Iguodala from the 76ers, and trading Aron Afflalo to the Magic in the process. Iguodala is an upgrade in every sense and should drastically improve the Nuggets’ perimeter defense—a point of weakness last year.

Make no mistake about it; Denver will be a fun team to watch in 2012/13. George Karl will have his boys playing an up-tempo style that will be very easy on the eye. McGee and Faried are raw, but hugely talented, Lawson just might be the quickest player in the game, and Russian centre Timofey Mozgov showed some great promise during his country’s run to Olympic bronze. If Danilo Gallinari can replicate his form from the first half of last season, for a full 82 games this year, the Nuggets could well be one of the dark-horse teams in the NBA.

Whether the expected regular season success (Denver should be able to finish 4th or 5th in the West) actually translates to post-season glory, remains to be seen. Previous history states that the Nuggets might win one series, but no more. The game slows down in the playoffs, of course, and teams become more reliant on elite scorers who can create offense out of nothing in the half-court game.

Having a balanced team, but one without a big-name superstar, is good for 50 regular-season wins, but never for those all-important 16 playoff wins. Given the basketball philosophy in place in the Mile-High City, however, Denver’s attempt to break that general rule of thumb will provide compelling viewing.

Brooklyn Is A Fresh Start For Johnson

The blockbuster deal that saw Joe Johnson traded to the Brooklyn Nets was one of the few NBA trades where both teams, and their respective fans, were reasonably happy. The Nets acquired the big name they desperately needed to kick off life in The Big Apple with a bang.

Just as importantly, the trade proved to be the clincher as far as Deron Williams re-singing with the team. Williams spent months torn between re-signing with the Nets, and signing for his hometown Dallas Mavericks. The ambitious trade for Johnson sealed the deal.

From the perspective of Hawks’ fans, the trade was viewed as nothing short of a miracle. Johnson’s ridiculous contract, of which he had four years and around $90 million still remaining, was seen as untradeable. However, new G.M. Danny Ferry worked his magic and sent Johnson to the one team that wouldn’t have a problem paying through the nose. Mikhail Prokhorov has deep, deep pockets.

By shedding Johnson’s crippling contract, the Hawks are finally able to begin a much overdue rebuilding process. They had hit their NBA ceiling—good enough to make the playoffs, and sometimes even the second round, but never good enough to roll with the big boys of the Eastern Conference.

Can the same be said about Johnson and his respective NBA ‘ceiling’?

If you could use one word to sum up Joe Johnson’s time in Atlanta, it would be ‘frustrating.’ When Johnson signed with the Hawks, after asking Phoenix not to match Atlanta’s offer, the team was a mess. They had finished the 04-05 season with the worst record in the NBA, 13-69, and were genuinely awful. Johnson’s arrival led to an upturn in fortunes for the Hawks, culminating in the team making the playoffs as an 8th seed in 2008—the first time the Hawks had made the postseason in nine years. They took the eventual champs, the Boston Celtics, to seven games.

Everyone remembers Johnson’s 20-point 4th quarter in Game 4 that tied the series at 2-2. That was Joe Johnson at his absolute best; hitting trifectas, fade-away jumpers from ridiculous angles, and showing a level of aggression in the lane that wasn’t always seen during his seven years in Atlanta.

The rest of Johnson’s time with the Hawks settled somewhere in-between that high against the Celtics, and moments of ‘pull your hair out’ frustration. Johnson was consistent, there’s no doubt about that—averaging around 20 points per game and making all-star appearances. But Hawks fans were left wanting more from their superstar. Perhaps some of the criticism was unfair—Johnson’s always been targeted for not showing enough passion during games, but he’s never been one to express his emotions publicly.

Johnson’s game has been alarmingly passive at times, however. Just like his Atlanta team on many occasions, Johnson’s coasted through big games like they really didn’t matter. If his Game 4 heroics against the Celtics in 2008 represented one of his highest points in a Hawks uniform, then Game 4 of the 2012 series against the same opposition was one of his lowest. Johnson took just eight shots in massive must-win game (the Hawks were trailing 2-1 in the series), to finish with a meager 9 points. It was the type of game that Atlanta needed their superstar to step up in, and he failed miserably.

Big players show up in the biggest moments and Johnson’s come up short more than once.

Of course, Johnson’s huge contract didn’t help his relationship with Hawks fans. Since 2010, it’s hung around his neck like a noose, ready to choke him when he failed to hit the heights expected of someone making $120 million. That wasn’t all his fault, however. No one should blame players for signing big contracts. If the owners put the money on the table, any sane, rational individual is going to sign on the dotted line.

Despite Johnson’s consistently good, but never great, career thus far, he has been given a chance for a new start—a rebooting of sorts. Johnson has the opportunity to shine under the bright lights of New York, and live up to his superstar billing.

This might say more about the dearth of great 2-guards in the NBA right now, but after Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade, Johnson is probably still the best shooting-guard in the league. He’s got great size for the position, and despite his disappearing act at times in Atlanta, does possess that elusive ‘clutch gene.’ Johnson can hit the big shots when it matters.

In Brooklyn, unlike in Atlanta, Johnson won’t be the main man. The Nets are Williams’ team. Johnson will play a big role, but he’ll be expected touch the ball far less. We should see a lot less of the ‘Iso-Joe’ version of Johnson that was on show in Atlanta—and that’s a good thing. Johnson has great range, and the potential to be extremely effective coming off screens, and working off Williams’ penetration. Johnson hasn’t played with a point-guard anywhere near Williams’ quality since his brief time with Steve Nash in Phoenix, and he will find himself open far more in Brooklyn.

The pressure is still on Johnson. There’s no denying that. With the Nets, however, he’ll be able to function in the background more, and maybe that’s something he’s always secretly needed. Johnson can now be the second option, and not always the first.

As it stands, Joe Johnson is going to go down as a pretty good NBA player once his career is over. He now has a few years in Brooklyn to see if he can elevate his historical standing from simply good, to great.

Pressure To Win Now Firmly On Howard

At some point in the next few days Dwight Howard should pick up the phone and call his good buddy LeBron James. Howard can pick James’ brain about winning a championship for the first time, wish him luck in next months’ Olympics, and most importantly, ask him what it’s like to be the most heavily scrutinized basketball player on the planet.

The answer to that last question might stand Howard in good stead because, fairly or unfairly, that distinction is about to fall squarely on his massive shoulders.

In the two years between his move to South Beach, and his recent glorious redemption in the NBA Finals, James faced relentless questioning and criticism—some of it fair, but much of it irrational and ridiculously self-righteous and preachy.

But now that James has his ring, and has dispelled the notion that he lacked the necessary intangibles to pair with all the amazing tangible facets of his game, the pressure is off.  James will now pass that burden of pressure onto Howard.

Just like James, Howard is a pretty nice guy. He hasn’t broken the law, he participates in charity work, signs autographs for kids, and probably pays his taxes on time. Unfortunately, for those in the spotlight, especially those making millions of dollars, the standard that qualifies you as being a ‘good guy’ is quite a bit higher.

You and I can make lousy career decisions, say things that we shouldn’t, and on occasions, slack off at work. It certainly isn’t amplified in anywhere near the same way.

But don’t get me wrong, in the vicious court of public opinion, Howard has rightly been found guilty on a number of counts. He held his team hostage for a good portion of last season, with an excruciating contract saga that made him seem immature and in serious need of a good P.R. rep.

Just when we thought that the drama was over, after Howard opted in for one more year, the revelations regarding Howard requesting Stan Van Gundy’s termination, once again painted the big-man in a not-so-positive light.

Fast forward to the present, where accusations of blackmail and, of course, another inevitable trade request, has meant that public opinion on the league’s most dominant center has never been lower.

What all this essentially means in the long run, however, is that wherever Howard ends up—be it Brooklyn, Dallas, Atlanta, L.A., or somewhere else unforeseen—the pressure to win, and win soon, will be immense. And not just because of all the recent ugliness in Orlando.

Even setting aside a year’s worth of negative headlines, the jury is still out on Howard regarding his abilities on the court. Admittedly that sounds a little ridiculous at first. Howard is undeniably the game’s most dominant big-man and a top-ten player in the NBA. Quite frankly, Howard was robbed of another Defensive Player of the Year award last season—likely because of all the aforementioned negative drama.

At the offensive end, you can mark him down as one of the few players in the league who demands a double team on every possession. Just like it was with James, however, the finer points of Howard’s game are continually in question.

Does he take the game seriously enough? Can he add another dimension to his limited low-post game? Will he ever improve his free throw shooting to the point where he’s not a complete liability down the stretch?

Those are just some of the questions surrounding Dwight Howard the basketball player. Add those to the emerging questions surrounding Dwight Howard the man, and it’s clear that the intense glare of the media will be firmly fixed on his every move.

Can the NBA’s premier center emulate the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell? Or, will Howard fail to live up to his massive potential and end up like the ring-less Patrick Ewing — a career unfulfilled.

This type of legacy debating was going to fall on Howard sooner or later, but a combination of poor decision making on his part, and the fact that the media now needs a new whipping boy, has drastically accelerated the process.

The fix is in. The narrative is set.  And like it or not, Dwight Howard, the pressure is on.

Miami’s Poised For A Historic Run

The great Michael Jordan has talked openly about the transformation he and his Chicago Bulls experienced after winning their first championship. All the pain and heartache, the inner-questioning, and the intense scrutiny that followed the team after falling 3-straight years to the ‘Bad Boy’ Pistons, was extinguished once they defeated Magic’s Lakers in the summer of ’91.

From there, the pressure was lifted off Jordan’s shoulders. No longer did he have to pretend to ignore those questioning whether he could ever lead a team to a title. Those critics were silenced.

And then, Jordan and his Bulls won another five championships.

Jordan was able to play with a sense of freedom during those years — to play for himself and his team, without having one eye on those who were prematurely debating his legacy. He didn’t have to be so self-conscious, so aware of everything around him.

The rest of the NBA didn’t stand a chance.

Last week another team with a transcendent superstar came of age to win the Larry O’Brien trophy. Just like those ’91 Bulls, they lost Game 1 to a team that was favored to beat them. And just like that Bulls team, their superstar’s championship-winning credentials were continually questioned.

That discourse can end now.

LeBron James in an NBA champion and he carried his team on his back to win that title. His numbers throughout the playoffs, and Finals, were simply staggering. His Game 4 against Indiana, and Game 6 against Boston, were two of the greatest single-game playoffs performances ever.

Without a shadow of a doubt, James has solidified his status as one of the all-time greats.

But can James emulate Jordan, and go on to win multiple titles? The titles he boasted about in that ill-advised introduction party two years ago.

Seven? No chance. But two, three or even four? That’s definitely in play.

That first one, as Jordan knew well, is the hardest to win. And like it was for Jordan, the pressure will now be off James. The most scrutinized player since Wilt Chamberlain has now banished the demons of last summer—he has his ring and a Finals MVP to go with it.

The rest of the NBA better watch out.

Pat Riley will undoubtedly do his upmost to ensure that the Heat take advantage of a looser, freer, LeBron James. Mike Miller was superb in Game 5, but how good would a healthy Ray Allen look in Heat colours next season? Double-team James with that guy hanging on the perimeter — I dare you!

Miami will shed some dead weight off their roster in the summer, while using the allure of playing for the NBA champions to attract some serviceable free agents.

Bosh will be healthy, rookie Norris Cole will only get better, and, of course, Dwayne Wade will have a summer to rest-up and heal a body that was so banged-up in the postseason

Don’t get me wrong; LeBron James is no Michael Jordan. It will take another five championships, and some more dominant Finals performances to warrant a serious comparison of the two men. But James has the potential to dominate the league over the next few years; the way Jordan dominated his era.

A better James, free of the shackles of his demons, and our constant debating, with an improved supporting cast, is an ominous challenge for the rest of the league.

Westbrook Is A Work In Progress

Kevin Durant wasn’t the only Thunder player to put up great numbers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Russell Westbrook’s 27 points, 8 rebounds, and 11 assists didn’t look too shabby in the box score either.

Not everyone agreed that Westbrook had a good game, however.

After the ESPN crew was done analyzing the game, Mike Wilbon cut to Stephen A. Smith who immediately dispelled any notion that Westbrook had a good game. To paraphrase, Smith claimed that OKC would’ve won by a blowout if Westbrook had made better decisions on the court.

In other words, if Westbrook would have deferred to Durant more often.

Instead, Westbrook shot the ball 24 times — taking four more shots than Durant. He did indeed make some head-scratching decisions, shooting out-of-rhythm jump shots when the pass seemed like the better option. One bricked 3-point shot, after he’d worked his tail off to force a turnover, was particularly infuriating.

What Smith didn’t focus on, however, were the 11 assists that Westbrook dished out. Westbrook’s been roundly criticized for the times he’s failed to pass the ball, but it’s only fair to also focus on the times in which he’s been a willing facilitator.

Game 1 wasn’t an anomaly. Westbrook has slowly grown into the role of a willing passer. In the San Antonio series he was more than happy to defer to the likes of Durant, James Harden, and even Serge Ibaka. Westbrook’s post-season assist average is 5.9 per game—up from 4.6 during the regular season.

Combine that with his low turnover numbers, and there’s been a marked improvement in the weaker facets of his game during these playoffs.

For the Thunder, it’s a fine balance with Westbrook. OKC is built in such a way that they need Westbrook to be aggressive and look to score. Generally they don’t get much offensive production from their front two, so realistically, Westbrook needs to be averaging over 20 points a game.

Westbrook can’t simply play the role of a pass-first point guard. Scott Brooks knows this and is Westbrook’s biggest fan, publicly at least — constantly encouraging him to stick to his strengths, and stay aggressive. In private, of course, the Thunder’s coaching staff would like their point guard to temper his more self-destructive tendencies—to look for the easier scoring option at times.

But you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, as the saying goes. OKC can’t afford to lose all the many positive aspects of Westbrook’s game, by trying to mold him into something he’s not.

It’s easy to forget that Westbrook was a two-guard in college and is still developing at the point guard position. It isn’t an easy transition. Other than LeBron James and Blake Griffin, no other player in the NBA has had their game analyzed and picked apart more than Westbrook. He’s 23-years-old, supremely talented, and could be an NBA champion in a couple weeks. It doesn’t seem fair. Derrick Rose takes his fair share of wild shots as a point guard, and isn’t scrutinized in anywhere near the same manner.

There’s room for improvement, but right now, I’m sure Scott Brooks will be more than happy with near triple-double numbers, and 2 turnovers a game, from his young point guard. And just for the record, the Thunder are 25-5 when Westbrook takes more shots than Durant this year.

Just something to mull over, Stephen A. Smith.

Oklahoma City’s Calm Under Pressure

The Oklahoma City Thunder possess all the traits of a championship-caliber team.

They’re explosive and athletic at both ends of the floor. They defend with skill and tenacity; have an elite shot-blocker in Serge Ibaka, and solid role players like Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha.

Of course, in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, they possess three of the greatest shot-makers in the game today.

Perhaps the most underrated, and dangerous, aspect of the Thunder’s game, however, is their supreme confidence level. This team is cold as ice in the clutch.

No team absorbs the opposition’s best punches, flips the switch, and keeps their composure when all seems lost, better than OKC. Time and time again, against the Spurs in Game 4, Oklahoma City weathered the storm.

San Antonio came out firing at the start of the game, while Oklahoma City missed their first seven shots. Did they panic? Of course not.  They simply went on an 18-5 run to end the quarter.

At the start of the third, Manu Ginobili took over the game and the Spurs put together a 23-9 run—but still no panic from the Thunder. Durant stepped up and Oklahoma City led by nine at the quarter’s end.

In the fourth, the Spurs once again attempted to seize the game by the scruff of the neck—going on a 13-2 run and getting within two points of the Thunder.

Oklahoma City’s response: James Harden hit two massive 3-point shots, including the game’s biggest basket—dropping the trifecta with Kawhi Leonard draped all over him, to put the Thunder up by five.

This team simply doesn’t waver off course.

Against the Mavericks and Lakers, they were down late in games and hit massive, momentum-shifting shots to win. Durant did his best Michael Jordan impression in Game 4 of this series, hitting 18 points in the fourth, but if he’s not feeling it (and that’s rare), Harden and Westbrook are more than ready to take the big shot.

The Big 3 of Oklahoma City epitomizes the fearlessness this team. Miss or make, it doesn’t matter—nothing fazes them. Last night Westbrook turned the ball over, and missed jump shots on consecutive possessions, but his confidence level never faltered.

He followed up some poor possessions by draining a ridiculous 20-footer. Westbrook never seems bothered by his failings. Sure, he makes some poor decisions at times, and will continue to do so, but he never loses confidence in his game. Scott Brooks realizes that Westbrook will live and die by the jump shot—but it’s a risk that’s worth taking. We may pick apart his game, but we cannot question his character.

Harden also seems immune to fluctuations in confidence. He wasn’t at his best against the Lakers—looking tired after having to defend Kobe Bryant for long stretches—and in the first game of this series he struggled. But like Westbrook, Harden seems to have selective amnesia. He followed up Game 1, with a 10-13 shooting performance in Game 2, and has been clutch ever since.

Last night, Harden took two of the biggest shots in these playoffs thus far. A three-pointer, that became a four-point play when he was fouled by Manu Ginobili, and the aforementioned game-clinching shot.

Before the series began many, myself included, pointed to the Spurs’ experience and veteran know-how, as a reason why they would prevail over a young Thunder team. The Spurs were playing unbelievably great basketball—some of the greatest we’ve ever seen—and maybe the Thunder, as young as they are, just weren’t ready for the Finals yet.

But perhaps we overlooked the fact that the Thunder don’t worry about outside perceptions—they don’t feel like they’re too young and inexperienced. They just go out and play their game. If they feel pressure internally, they don’t’ show it externally.

Experience and championship pedigree go a long way in the playoffs. No team as young as the Thunder have won an NBA title. But no team has looked as supremely confident as Oklahoma City —as unconcerned with external pressures.

They’re young, skillful and talented, but their tranquil state of mind, in the biggest moments, might just be their biggest strength.

Rondo Continues To Be An Enigma

Rajon Rondo is a fascinating enigma.

At times, he’s transcendently brilliant—a throwback to a bygone era, where on-court vision and basketball I.Q. triumphed over size and strength.

Other times, he can be painfully frustrating—missing easy layups, passing up open shots, and doing his best impersonation of a sulking, moody teenager.

But Rondo is captivating to watch, in whichever incarnation you find him. He fixes butts on seats, glues eyes to television sets. At times he displays a confident Iverson-esque swagger, giving the impression that he can make the impossible possible, with his unique abilities.

Simply put, it’s hard to ignore him when he’s on the floor.

And no one was ignoring him last night—except maybe the Miami Heat defenders.

Last night’s Game 2 against the Heat, reemphasized what we’re all starting to realize about Rondo—he absolutely thrives on the biggest stage. Just check out his triple-double numbers when playing in front of a national audience—they’re outstanding.

Against a Heat team that was absolutely rolling, and looking to stick another nail in Boston’s postseason coffin, Rondo had the greatest game of his career.

He scored 44 points, shooting 16 of 24 from the field, while racking up 10 assists, and 8 rebounds. Even more startling was the fact that Rondo played every minute of the game. 53 in total! Rondo had only 3 turnovers in that time.

Rondo’s display ranks up there as one of the all-time great Celtics’ playoff performances—and there are plenty of those to choose from.

Of course, Rondo’s efforts were largely in vain. The Heat received big-time displays from their stars too, and some timely scoring from their bench. The backbreaking loss may prove to be the defining moment of the series for the Celtics.

Coming back from 0-2 down, against this Miami team, will be nearly impossible.

Whatever the impact on the series, however, the night belonged to Rondo. The basketball public was given a glimpse into a world where Rondo could be the greatest point guard alive.

Chris Broussard put it best during ESPN’s halftime show, when he said: “It’s the NBA’s worst nightmare: Rondo with a jump shot.”.

And he’s right. If Rondo can consistently knock down that 15-18 footer, watch out, world! Teams have become accustomed to giving Rondo space to shot, begging him to take that mid-range jumper, and willing to live with the consequences.

If Rondo can shoot even half as well as he did last night, on a regular basis, then he may just become un-guardable. Add a jump shot to a player that already has elite level basketball I.Q., athleticism, solid defense, rebounding, and unreal playmaking abilities, and we’re talking about a top-five player in the NBA.

This is all a massive ‘if’, of course. We may never see another shooting display like that from Rondo again. Even without a jump shot, his other elite attributes still make him a genuine all-star and top-5 point guard in this league—as well as being one of the most entertaining players to watch.

But boy, he could be so much more. We saw it yesterday and lets hope we see it again.

Plenty To Feel Positive About In Philly

The fairytale run finally came to an end last night for Doug Collins and his Philadelphia 76ers. In a game that seemed like a microcosm of their season—suffocating defense, stagnant offense, and plenty of grit and determination—the 76ers fell to the Celtics, 85-75.

When the dust settles, and the pain of a disappointing Game 7 defeat is eased by a few days of measured contemplation, 76ers fans will be quietly encouraged by a season in which their team defied expectations—and sometimes belief. Defeating the number-one seed Chicago Bulls in the first-round, albeit without Derrick Rose, and taking the 4th seed Celtics to seven games, was no mean feat.

When you consider the dismal way in which the team played during the last two months of the regular season, the 76ers run becomes all the more impressive.

Collins’ men began the year on fire. They raced out to a 20-9 record, comfortably led the Atlantic division, and were one of the best teams in the league before the all-star break. It was obvious that Collins had installed a discipline in his team, one that had been lacking in past incarnations of the 76ers.

They were playing fantastic defense, making good decisions with the ball (reflected in their lack of turnovers), and getting timely scoring from their bench.

And then things began to fall apart.

After such a confident start, Philadelphia’s weaknesses began to surface. Defensively they held steady for the most part, but their offensive cohesion completely dried up. It became painfully obvious that the 76ers lacked a go-to scorer in crunch time. Lou Williams played well during the first two months of the season, but his production dipped after the all-star break. In the 4th quarter it became a matter of mid-range jump shot or bust.  A blowout loss to the lowly Wizards, and a 7-point 4th quarter against the Raptors, summed up Philly’s offensive ineptitude.

There were even rumors of discontent in the locker room, with Doug Collins alluding to the fact that some of his players weren’t receptive to his abrasive approach.

Stumbling to the finish line, the Sixers narrowly held on to the 8th seed and finished with a mediocre record of 35-31

It wasn’t boding well for a match-up with the Bulls—the best team during the regular season—despite the brash confidence of Evan Turner. And to be honest, until Rose’s uncooperative body decided to betray him, it didn’t look like things would get much better for the 76ers.

Rose’s injury turned the series around. Jrue Holiday was freed from the shackles of guarding last seasons’ MVP and excelled on the offensive end—playing excellently for the remainder of Philadelphia’s playoff run. Andre Iguodala recaptured his form of January and February that saw him selected for his first all-star appearance, while Turner emerged as a genuine threat from the 2-guard position.

After closing out the banged-up Bulls in 6, the 76ers gave the Celtics all they could handle. Brilliantly coach throughout the playoffs by Collins, Philadelphia made the absolute most of their defensive strengths and speedy transition game. They were ultimately undone by an inability to put together fluid offensive in the half-court game.

It will be an intriguing off-season for the 76ers. The team has some exciting young talent to build around. Holiday has emerged, during these playoffs, as an exciting young point guard—unafraid to take the big shot, while Evan Turner has shown promise at both ends of the floor.

How Turner’s development is viewed by the 76ers front office may determine what they decide to do regarding Iguodala’s future. Turner has been playing at the shooting guard spot, but he may ultimately end up at the 3. Iguodala, who has undeniably become an elite perimeter defender this year, may be expendable if Turner can excel at small forward.

Philly’s most pressing needs are in the frontcourt. Spencer Hawes is a free agent, and Lavoy Allen has shown enough upside to render Hawes’ services redundant. The real elephant in the room, however, is Elton Brand’s hideous contract. Brand is set to make $18 million next year, and should be a prime amnesty clause candidate. The 76ers, as evident throughout the season, desperately need a player who can take the pressure off their guards in crunch-time, and grab easy buckets in the post. Brand isn’t that guy.

Whatever happens in the off-season, Philadelphia has plenty of positives to build upon. It’s been a rough few years for the 76ers and their fans. Not since the heady days of Allen Iverson, back at the turn of the century, has there be much to get excited about in The City of Brotherly Love.

Despite some ugly moments this year, things are definitely looking up.

Appreciate LeBron James While You Can

In a must win game for the Miami Heat, LeBron James underlined his MVP status emphatically, with an absolutely monstrous performance. He finished with 40 points, 18 rebounds and 9 assists, as well as 2 blocks and 2 steals. Not too shabby.

More importantly than just his stat-line, James was the Heat’s emotional lynchpin from start to finish. He was aggressive from the first quarter onwards—driving to the basket and getting to the free-throw line with consistency. It was clear from the opening tip that James wasn’t going to be shackled by the likes of Danny Granger and David West. He refused to settle for low-percentage mid-range jumpers, and was a major factor in getting the Pacers big-men in foul trouble early.

It’s difficult to overstate the immense impact James had on a monumental Game 4. Entering the game, all the discussion had been about how poorly the Heat had played without Chris Bosh, and whether they were heading for a shocking playoff exit.

James has silenced the doubters. For now.

He scored in bunches and dominated the glass, while at the same time facilitated for his teammates, playing the point guard position for much of the game. There was a shade (just a shade), in James’ Game 4 performance, of Magic Johnson’s epic Game 6 in the 1980 Finals.

Dwayne Wade, who eventually finished the game with 30 points—hitting 10 shots in a row at one stage, owed a big part of his second half revival to James. While Wade was struggling early on, hitting only 1 of his first 8 shots, James did his best to keep his team in the game.

The Pacers had threatened to run away with the game early, breaking out to a furious 9-0 lead, with the Indiana crowd going wild, but James stayed aggressive and made big shots while his teammates struggled.

By the end of the second quarter, Wade began to hit his stride, owing largely to the league’s reigning MVP. James got Wade going with some beautiful inside passes, finding Wade as he cut to the basket.

Just as crucially for the Heat, James got the much maligned, and criminally underused Udonis Haslem, firing in the third and fourth quarters. James drew defenders towards him with his dribble penetration, before kicking the ball out to Haslem who knocked down some nice open jump shots.

James and Wade were unstoppable in the second half, hitting 46 of their team’s 48 points at one stage. It was a not-so-subtle reminder, after a week of intense media scrutiny, that the Miami Heat possesses two players that can single-handedly win playoff games.

Indiana simply had no answer to Miami’s two-man show.

Of course, James’ detractors will still question why the assertive, aggressive demeanor he exhibited today, isn’t on display in every game he plays. It’s a valid question, and there’s no denying that it’s frustrating to witness a player, who is essentially unplayable, fade in and out of games at times during the season.

James has been rightly criticized when he’s gone AWOL in 4th quarters and deferred to inferior teammates. At the same time, however, the general public and sports media need to learn to appreciate the league’s greatest player when he has an all-world performance like the one we all just witnessed.

No one else in the league can put up the sort of numbers James did in Game 4. Yes, it’s frustrating that he can’t hit such transcendent heights in every game, but you won’t see anyone else in the NBA coming close to that level of dominance—that sort of impact on a game. He’s sadly a victim of our own absurdly high expectation levels.

Charles Barkley often says that the basketball world will regret taking LeBron James for granted when he finally hangs up his sneakers. He’s right.

Granted, we value winners in sports—James hasn’t yet won anything yet. And yes, we admire players with cold-blooded killer-instinct, and James has only showed glimpses of channeling his inner Michael Jordan. But sometimes it’s worthwhile watching a game in a vacuum. Forget last years NBA finals, all those messy 4th quarters from the regular season, and the noise from pseudo-sports psychologists claiming to know all about James’ inner demons.

On days like today, just sit back and admire the greatest basketball player on planet Earth, and all the freakishly amazing things he can do on the hard-court. We won’t see another LeBron James for a long time. Don’t take him for granted.