Friday, June 1, 2007

Surpassing MJ


That was the single greatest individual performance I have ever witnessed. It showed why LeBron really can be the best player in the game--perhaps ever--if he can maintain a high level of intensity for 48 minutes (or, in this case, 58) over the course of every game.

Michael Jordan--the benchmark by which great players will always be measured--took years to become a champion. Years of playing me-first basketball, scoring at every opportunity, getting down on his teammates, failing to trust them. Finally, he realized that he needed them to succeed, but retained that innate ability to take over games whenever possible.

LeBron, on the other hand, came into the league ready to trust his teammates. Granted, they did not do a great job for him on the offensive end tonight--Drew Gooden was pretty much a non-factor, and Damon Jones and Eric Snow were non-existent. But even though the beautiful passes he makes often end up spoiled, LeBron has always had that trust in his teammates. Or maybe it's just that he enjoys a great pass. Either way, it's there.

The question has always been whether he could develop the flip side of that talent--that ability to dominate a game. Since coming into the league, he's been criticized for having a balky jump shot, for not taking the shot when it counts (which is bull--did any of these people watch the Wizards series last year?) and for coasting through some quarters and games instead of having total focus all the time.

Tonight, he answered all his critics. No jump shot? Try a silky-smooth fadeaway stroke in the fourth quarter, with only one notable miss. Afraid to take the big shot? He hit potential game-winner after potential game-winner. Lack of focus? How about total hustle on both ends of the floor: shutdown defense, and, oh, 29 of his team's last 30 points.

Tonight, LeBron was a hero. But don't crown him just yet. He's not Jordan yet--and he's not better by far. Michael was able to maintain the intensity we saw tonight game in and game out for the better part of eight years. Can LeBron? He definitely has the tools, and he'll have a great opportunity in only two days to end this series and get past Detroit. It took MJ four years, if memory serves. Here's hoping LeBron can do it in half the time.


1.) Am I the only one who thinks that the David Blaine "Magician" commercials really suck? The ideas are clever, but Blaine has less charisma than Tim Duncan out there. No wonder this guy's schtick is to remain in secluded places for protracted periods of time--if he actually had to interact with people, he'd have absolutely no fans at all.

2.) How good were the Cavs on defense tonight? They actually made adjustments. In the first half, and for parts of the third, they were falling asleep down low and letting the Pistons' big men get easy layup after easy dunk. So in the third and fourth, they played more man coverage outside and only doubled close to the hoop (except on Billups, which has proven to be successful). Doing so enabled them to really control both the perimeter and the paint. Eric Snow stepped up with two huge steals at the end of regulation, Daniel Gibson gritted it out despite being in foul trouble, and Varejao really shut down Wallace during the stretch. Mike Brown has done a great job with this team on that end of the floor.

3.) Wow. Mike Brown actually changed his third quarter approach! And it worked! Wonder of wonders. Seriously, what the Cavs did was pretty clever--according to Craig Sager, they had an eight minute team-only meeting while the coaches put together video of what to work on for the next half, they met up for a few minutes to figure out a "pregame" plan, and then they went out and did a "pregame" warmup. Nice psychological shift that turned out to work really well (the Cavs actually won the quarter). My question: why did it take 97 games to come up with this?

4.) Tip of the cap to Larry Hughes. That guy played his heart out tonight. Two huge threes early in the game and some tough, gritty defense on one foot. What a warrior. I'd been down on him for taking too many jumpers and not going to the hoop enough, but the work he's apparently put in on his shot showed.

5.) Well, Damon Jones playing wasn't a complete disaster. I maintain that this guy gets beat off the dribble more frequently than Mark Madsen in a one-on-one game with Kobe Bryant. But, he stretched the floor a bit on offense and had a few decent efforts down the stretch on the other end. He also did an AWESOME job as a cheerleader.

6.) I can't believe nobody else is with me on the "Webber face." It really is quite striking--he had it on for pretty much the whole game.

7.) I really think the Pistons got jobbed on the McDyess ejection. It was a hard foul, and definitely a flagrant, but I'm not sure if it was really a flagrant 2. Coming from Maxiell or Wallace, I would have had no qualms about the call, but on McDyess, it seemed a bit much. Still, it was great to see LeBron bound in there to his teammate's defense. He's really doing a great job of asserting himself as the leader of this team and showing his teammates that he's got their back.

8.) How is Daniel Gibson a rookie? Sure, his inexperience got exposed a few times down the stretch--especially on the defensive side. But he fought off the halfcourt traps pretty well, drove to the hole without fear, stayed perfect at the free throw line, and hit a clutch three when the Cavs needed it most. This kid is the real deal. I'm really excited about his emergence, which makes it less pressing for the Cavs to swing a huge deal in the offseason (aside from dumping Donyell).

9.) Can someone explain to me why the Pistons, who had had great success with the halfcourt trap, decided to abandon it? I mean, they got like five turnovers out of the seven times they ran this play, but inexplicably decided to stop using it and instead ran with a porous man defense on LeBron (not that anything else would have stopped him.)

10.) I hope everyone enjoyed tonight's Scot Pollard sighting as much as I did. 1 minute played, 1 foul, 1 ridiculous haircut.

More to come tomorrow. For now, it's time to savor an MJ-esque performance for the Cavs, as opposed to against them; and hope the Cavs come to play on Saturday and close this thing out.


Scott said...

Great post... beyond a doubt an MJ (or beyond) caliber game but you correctly assert that to be put on the same level, consistency and longevity count.

For what it's worth, I'm with you on the Webber face. Growing up, my family had a beautiful English Springer Spaniel. Like many purebred dogs, Abbey was born with debilitating hip problems. Later she had oral health issues and seizures. By the end of her time, she was a dog in pain and you could see it in her big sad eyes. Same thing with Webber...

Neal said...

Do you think that perhaps the reason that LeBron looks to the pass first is a reflection of the age at which he entered the league? MJ went to college first; he learned under a great coach and grew as a player in a more "team-friendly" atmosphere. His game was allowed to mature at a different rate. By the time he came to the NBA he knew his on strengths and weaknesses better.

LeBron skipped the collegiate level of learning. At 18 it's hard to come into a "me-first" leagure and dominate grown men 7-10 years your senior. He had to be willing to pass the ball. Moreover, I don't think that his finesse is as great as MJ, at least not on a consistent basis.

I would also point out the defense back in the early to mid 90s was stauncher than nowadays when it doesn't seem to exist. Or at least it appears that way.