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.