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Friday, June 29, 2012

Orlando Johnson, Greatest UCSB Baller Ever (6.29.12)

Let me preface this post by stating the truth; I rarely watch college basketball. I do soak up as much March Madness as possible, but any NCAA basketball played before March usually rings irrelevant in my life.

There are many reasons why I do not follow collegiate basketball — slow play, lack of creativity, lack of elite talent — but the biggest reason stems from my disinclination to follow fluctuating athletic programs. The players come and go, and I just don't have the time to invest in watching them. Lacking a consistent source of brilliance, I struggle to build a relationship with a program that will have its star player leave for the NBA after his freshman season. Instead, I prefer to follow NBA talent. Of course, some people are loyal to programs due to alumni status, locale, or just long standing fandom, but I have never truly attached myself to the college game, or a college program. 

Although I have chosen to avoid college basketball, there is one player that I have had the fortune to follow a bit more closely, Orlando Johnson — the greatest Gaucho baller since Brian Shaw. As a recent UCSB alumni, my collegiate timeline coincided with the 36th pick of the 2012 NBA Draft.

In fact, I even faced off against Johnson during an intramural basketball game in the Thunderdome. The moment was quite memorable. I have a penchant for being fiery on the court, and that night was no different. After engaging in smack talk with my opponent, he called upon the services of the 6'5" shooting guard. My opponent subbed out, and Johnson stepped in. I immediately checked Johnson and got up in his chest at the top of the key. Johnson backed me up with a jab from the triple threat stance, and then he took a dribble right and fired up a jumper from the elbow. Clank. Obviously, he missed a makable shot, but with that miss, I can officially lay claim to stopping a future NBA player from scoring on me.

As I came back down the court, I thought about pulling up for a three in Johnson's face. Standing just over 5'10", that plan quickly changed. As I neared the wing, I went into my shooting motion, but Johnson leapt forward in an attempt to spike my shot into the next galaxy (and humiliate me). I quickly abandoned the shot and swung the ball to the top. I actually wanted the give and go since Johnson was so out of position, but my teammate (and roommate who played ball with me all the time and should have made the play — Matt Bagunu), missed the connection. Johnson stayed on the court for a few more possessions before subbing out and watching me burn his scrub of a friend. 

Due to my lack of familiarity with the college game, I will not compare Johnson to other members of the 2012 draft class. However, I can confidently state that Johnson has the skills to be a superb pro baller. Johnson can flat out score. UCSB may be a mid-major, but I believe that Johnson can put the ball in the hoop against NBA talent. He possesses a sweet deep stroke, and he has a lethal pull up jumper from the elbow and mid-wing. Johnson can score effectively in isolation sets, post-ups, catch and shoot opportunities, and off the dribble. Johnson shot over 41% from deep, and he averaged 20.27 points per game throughout his three seasons at UCSB.

I've witnessed Johnson in assassin mode, and he fits the bill well. The final game I saw him play live was the second to last game of the 2011 regular season against Cal State Northridge. Johnson dropped 30 that night on 57% shooting. He nailed all five of his three pointers, and he made 9-11 from the free throw line. He repeatedly attacked the rim to set up his sweet jumper. Simply put, he looked like a guy who would translate well to the NBA. As I left that game with my housemate, we discussed Johnson's likely future in the NBA. We both agreed that Johnson (a fourth-year junior at that time) had an NBA game.

Johnson flirted with the NBA following his junior season, even going so far as to declare for the 2011 NBA Draft, but he decided to come back for his senior year. I don't blame him — Santa Barbara is a great school. I graduated and missed his senior season, but it seems like another year of excellent play helped Johnson elevate his draft stock (including his performance as a part of Team USA at the 2011 World University Games in Shenzhen, China). He also got to finish up his school work and earn a B.A. degree in Sociology.

Clearly, Johnson can score, but he is also a strong leader.

After transferring from Loyola Marymount following a surprise coaching change, Johnson had to wait a full season before he could grace Santa Barbara with his skill. In his first season of eligibility ('09-10), Johnson led the Gauchos to a 20-10 record, including a 12-4 mark in conference play. He continued his strong play in the Big West Tournament, and he led the Gauchos to a championship with a victory over Long Beach State — Johnson scored a game high 20 points. For his outstanding play, he was named the Big West Tournament MVP, and UCSB garnered an automatic NCAA Tournament bid. The bid was UCSB's first since 2002. After the season, Johnson was named the Big West Player of the Year. He made the All-Big West First Team, and he was listed as an AP Honorable Mention All-American. Johnson finished the season averaging 18.0 points on 48.1% shooting, along with 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. Johnson's initial impact on the UCSB program was phenomenal. He instantly gave the Gauchos a legitimate go-to scorer that could lead the team in the biggest of moments.

Johnson upped his numbers in his junior season, but team success did not follow. The Gauchos finished the season with an 18-14 record, including an 8-8 mark in conference play. Due to their mediocre regular season record, the Gauchos entered the Big West Tournament as a five seed. Despite the low seed, the Gauchos knocked off Long Beach State for the second straight year in the championship game. Johnson led the way with a game high 23 points. UCSB became the lowest seeded Big West Tournament champion since San Jose State defeated Utah State in 1996. The victory netted the Gauchos a consecutive berth to the NCAA Tournament. Johnson finished the season averaging 21.1 points on 47.5% shooting, along with 6.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. Johnson was once again named to the All-Big West First Team.

Johnson's senior season featured more of the same. He finished the season averaging 19.7 points on 45.1% shooting, along with 5.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. He also led the team to a bounce back regular season record of 20-11, including a strong 12-4 mark in conference play. Once again, UCSB faced off against Long Beach State in the championship game. However, this time, the Gauchos couldn't overcome tournament MVP Casper Ware and his 33 points. Without a Big West championship, the Gauchos failed to garner a NCAA Tournament bid, but they were granted an entry to the College Insider Tournament.

Overall, Johnson finished his collegiate career as the first player in Big West history to win the league's scoring title three straight seasons. He also became just the second player in UCSB history to earn All-Big West First Team honors for three seasons. He holds all three major scoring records at UCSB, with 1,825 career points, 674 points in a season, and 39 points in a game. He led the Gauchos to consecutive Big West Tournament championships in '10 and '11, and each time he was named the tournament MVP. Even more impressive, he led the Gauchos to consecutive NCAA Tournament berths — a feat the school had never accomplished before. Although Ohio St. and Florida each defeated UCSB handily in the NCAA Tournament, Johnson scored over 20 points in both games. His stellar play at UCSB led him to become the first UCSB player to be selected in the NBA Draft since Brian Shaw in 1988.

Johnson's biggest challenge at the next level will be defending NBA talent. Since UCSB is a mid-major, Johnson did not always compete against topflight competition. Now he will have to defend some of the most dangerous scoring weapons in basketball. With a stocky build, Johnson may need to work on his foot speed. Aware of that issue, Johnson dropped his weight from 235 to 220 pounds heading into the draft. As he works on his speed, Johnson can always rely on his great length. Johnson boasts a 7-foot wingspan and a 39" vertical leap (second best in the NBA combine). Johnson has a capable frame to play NBA caliber defense, and I believe that he has the willpower to do everything it takes to play strong defense.

Whatever challenge lies ahead, it will never compare to the challenges of his past. Johnson's mother was murdered when he was an infant. Johnson was fortunate to move in with his grandmother and 10 relatives, but when Johnson was six years old, the house was lost in a fire, and tragically, four of his family members were killed. At the age of 11, Johnson's grandmother, and caretaker, died. Johnson was then raised by his older brothers, Robbie Johnson and Jamell Damon Sr. As former ball players, Robbie (football at St. Mary's) and Jamell (basketball at Weber St.), turned Orlando's rough upbringing into a driving force of motivation.

Overall, Johnson has the foundation to be a solid NBA player. Drafted by the Sacramento Kings with the 36th pick, Johnson was informed by the Indiana Pacers a couple minutes before the pick that they would be trading for him. Johnson was immediately traded to the Pacers after he was drafted, and now he will sit behind second year stud, Paul George, on the depth chart. With just one guy ahead of him to fill in the shooting guard position, Johnson may be able to make an immediate impact for the Pacers. He may even learn some things from a fellow Gaucho, Brian Shaw, who is employed by the Pacers as an assistant coach.

From one Gaucho to another, good luck O.J., you are the first baller that I have ever consistently followed from college play to the pro level. However your career turns out, I can always say I saw the greatest baller in UCSB history.

Ole´, Ole´, Ole´, Ole´! Gauchos, Guachos!

Friday, June 22, 2012

LeBron James, A Battle Against Greatness Begins (6.22.12)

Well, the inevitable finally arrived.

LeBron James finally won an NBA Championship.

Mark the day, "June 21, 2012, LeBron James wins first championship." Some hope that line will someday read, "first of many championships," others hope, "wins first and only championship." Either way, it's a historic day for basketball.

First of many seems more likely, but who knows how James' second half of his career will play out. He finally won a ring, but will he have that same starving drive for another? It was evident that James went to another level this postseason to become a champion. However, just one championship is not enough. James has too much talent to finish his career as a one time champion. James is stuck in a dual prism of competition; he must compete against the current era while battling the legends of the game. While dismantling Kevin Durant, James must inch toward Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, and Larry Bird. The pantheon of greatness starts at three rings, that would be Bird. O'Neal and Duncan have four. Johnson and Bryant have five. Jordan and Abdul-Jabbar have six. Russell has a ridiculous 11.

These players kept their teams at the top year after year. These guys went to the NBA Finals in consecutive seasons. These guys dominated the league for years at a time while piling up rings. Sustained greatness is what elevates a legacy. Nobody really expects James to touch Russell's ring count, but many speculate whether he can reach Jordan's six. After all, that is what everyone wants to see, right? As a perimeter player (although he should just dominate in the post), James' biggest target is Jordan. Jordan is the bar. Jordan won three straight rings, twice. James' "Not five, not six, not seven" will forever set a standard. James understands the challenge. He knows that he is challenging for the G.O.A.T. title, you know, greatest of all time.

Only five teams in NBA history have repeated as champions: the Lakers, Celtics, Pistons, Rockets, and Bulls. Only the greatest teams repeat as champions. The greatest teams often feature the greatest players. Although James' individual stats may eventually outweigh many of those players up in the pantheon of basketball greatness, it will be all for naught if he doesn't dominate the league by piling up rings in the second half of his career. James has been expected to provide championships for the past nine years. Now that he finally has one, that expectation is even greater.

Learning how to win, and finally winning, usually unlocks the key to greatness. Although he flamed out as a Cavalier, James' greatest failure came in the 2011 Finals. After teaming up with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, James no longer had an excuse for failure, and the Heat jumped to the forefront as the favorites for an NBA championship. However, James' late passive play in the Mavericks series led to just 18 total points in six fourth quarters. James shrank from the moment, and the Heat lost to the Mavericks in six games. Add in his failures against the Celtics and Magic from prior years, and it looked like James had reached the peak of failed expectations.

How much longer could it have lasted? I certainly enjoyed failure after failure, but I always knew that LeBron James had enough talent to win an NBA title. His superior athleticism, and overall talent, is what made watching him fail so mesmerizing. James is a 6'9" 250 (listed, more like 265) pound tank. He is bigger, faster, or stronger than every single person that matches up with him. Yet, for eight straight seasons, James failed to win a championship.

Eight failed seasons seems like a long time, but Jordan failed for six seasons. The difference between each narrative probably stems from marketing campaigns and the age of the Internet. In the mid to late 80's, before Jordan was synonymous with champion, Nike marketed Jordan as a high flying talent whose shoes gave him the ability to jump higher than his opponent. Jordan drank Gatorade, ate Wheaties, and his game was simplified with the line, "It's gotta be the shoes!". Avenues for criticism, such as social media, 24/7 ESPN coverage, and the blogosphere, were nonexistent. Jordan's failures could never reach the stratosphere of James' failures in the new millennium. However, Jordan wisely avoided stepping on the shoes of Bird and Magic. Jordan understood that he would have to win before he could be anointed as the best.

On the other hand, James was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the title, "The Chosen One" as a junior in high school. With "Chosen 1" tattooed across his back, Nike marketed James with an ethos to ego, "WE ARE ALL WITNESSES." The phrase is always capitalized, and it always ends with a period. The phase implies that James will go down as the greatest player in NBA history, and that we are "witnesses" to his greatness. Add in the fact that he entered the league carrying the nickname "King James," and rest assured, James set himself up for every criticism he has endured throughout his failures. Many scoffed at James for such proclamations of greatness at a premature stage. I certainly loved the line, "Kings have rings," whenever someone brought up James and his moniker.

However, in 2012, James finally lived up to expectation. He finished the regular season with the tenth best player efficiency ranking of all time. He turned in a memorable stretch of basketball that started against the Pacers in the second round and continued to the conclusion of the NBA Finals. The label of champion allows James to avoid becoming the first three time MVP without a championship ring. James can shake off criticism now with a sense of validation.

In 2012, James jumped to another level, a championship level. He played a phenomenal Game 6 in Boston while facing a 3-2 series deficit. His 45-point explosion saved the future of the "Big Three." His performance in that game may define the rest of his career. If the Heat had lost in Boston, the series would have ended, and someone would have been the scapegoat. James would have been widely criticized and the window for a dynasty would have slammed shut. However, James showed another level to his game. He played with a focus and intensity that he had never shown before. James burned the Celtics with isolation jumper after isolation jumper. His assassin mode scoring reminded me of Jordan and Bryant. I had never seen James play a game like that before.

In the Finals, James unleashed his post game, another level to his game that I've never seen. James routinely posted up James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Thabo Sefolosha. If the double didn't come, he scored easily by finishing at the rim or banking in a hook shot that he worked on with Hakeem Olajuwon this past summer. If the double did come, he hit the open man, and they drilled the three-pointer. With a much improved post game, James scored at least 16 points in the paint in every Finals game. He averaged 17.6 points per game in the paint versus the Thunder, much higher than his 8.7 versus the Mavericks in 2011. His post play also led to 7.2 fouls drawn per game against the Thunder, compared to just 4.0 versus the Mavericks.

James has always flourished as a multifaceted player. However, in the Finals, he used the threat of his Game 6 performance against Boston as a weapon against the Thunder. He made the Thunder double him, and if they didn't, he let them know that he would not let them off the hook. In the clinching game, James delivered his ultimate performance. He finished with his first triple double of the postseason, 26 points, 11 rebounds, and 13 assists. His 13 assists led to 34 points. In the past 15 NBA Finals, only Rajon Rondo has had a bigger impact from assists (Game 2, 2008, Celtics vs Lakers, 16 assists for 37 points). For the Finals, James averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game. Overall, James set up his teammates for open shots the entire series. Shane Battier nailed 57.7% of his threes to average 11.6 points per game throughout the series. Mario Chalmers turned in a memorable Game 4, with 25 points on 60% shooting, because the Thunder kept leaving him to double James. Mike Miller capped things off with a scorching performance in the final game of the series. With the Thunder continually doubling James, Miller sank 7-8 from downtown on his way to 23 points. Obviously, the threat of LeBron James set those guys up for open shots and easy buckets. James' stellar play led to him being named Finals MVP.

Although I am a staunch LeBron hater, I must admit that his performance in 2012 was a huge breakthrough in his legacy. He can no longer be regarded as the greatest athlete to never win a championship. That title shifts back to Dan Marino, or Karl Malone if you want to keep it in the NBA.

Some arguments can be made to diminish this title, but not enough to truly harm it. James did win the title in a compacted lockout season. Phil Jackson famously diminished the Spurs championship in 1999 as an "asterisk season." A truncated season may have helped an explosive athlete who is in his prime, especially in a seven game series against the Celtics, but winning is winning. In Game 4 of the Finals, James cramped up and was saved by Mario Chalmers, who scored the final five points in the final minute for the Heat. Cramps are an unbearable pain, but if the Heat had lost, James surely would have been blamed. Also, James only had two memorable clutch moments in the Finals—two free throws at the end of Game 2, and a three-pointer over Thabo Sefolosha with three minutes to go in Game 4. James never really had to face the pressure of hitting a shot with the game on the line in the final stages, but James made plays that led to other guys hitting open shots in those moments.

Many will claim that LeBron has silenced his critics with this championship. I don't believe that to be the case at all, especially with "Chosen 1" tattooed across his back. James finally accomplished a feat that he has been favored to accomplish for the past five years. If anything, the championship just elevates the conversation. I still want to see if LeBron James truly has the fortitude of an all-time great. He has always had the talent, but will he be able to transcend the sport and square off against the legends. That's what this is all about anyways. LeBron James is not competing against Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, and Carmello Anthony; LeBron James is competing against Michael, Magic, Larry, Kobe.

With five minutes remaining on the 2012 season, and the Heat comfortably blowing out the Thunder, I updated my status with this, "One. It's not five, not six, but it's finally one. Let's see how this all plays out." That is what is so intriguing about LeBron James, he just wrote a new chapter on his legacy, and it serves to start the second half of his novel. Throw out the failures of past seasons, the slate is clean. Now James can truly battle the greats. He may finish with just one ring and a bunch of individual accolades that place him in the top five players of all time. He may finish with eight rings and lay claim to the G.O.A.T title. Either way, it has all just begun.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Russell Westbrook Fails as a Point Guard, Thunder Lose Game Two (6.14.12)

Although Kevin Durant was an absolute monster in game one of the NBA Finals, Russell Westbrook failed to properly utilize Durant and establish him as the most dominant force on the court in game two. Westbrook repeatedly highlighted the main criticism of his game, namely his lack of pure point guard skills and awareness. Westbrook jacked up forced shots early in the clock, and he routinely settled for off balance jumpers. By halftime, Magic Johnson was so irate with Westbrook's play that he stated, "I was very disappointed in Russell Westbrook. That was the worst point guard in a championship finals I've ever seen. He was too wild, he was taking off balance shots. You gotta come out and set the tone with Kevin Durant, see what type of defense Miami was gonna play against them JB, then you can always get off Russell. Russell Westbrook has gotta set the tone with Kevin Durant." Criticism like that from the greatest point guard ever cannot be taken lightly. Magic knows what he's talking about, and he called out Westbrook for his oblivious court presence, his errant drives, and his forced jumpers. Westbrook failed to get Durant the ball in his favorite spots, and in doing so, he thwarted an even stronger follow up from Durant in game two.

Magic Johnson rarely drops the hammer with harsh criticism, but his commentary on Russell Westbrook was warranted. Westbrook took seven shots in the opening quarter, compared to Durant's three, yet he only scored one more point than Durant. In doing so, Westbrook hindered Durant's impression upon the game. In his day, Magic made sure to feed the most dominant guy on the floor in his sweet spots, whether it was Kareem, Worthy, or a hot shooting role player. Unfortunately for the Thunder, Westbrook was not willing to distribute the ball to the three time scoring champion with the best jump shot in the NBA. Instead Westbrook dropped this stat line, 10-26, 2-6 from deep, for 27 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 steal, and 2 turnovers. The line doesn't look that bad, but when your starting point guard attempts 26 shots, and only gets 27 points, something is not right. Everyone knows that Westbrook is not a traditional point guard, but that does not excuse the fact that Westbrook took four more shots than Durant to score five less points.

Durant finished the game strong by pouring in 16 points in the fourth quarter, but it was not enough to overcome a disastrous start that spotted the Heat sixteen points. With a 100-96 loss, the Thunder will surely look back with regret on that opening 18-2 run for Miami. Durant provided another monster game with his 12-22 shooting, 4-10 from deep, for 32 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals, 1 block, and 2 turnovers. I have a feeling those numbers would have jumped up into the 40 point range if Durant had been given more opportunities early in the game. Even more disheartening is the prospect that Miami may not have reeled off such a big run if Durant had gotten touches. Following game one, I wrote, "In the end it will come down to which superstar takes over and puts his fingerprints all over the game." Game one belonged to Kevin Durant, and if not for Russell Westbrook, so would have game two.

Capitalizing on the assist from Westbrook's poor play, the Heat started the game with aggression and strong execution. Coach Spoelstra made a significant change by starting Chalmers, Wade, James, Battier, and Bosh together for the first time all year, and it paid off. This lineup was able to spread the floor, handle the ball, and pass well. Battier opened the game with a corner 3 following a drive and kick from Wade. Westbrook came down, danced, and missed a pull up jumper in and out from the elbow. Then Wade ran the pick and roll with LeBron and set him up for a layup. Westbrook clanked a contested jumper over Wade from the free throw line. Following a LeBron miss, Westbrook missed a turnaround bank shot from the mid block. Durant put the Thunder on the board with a sweet crossover on LeBron that led to a pull up jumper from the elbow. Wade responded with nice crossover and drive down the lane for a dunk. Following an errant kick out from Perkins, Bosh finished a layup in transition for the and one, but he missed the free throw. Westbrook came back down and sent a wild pass to Perkins in the lane that led to a bobble and a turnover. Chalmers stole the ball and sent the outlet to Wade for a dunk in transition. Westbrook responded with a strong drive to the rim, but he missed a tough contested layup over LeBron. Then Durant was stripped on his foray into the lane and Shane Battier ended up hitting a 3 from the wing in transition. Following a shot clock violation on the Thunder, LeBron hit a baseline turnaround hook over Durant to put the Heat up 18-2 with 4:50 on the clock.

Following LeBron's hook, ABC showed a clip of coach Brooks stating in a matter-of-fact fashion, "Guys, they are paying harder than us. There is no other way to explain it. They are playing harder than us. They came out looking to attack all of you guys. All of your pride has been attacked." Brooks was spot on. Miami executed with drive and kicks and pick and rolls that burned the Thunder, and they forced the Thunder into erratic offensive possessions that yielded low percentage results. In his call to arms, Brooks injected life into the team. James Harden started it off with a catch and shoot from the far side 3, swish. LeBron responded with a hook over Durant in the lane, but Westbrook came right back and earned a trip to the line. Then Harden drove hard to the bucket and finished a layup. However, LeBron came right back and finished a reverse layup over Sefolosha. Westbrook responded with a layup following a touch pass from Collison in the lane. Then Harden hit a step back jumper over Haslem from 19ft. Following a LeBron miss, Sefolosha leaked out and went up for a dunk in transition. Sefolosha took a lot of contact on his attempt, but he was not awarded the call. In game one, Sefolosha benefited from two questionable foul calls on his transition dunks, but not this time. Sefolosha missed the dunk and Westbrook fouled Mike Miller in frustration. Miller sank the free throws. Harden closed the quarter with three free throws. Harden hit Collison at the far top key, faked diving to the rim, and instead took the handoff at the top for a 3. Harden was fouled on the shot, and he sank his free throws. On Miami's final possession, LeBron blew by Sefolosha to attack the rim, but Serge Ibaka rotated perfectly and swatted LeBron at the top of his dunk attempt.

The Thunder finished the quarter down 27-15. Durant went 1-3, 0-2 from deep, for 2 points, 1 block, and 1 turnover. Westbrook went 1-7 for 3 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 assist. Harden was spectacular with his 3-4, 1-1 from deep, for 10 points and 1 rebound. LeBron went 4-8 for 8 points, 1 rebound, and 1 steal. Wade went 3-6 for 7 points, 2 rebounds, and 3 assists. Bosh went 1-3 for 4 points and 3 rebounds. Overall, Miami's big three significantly outplayed OKC's in the first quarter.

In the second quarter, both teams played even and scored 28 apiece. None of the stars were exceptional, but Chris Bosh did provide a valiant effort on the glass. Bosh finished the quarter 3-6 for 6 points, 7 rebounds (4 offensive), 1 assist, 1 steal, and 1 block. Bosh's activity was instrumental in keeping the lead, and it was probably the most energy he has displayed since the first round.

Haslem started the quarter off with a putback following a LeBron miss. Ibaka followed with his own putback. After trading buckets for three minutes, Bosh hit a jumper from the near top key on a catch and shoot inbound play. Durant responded by setting up Ibaka for a reverse layup. Then Ibaka swatted Bosh on a drive to the rim, and Harden capitalized with a layup to cut the score to 35-25. Following a Miami timeout, Wade clanked a jumper and Ibaka hit a 21ft jumper from the near wing. Wade responded with a catch and shoot off a curl, and Durant countered with a pull up jumper from the near elbow.

Following a Chalmers turnover that caused Bosh to scream at him for failing to deliver the right pass, Bosh benefited from a dubious call. Wade attacked the lane and fed Bosh at the near block. Bosh went up for the shot, but Durant swatted him from behind. As the ball bounced off of the glass, Ibaka swatted it away. The refs called goaltending, but the call was incorrect. Durant's initial block should have negated the goaltending violation on Ibaka. Following a Durant wide open miss from 3, Wade hit Battier in semi-transition for a 3. Westbrook responded with his own 3, but Wade came right back and earned a trip to the line. Westbrook responded with a pick and roll with Durant. Westbrook hit the rolling Durant for a nice one handed dunk. Bosh answered with an offensive rebound and a putback dunk. Then Bosh swatted a Harden layup. He followed that up with a steal after an errant pass from Sefolosha in the lane. LeBron capitalized on the turnover for a lefty layup over Ibaka in transition. Following a forced Durant 3 that clanked, LeBron set up Chalmers for a wide open 3 that swished through the net. Durant usually does not force shots, but on a night when he was struggling to even get up attempts, I guess he figured he'd chuck one up. Westbrook answered with his own drive and kick that led to a Sefolosha 3. Then Westbrook earned a trip to the line and sank his free throws. On the ensuing possession, Harden hit a wide open 3 following a drive and kick and swing from Westbrook to Sefolosha to Harden. LeBron responded with a drive that led to free throws.

Westbrook closed the quarter with a nice attack to the basket that yielded free throws. After missing the first one, Westbrook high-fived his teammates, took a deep breath, shook his head side to side, and wiped his face. His mannerism was that of a guy struggling. He seemed to know that he needed to calm down and shake off his tough first half. The Thunder finished the half down 55-43. In the second quarter, Durant went 2-5, 0-3 from deep, for 4 points and 2 rebounds. Westbrook went 1-3, 1-1 from deep, for 6 points and 2 assists. Harden went 2-5, 1-2 from deep, for 7 points, 1 rebound, and 1 assist. LeBron went 2-5 for 6 points and 1 assist. Wade went 2-5 for 6 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block, and 1 turnover. Bosh finished the half with a double-double, 10 points and 10 rebounds. Battier continued his exceptional shooting by going 3-4, all from deep, for 9 points in the half. Miami also scored 10 points on the fast break. Miami would not score another fast break point.

Heading into the third quarter, the ABC telecast showed a very interesting stat regarding the Heat. The stat stated that in 17 of 19 postseason games for Miami, the team that won the third quarter won the game. The Thunder would go on to win the quarter, but just by one point. That stat will now read 17 out of 20. The third quarter delivered exceptional performances from Durant and LeBron, as well as a strong bounce back for Westbrook.

Durant started the quarter off with a pick and roll that led to a 17ft jumper from the near top key. LeBron countered with a drive to the rim and a lefty layup. Durant responded with a setup for Ibaka that led to free throws. Then LeBron recovered his own blocked shot to score a layup. Westbrook responded with a 3, but LeBron came right back and earned free throws on a drive to the bucket. Durant parried with his own drive and free throws. Then Wade got involved and hit a 17ft pull up jumper from the far mid corner. Durant retorted with a curl and jumper from the elbow. Wade followed by driving the lane and kicking to Battier. With his man closing out strong, Battier blew by and got into the lane to finish a floater. Following a forced 3 from Westbrook that clanked, Wade used a Bosh pick to attack the middle and finish a lefty layup. Then Westbrook stepped out of bounds at the far side following a kick out. Westbrook made up for it on the next possession by driving and kicking to Durant in the far corner for a 3, swish. Battier responded with a 3 of his own following a post kick out from LeBron.

Following free throws from Perkins, and a strong drive from Westbrook, the score stood at 70-59 with 4:31 remaining. Miami immediately called timeout to stop the mini run. On the ensuing play out of the timeout, LeBron drove into the lane and sent an errant dump off pass. Sefolosha stole the pass, and Durant pushed up the court and attacked the rim. Durant finished the tough layup in traffic. LeBron came right back with an isolation on Durant from the top 3. LeBron drove right and drew the foul on Durant for free throws. This would be Durant's fourth foul. Following a swatted Westbrook layup, LeBron gathered an offensive rebound and earned a trip to the line. A minute later LeBron bulldozed his way into the lane and hit a tough running floater over Sefolosha. Westbrook responded with a coast to coast layup over LeBron. Then he scored on a two for one opportunity by pushing up the court and hitting a pull up jumper from the top of the key. However, Westbrook missed a 3 to end the quarter.

The Thunder finished the third quarter down 78-67. Durant went 4-4, 1-1 from deep, for 10 points and 1 turnover. Westbrook went 4-8, 1-3 from deep, for 9 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and 1 turnover. Harden had 2 rebounds, 1 steal, and 1 turnover in his 5:39 of play in the quarter. LeBron went 3-5, 0-1 from deep, for 12 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 turnover. Wade went 2-5 for 4 points. Bosh had 3 rebounds and 2 turnovers. Although Westbrook shot 50% in the quarter, he should have given Durant more shots. If Durant had gotten eight shots instead of just four, he may have dropped around 16-20 points instead of just 10.

The fourth quarter featured a furious comeback by Durant and company that brought the game within two points in the final ten seconds. Westbrook started the quarter off with a 16ft pull up jumper from the near elbow. Then Nick Collison took a charge, but Fisher couldn't capitalize on the gained possession with an open 3. Following a Westbrook 3 that clanked to beat the clock, Durant picked up his fifth foul with 10:32 remaining while going for the offensive rebound. Coach Brooks wisely decided to keep his star player on the court. Durant responded by hitting a far wing 3 following a pick and roll set and assist from Harden. Then Chalmers bricked a 3 and Durant took the board coast to coast. Durant pushed up the far side, got to the far top, crossed left to right, put his head down, and attacked the basket with authority. Durant glided through the air and slammed home a sick one handed dunk all over Shane Battier to put the score at 82-74 with 8:20 remaining. Miami immediately called a timeout as the crowd erupted.

Following the timeout, Harden capitalized on a LeBron miss with a drive of his own that produced a layup. LeBron responded by dishing to Bosh for a dunk after Harden flopped to the floor. Then Westbrook set up Durant on a pick and roll that led to free throws. Durant sank both. Then Collison stole a pass and Westbrook finished the transition layup by jumping into LeBron and finishing the and one layup to cut the score to 85-81 with 6:05 remaining. Wade immediately countered with a 10ft fading bank from the far mid block. Harden responded with a strong drive and tough layup in traffic.

Then Shane Battier hit the luckiest shot of the game. The Heat had horrible spacing as they tried to run a double pick and roll for Wade at the top. As the play bogged down, Wade dumped the ball off to Chalmers at the near side 3 with six seconds on the clock. Chalmers took one dribble left, straight into a double, and he dumped the ball off to Battier at the near top 3 with four seconds on the clock. Battier caught the pass and fired up a desperate 3 that banked in as he fell to the ground. Although Durant came right back down and hit a 3 himself, the Battier shot buoyed Miami's confidence.

With a 90-86 deficit, Russell Westbrook may have committed his most egregious play of the game. After Bosh clanked a near corner 3, Westbrook took the board and pushed up the far side. As Westbrook brought the ball up, Durant stood wide open at the near wing. Durant called for the ball, but Westbrook ignored him and instead attacked the middle to the near mid block. Westbrook bricked an 11ft bank shot. Although he saw the best shooter on the floor wide open for 3, Westbrook decided to jack up a contested floating bank shot.

Following a Durant free throw that put the score at 92-87, Dwayne Wade hit, arguably, the clutchest shot of the game. LeBron ran the high pick and roll from the top, but he picked up his dribble about five feet behind the line. With the clock running down, LeBron hit Wade flashing at the dotted lines in the lane for a fading 11ft turnaround jumper. Jeff Van Gundy stated the obvious, "That was just a random cut that bailed them out." Although Wade hit the clutch shot, it became evident late in the game that Miami struggles running their offense in big moments.

Following the Wade shot, Westbrook and Durant took over. Westbrook started it off with a tough layup in traffic. LeBron tried to counter with a pick and roll, but once again, he picked up his dribble five feet behind the line, and this time his forced pass into the lane was stolen. Durant slid off of Battier and tipped the pass away from the rolling Bosh. However, Westbrook's lack of point guard ingenuity burned the Thunder once again. Westbrook pushed up the middle of the court as Durant flattened out to the near wing for a 3. Durant waited for the pass to come, but Westbrook dribbled obliviously and allowed Chalmers to catch up behind him and steal the ball. The Heat came down and LeBron ran down the clock again. This time LeBron pounded the ball, and dumped it off to Battier with just five seconds on the clock. With nowhere to go, Battier bulldozed baseline and forced a dump off to Wade in the lane. Durant stripped the ball from Wade. Westbrook pushed up the middle of the court with Durant sprinting the far wing. Westbrook wisely gave the ball up to Durant, and Durant attacked the basket. Durant missed the tough reverse layup, but Westbrook followed the play with a spectacular tip dunk to make the score 94-91 with 1:47 remaining.

Miami immediately called timeout and I'm sure coach Spoelstra of the Heat told LeBron to stop playing hot potato with the ball. If Wade's shot wasn't the clutchest, then this one sure was. LeBron utilized an isolation on Sefolosha from the far wing. Dribbling with his left hand, LeBron performed a half crossover inside-out-dribble to attack baseline to the far mid wing and hit a floating 16ft bank shot. The shot was spectacular, and it was contested well. Then Wade setup Bosh for a dunk following a high pick and roll with LeBron to put the score at 98-91 with 53.8 seconds remaining.

However, Kevin Durant would go out swinging. Durant finished a layup over LeBron to cut the deficit to five. Then Fisher came up with a steal in a full court press that led to a Durant 3 from the far wing. As Wade shook Sefolosha in the backcourt, Fisher rode his hip and poked the ball away. Harden recovered it, and sent the pass up to Sefolosha at the near mid wing. Sefolosha swung to Westbrook at the near top 3, and Westbrook wisely (and finally!) kicked the ball to Durant. Westbrook actually hesitated before he passed the ball, and it almost cost him as Bosh came just a fingernail short of stealing the pass. Durant's 3 put the Thunder down 98-96 with 37.5 seconds remaining in the game.

With the game on the line, LeBron James held the ball in his hands. LeBron wound down the clock. Then he settled for a pull up contested 3 over Sefolosha that totally bricked. To say the least, the shot was passive.

Coach Brooks immediately called timeout with 12 seconds left in the game. Because of the timeout, the ball advanced up the court on the sideline. Although Brooks set up a play, Fisher noticed that LeBron was not paying attention, so he inbounded to Durant at the near block. Durant caught the pass, turned baseline, took one dribble, and went up for a running jumper. The shot came up short. Russell Westbrook nearly grabbed the offensive rebound, but LeBron came up with it.

At first the play looked innocent, but upon further examination, it was apparent that the refs blew the call. As Durant caught the ball and went up for the shot, LeBron clearly locked up his right arm and rode it the entire time up until the shooting motion. However, because the ref on the baseline was watching the play with a nine o'clock angle, he could not see the right arm contact. The ref only had a view of the left side and the back of Durant. Later on SportsCenter, former NBA official Steve Javie stated that the ref was out of position to make the call. Javie stated that the ref needed to move to a different position on the baseline in order to make the correct call. A one or two o'clock angle would have been perfect, but it never happened. Even worse, after Durant missed, Westbrook got his left hand on the ball for an offensive rebound, but LeBron got away with grabbing Westbrook's wrist and disengaging the hand from the ball. Westbrook immediately yelled at the ref, "Call the foul man, f***!". After watching the Durant replay, Jeff Van Gundy stated, "That's illegal contact, that's a foul. At that angle, there's no question, that's a foul." Unfortunately for the Thunder, the whistle never blew.

LeBron sank his two free throws with seven seconds left, and the Heat won 100-96.

Despite catching fire in the fourth, Kevin Durant could not rally the Thunder to victory. Durant finished the quarter 5-9, 3-4 from deep, for 16 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, and 2 steals. Westbrook finished 3-7, 0-2 from deep, for 9 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 turnover. Harden finished 2-2 for 4 points and 1 turnover in his 12 minutes of play. LeBron provided an interesting quarter. LeBron was clutch and anti-clutch the entire quarter. In the closing moments he had one big shot and two huge free throws, but he also shied away from the moment and passed off the ball to teammates in unfavorable situations, such as late in the clock. LeBron finished the quarter 1-4, 0-1 from deep, for 6 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 turnover. Wade was money with his 3-4 for 7 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, and 2 turnovers. Bosh was decent with his 2-4, 0-1 from deep, for 6 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 block.

Overall, the Thunder let this one slip away. They spotted Miami sixteen points, and they lost by just four. I'm sure the Thunder regret the play of their opening seven minutes. Despite the lackadaisical opening, the Thunder came back strong on the heels of "Kid Clutch." Unfortunately for the Thunder, Durant got whacked on the biggest play of the game and he couldn't deliver the goods. After the game, Durant adamantly stated, "I missed the shot man," when he was asked about the play. He never mentioned a foul. He never accepted the fact that he was fouled. All he focused on was that he had control of the outcome and he missed the shot. That is the mark of a great one right there. Durant is well within his right to call out the refs for blowing a call in the final seconds of an NBA Finals game, yet he refrained and put the blame upon himself. I have a feeling Kevin Durant is going to blow up with a ridiculous redemption game in Miami.

With the series tied up 1-1, the Thunder are in a world of hurt. Now they have to steal a game in Miami in order to keep the series alive. And, if they do steal a game, that will still put them down in the series when they come back to Oklahoma City for the possibility of games six and seven. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are going to have to go bonkers for the Thunder to have a chance. Hopefully next game Russell Westbrook will remember that the best player on the team wears number 35.

In the end, it wasn't necessarily the superstars of the Heat that outplayed the superstars of the Thunder. Dwayne Wade dropped 24 points on 10-20 shooting, along with 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 block, and 3 turnovers. LeBron James finished 10-22, 0-2 from deep, for 32 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, and 2 turnovers. Chris Bosh finished 6-13, 0-1 from deep, for 16 points, 15 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 2 blocks, and 2 turnovers. The three of them combined to go 26-55 for 72 points. Although Westbrook struggled, the big three of OKC went 29-59 for 80 points. With the big three canceling each other out, the outcome turned to the role players. While Ibaka, Perkins, Sefolosha, Fisher, and Collison combined to go 5-20 for 16 points, Battier, Chalmers, Miller, Jones, Haslem, and Cole went 10-21 for 28 points. Usually role players play better at home, but in game two, the role players of the Thunder failed to produce. However, if you scratch out Battier's 6-8, 5-7 from deep, for 17 points, then maybe the outcome would have been a bit different. Either way, the Thunder cannot expect to win if their role players are being outplayed by the role players on the Heat.

In a game of stars, it seems like this one came down to the other guys. Or maybe it just turned out that Russell Westbrook cost his team a victory. Whatever you believe, it won't change the score.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Durant and Westbrook Carry Thunder Past Heat (6.12.12)

Despite a jittery start, the Oklahoma City Thunder came through in the end to defeat the Heat 105-94. The Heat got rolling with huge shots from Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers, as the two combined to score 17 points in the first quarter on 6-7 shooting, including a red hot 5-6 from downtown. However, the Thunder would take their first lead of the game with 16 seconds left in the third quarter, and they would never look back.

Kevin Durant continued his impressive ascent into NBA lore with an assault on LeBron James and the Miami Heat. In his first Finals game ever, Durant dropped 36 points on 12-20 shooting, 4-8 from deep, along with 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block, and 2 turnovers. Durant started hot and finished scorching. He scored 11 points in the first quarter and he finished with 17 in the fourth quarter. Durant's output is the second highest point total ever in an NBA Finals debut. He tied Michael Jordan's 36 from the '91 Finals, but he significantly trails Allen Iverson's ridiculous 48 from the '01 Finals.

The stats will tell you that LeBron James had a good game, but when it mattered the most, he was a non factor in the fourth quarter. LeBron finished the game with 30 points on 11-24 shooting, 1-3 from deep, along with 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, and 4 turnovers. However, as "Durantula" was tearing up the Heat in the fourth quarter, LeBron played the role of spectator. With the Thunder surging ahead, LeBron did not score for the first five minutes of the fourth quarter. Another four minutes passed until he scored after that bucket. LeBron did hit one clutch running bank shot for an and one at the 1:38 mark to put the Heat down by just five, but it was too little too late. Lebron finished the fourth 2-6, 0-1 from deep, for 7 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 turnover. LeBron had some aggressive drives to the rim, and he hit some open guys for good looks, but his impact just wasn't substantial. He was nowhere near the level of his game 6 and 7 performances against Boston. I won't fault LeBron's aggression, but it was telling that with the game on the line, and the Heat down by seven in the final minute of the game, "Bron Bron" decided to pass up an opportunity to attack the basket following a pick and roll with Chris Bosh. Instead, LeBron sent a kick out to Bosh at the near wing for a 3 and Bosh clanked it to officially end any hope of a last minute surge. I'm sure many Celtics' fans threw their arms up in disgust and said, "Why couldn't he miss against us!" Despite his recent hot shooting from deep, I was surprised to see Bosh take the biggest shot of the game for the Heat, especially on a night when he was not stroking his shot.

In a matchup full of stars, Durant and Westbrook shined the brightest. Durant and Westbrook combined for 41 points on 14-27 shooting in the second half. These two actually outscored the entire Heat team in the second half. The Heat finished with 40 points on 14-35 shooting. Despite his penchant for taking shots a bit too early, Westbrook provided his stretches of brilliance in the second half. In the third quarter he dropped buckets, and in the fourth he dropped dimes. Westbrook's night put him in the record books, as he became the first player with at least 25 points, 8 rebounds, and 10 assists in an NBA Finals game since Charles Barkley in '93. His stat line also made him just one of six guys to drop 25 points, 8 rebounds, and 10 assists in a Finals game throughout the past 25 seasons. Overall, these two provided historic nights and they significantly overshadowed LeBron and Wade. Wade, in particular, was not on top of his game. Wade finished 7-19, 0-2 from deep, for 19 points, 4 rebounds, 8 assists, 1 steal, and 3 turnovers. Wade routinely settled for jumpers in isolation sets, and this ruined his efficiency as he finished 3-10 from beyond 10 feet.

The Heat came out like gangbusters and rained down 3's in the first quarter. As Westbrook struggled with some NBA Finals jitters, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers calmly sank shot after shot. To start the game, Westbrook missed a pull up jumper, and then he missed a layup in transition. Battier responded with an open 3 in transition. Westbrook followed with a drive to the rim, but he was stripped. He recovered the ball, but he missed the hook shot. Battier sank another 3 on a shot nearly identical to his first 3. Both times LeBron pushed up the far side and hit Chalmers in the corner, and both times, Chalmers swung the ball to Battier at the near wing. Westbrook fired up another jumper for a clank. Following a Perkins travel, Wade fed Haslem for a dunk that gave the Heat an early 2-10 lead with 8:22 on the clock.

With his team struggling, Kevin Durant decided to amp up his own energy. Durant came out of the timeout and sized up Wade to hit a 3 from the top. Then Westbrook hit the trailing Durant in transition for another 3. Battier and Chalmers responded with their own 3's. A Bosh jumper put Miami up 13-24, but Durant came right back. Following a steal by LeBron, Wade pushed up the court in transition. Wade streaked down the court, but Durant hustled to swat his layup from behind. After swatting the shot, Durant sprinted back up the court as Harden pushed in transition. Harden fed Durant in stride, and Durant finished the layup over LeBron for the and one finish.

Although Chalmers sank another 3, it was Harden who closed the quarter with a bang. Harden danced at the top 3, crossed left to right, quickly sent the ball back through his legs to his left, stepped back, and swished the long contested 2 as he fell to the ground. This put the score at 22-29, with the Heat leading. Durant went 4-6, 2-3 from deep, for 11 points and 1 block. His shot looked great. Westbrook went 1-5 for 3 points, 1 rebound, and 3 assists. Westbrook's uneven play looked to be a bit of the butterflies and jitters. LeBron went 1-5 for 4 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and 1 turnover. Wade went 2-4 for 4 points, 1 rebound, and 3 assists. Despite the hot shooting from Chalmers and Battier, the Heat could not build a bigger lead. Kevin Durant did a spectacular job at weathering the storm and getting his guys back on the correct path. Durant's leadership through his play was monumental in order for the Thunder to succeed.

The second quarter featured LeBron, but both teams played even and scored 25 points apiece. LeBron started the quarter with a nice drive and layup. Then he drew a foul and sank his free throws. Following that, he stole an errant outlet pass that Durant attempted from half court. LeBron got his hands on the ball at mid court, and he took it the distance for a nice one handed slam ahead of Durant to give the Heat a 24-37 lead with 9:12 on the clock. Derek Fisher stopped the bleeding by countering with a savvy coast to coast layup and a gutsy pull up jumper in transition in order to cut the score to 30-39.

The core four of the Thunder finished strong to close out the quarter. Westbrook finished a tough lefty layup over Haslem. Harden utilized a flare screen to swish a near side 3. Westbrook drew a foul in transition and sank both free throws. Then Durant threw down a nasty jam over Bosh and Joel Anthony. As Westbrook dribbled from the near wing to the near side 3, Perkins ran up to set a back pick on James in order to free up Durant on a curl from the top 3 to the near wing. Durant caught the pass and immediately attacked the middle. Durant went strong, jumped off of two feet in the lane, cocked back his right arm, and threw down the nasty slam over Anthony and Bosh. Then Durant fed Ibaka an open jumper from the free throw line. Westbrook followed with his own setup for Ibaka that led to a dunk. Following two buckets from Wade, LeBron banked in a 23ft jumper from the near side. LeBron nonchalantly ran back down the court as if he expected such a result, but Jeff Van Gundy humorously stated, "I'm not buying that he called that." Westbrook responded with a set up for Ibaka that led to a layup. Then Thabo Sefolosha stripped LeBron in the lane, and as the ball squirted out, Ibaka dove on the floor and ripped the ball out of LeBron's hands. From his butt, Ibaka sent the pass to Sefolosha, and Sefolosha pushed up the court and hit Westbrook for a layup. A play like this cannot be overlooked. Ibaka dove to the floor and ripped the ball away in order to set his teammate up for a layup. The play was a pure display of heart and determination.

Despite the strong close from the Thunder, the Heat still went into the half up 47-54. Durant had a quiet quarter as he shot 1-1 for 2 points, along with 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 turnovers. Westbrook went 2-5, 0-1 from deep, for 6 points, 1 rebound, 3 assists, and 1 turnover. LeBron provided a strong quarter with 4-7 shooting, 0-1 from deep, for 10 points, 2 rebounds, 3 steals, and 1 turnover. LeBron's steals were impressive and they led to some easy buckets. Wade struggled and went 1-4 for 2 points, 2 assists, and 1 turnover. Overall, Miami shot 51% for the half and OKC shot 56%. OKC dominated inside by shooting 12-15 within five feet. Miami went 6-10 from deep, while OKC shot 3-8. Miami committed 4 turnovers compared to OKC's 8. Despite winning the turnover battle, Miami lost the fast break battle as they only scored 4 points compared to 13 from OKC. Although everyone thinks of Miami as the run and gun team, it was the Thunder who finished the half with a sizable advantage on the fast break.

Although the role players were shooting well, such success could not be counted upon for the later stages. Battier and Chalmers finished the second half 2-5 for 6 points, a far cry from their 9-12 shooting for 23 points in the first half.

Russell Westbrook took over in the third quarter. He shot 4-7, 0-2 from deep, for 12 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 1 turnover. He also provided an and one play to give the Thunder their first lead of the game with 16 seconds left in the quarter. LeBron did pretty well also. LeBron went 4-6, 1-1 from deep, for 9 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 turnover.

LeBron started the quarter off with a rattled in 3. Westbrook responded with a drive by LeBron from the far wing into the lane for a lefty layup. Following a Perkins offensive rebound, Sefolosha sent a sweet 180 no look pass to Westbrook in the lane for a layup. LeBron responded with an incredible lefty over the shoulder layup. Then he took a Westbrook miss to finish a lefty layup in transition. Westbrook responded by setting up Perkins for an easy dunk following a drive and dump. Two minutes later, Westbrook took a page out of the Chris Paul handbook. Westbrook took the rebound at the elbow and began to push up the court. As Westbrook brought the ball up, he noticed Bosh on his trail. Westbrook wisely stopped on a dime and drew the foul on Bosh as Bosh failed to apply the brakes in time before running into Westbrook's back. Westbrook sank both of the free throws. LeBron responded by setting up Battier for an open 3. Then LeBron blew by Durant with a crossover from left to right at the top of the key. LeBron attacked the rim and finished a nice right handed dunk over Perkins for the and one, but he missed the free throw. Westbrook responded with his own attack to the basket. Westbrook pushed up the court full speed in transition and finished a sweet right handed finger roll. Following a shot clock violation due to an errant LeBron pass, Westbrook drew another foul on a foray into the lane and he sank one of two free throws. Westbrook closed out the quarter to give OKC their first lead of the game. With Durant fronted by Mike Miller at the far mid wing, Westbrook decided to dribble from the far wing to the far top 3. Westbrook used a Collison pick to attack left into the middle, then he crossed between his legs from left to right to split the hedge. Westbrook exploded to the rim and finished the lefty layup for the and one to put OKC up 74-73. Westbrook's finish allowed the Thunder to finish the quarter on an 8-2 run in the final 2:26.

With Westbrook and James stealing the show, it could be forgivable to overlook the other contributors, or detractors, of the quarter. Durant finished 1-3, 1-2 from deep, for 6 points, 1 rebound, and 1 assist. Harden went 0-1 for 0 points in his 5 minutes of run. Wade went 1-6, 0-1 from deep, for 6 points, 3 rebounds, and 1 assist. Wade routinely missed on forced isolation jumpers. Bosh went 0-2 for 0 points in his 5 minutes of run as well. Bosh routinely sat and watched from the perimeter. Other than Westbrook and LeBron, no one played well in the quarter.

In the fourth quarter, Kevin Durant continued his trend of excellent play late in games. Durant exploded for 17 points on 6-10 shooting, 1-3 from deep, along with 4 rebounds and 1 assist. Westbrook was no slouch either. He finished 3-7 for 6 points, 3 rebounds, and 4 assists. LeBron struggled, as he shot 2-6, 0-1 from deep, for 7 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 turnover. Dwayne Wade finished the quarter 3-5, 0-1 from deep, for 7 points, 2 assists, and 2 turnovers. James Harden and Chris Bosh were complete non factors. Harden went 0-1 in just 2:44 of play. Coach Brooks went with his guts and decided to sit Harden in favor of the longer Sefolosha. Sefolosha's only assignment for the quarter was to contain LeBron. Bosh went 1-3, 0-2 from deep, for 3 points and 2 rebounds in his entire 12 minutes of play. Once again, Bosh floated around the perimeter and seemed more interested in jacking up 3's instead of rebounding.

Durant scored the first points of the quarter with an excellent putback following a Westbrook missed layup. Wade followed by settling for a contested 3 that clanked off the rim. Then Fisher hit Sefolosha for an easy layup that put the Thunder up 78-73 with 10:11 left. Following some Bosh free throws, Durant hit a ridiculously tough one handed shot over Wade from the far mid block. Wade countered with his own attack to the rim for an and one layup. Following a LeBron turnover, Durant pushed up the court and threw down a one handed dunk in transition. Wade responded by setting up Chalmers for an easy layup. Westbrook came down and hit a tough step back jumper over Battier from 17ft. LeBron countered with an and one, but he missed the free throw. Durant answered with a 3 following an offensive rebound to put the Thunder up 87-81 with 6:28 to go. Following a Bosh jumper, Durant attacked from the near wing into the middle to finish a difficult righty layup over the outstretched arms of Battier. The next offensive possession, Durant hit an open jumper as the Heat misplaced their defensive assignments. With Westbrook dribbling at the top, Durant acted as if he was going to set a pick, but instead he flattened out to the far mid wing. Wade and Battier both left Durant and Westbrook fed him for the open 19ft jumper to put the Thunder up 91-83 with 4:41 on the clock.

Following misses from Durant and James, Westbrook hit a pull up jumper from 17ft to give the Thunder a ten point lead. Wade responded with a 22ft jumper, and LeBron drew a foul to sink two free throws and cut the deficit down to six. Following Durant free throws, Wade hit a tough floater over Collison. Westbrook promptly responded. Westbrook dribbled at the far top 3 and looked to hit Durant at the far mid wing, but James fronted him well. Westbrook decided to dance at the far top with Wade on him. Westbrook crossed right to left, got in the lane, and hit a 9ft pull up jumper from the dotted lines in the lane. LeBron immediately responded with a strong drive to the rim that led to a tough bank shot and an and one, making the score 97-92 with 1:38 left.

With just a five point lead, Kevin Durant provided the biggest play of the game. Westbrook dribbled at the far wing and looked to hit Durant at the far mid wing, however, Battier did an excellent job of fronting and denying the entry. Westbrook decided to use a Collison pick to dribble out to the top of the key. With Collison rolling, Battier was forced to drop down and prevent the roll layup. Westbrook immediately sent the pass to Durant at the far wing. Durant caught the pass and quickly blew by the closing out Battier to get to the far elbow. Durant's attack forced Bosh to step up in the lane and it allowed Durant to send a bounce pass to Collison at the far block for a dunk and a seven point lead with 1:16 remaining. Although Durant could have gotten up a decent floater, he wisely chose to feed his big man a simple sure handed dunk.

With a little over a minute left in the game, LeBron James decided to pass up an opportunity to score and cut the deficit himself. LeBron ran the pick and roll with Bosh at the near wing, and he attacked the middle to draw defenders. With two defenders on him, James decided to kick it out to Bosh at the near wing 3. Bosh caught the pass and fired up the brick. LeBron hit the open man, but I'm sure Heat fans would have loved to see LeBron attack the rim with aggression and score an easy deuce or draw an and one. Instead, LeBron kicked it out to a career 28.9% 3 point shooter. Not exactly the best way to play the odds. Even more unsettling was the fact that Bosh popped to the 3. Bosh seems pretty confident in his deep accuracy, but the Heat aren't paying him to be a knock down shooter from downtown. Following a Wade turnover, the Thunder beat the full court press and set up Collison for an open dunk from the far block. This play put OKC up 103-92 with :29 to go. Following a concession Miller layup and Durant free throws, the Thunder won 105-94.

As I watched the game with my friends, it was interesting to see the range of emotions and responses throughout the game. The four of us would love nothing more than to see LeBron James become the first three time MVP without a ring, yet I was the only one who confidently believed in the Thunder for the entire game. My friends all worried about the hot start of the Heat. They began doubting the Thunder. They worried if LeBron was going to get hot as the Heat built up a big lead. They questioned the resolve of the Thunder. Simply put, they were not sure if the Thunder were ready for such a big game. I understood the importance of such a start for Miami, but I also understand the parabola nature of certain players. Guys like Battier and Chalmers don't keep ascending, eventually they come back down. Obviously, such a big cushion to start the game is highly advantageous, but I remained stoic in my belief in Kevin Durant. Durant opened the game hot. The game did not look too big for him. He was not jitterish. He was ready to go. He was "Ballin!" His shot was splashing through the net, and when a guy like Durant starts doing that, you know it's going to be a long night. My friends, and I'm sure countless spectators, got caught up in the first quarter of the game. I repeatedly stated, "Just wait until the fourth quarter. Those guys aren't going to keep hitting those shots." I was referring to the role players, namely Battier and Chalmers. I was just playing the percentages. I didn't believe that those guys would miss for any other reason than playing the odds. They hit everything, almost all wide open looks, but everything in the first half. I did not believe they would keep it up on the road, and in the second half of game one of the NBA Finals, especially if the score tightened and fatigue kicked in. They both carry respectable averages from downtown in the playoffs, with Chalmers hitting 37% and Battier 34.4%, but I felt that there was no chance that they would be able to keep up their combined 75% average from the first half.

Although the shots from the role guys like Battier and Chalmers made the difference in the first half, I figured those opportunities would later turn to the superstars. Wade finished the second half 4-11, 0-2 from deep, for 13 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 turnovers. LeBron did well with his 6-12, 1-2 from deep, for 16 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 turnovers, but most of that happened in the third quarter. Neither was dominant. Both did their damage in isolations and took turns attempting to dominate. In the first quarter, LeBron and Wade set up those 3's with hockey assists. They would isolate, kick out, and the kick out man would swing to the shooter. Later in the game, LeBron and Wade decided to become more aggressive and attack. Battier and Chalmers combined to go 2-4 for 6 points in the second half. The Thunder did a great job in the second half of running the shooters off of the 3 point line and instead forcing them to take a dribble in and make a play. Those hockey assists eventually dried up, and the isolation attempts, and misses, swelled. LeBron shot just 2-11 from beyond 10 feet. Wade was no better with his 3-10 from beyond 10 feet. Bosh also struggled with his 4-10 from beyond 10 feet. In fact, Bosh's only shot within 10 feet was a 9ft brick. When it came down to superstar versus superstar, Durant and Westbrook defeated James and Wade handily, and Harden and Bosh negated each other with dismal play. Durant was amazing in the fourth, and Westbrook dominated the third. Wade struggled in the third as LeBron dominated, and Wade was average as Lebron struggled in the fourth. With both LeBron and Wade struggling in the fourth quarter, there was no way they could have defeated Kevin Durant. "Kid Clutch" is the fourth quarter assassin this postseason, and if "Kid Clutch" is dropping shots, the Thunder are most likely going to win a close game.

Plus, playing at home has its advantages. The Thunder are supposed to win at home, and they did just that. The Thunder finished the game with a 24-4 advantage on the fast break. They also outscored the Heat 56-40 in the paint. Such advantages at home may not continue on the road. Although the Thunder pulled out the victory, the series is nowhere near over. We won't have any true indication of the outcome until the end of game three after we get to witness Miami's play on its home court. Until then, let's enjoy the breathtaking capabilities of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Such resolve at such a young age is quite impressive. Although the Thunder started a bit shaky in their Finals debut, they sure did right the ship to finish strong. In what looks to be a limitless arc of a career, Kevin Durant provided one of the most dominant debut performances any of us have ever seen in an NBA Finals game. I can't wait to see how he follows it up in game two.

I also want to see how LeBron responds. He had a pretty good game, but will he come back with a great game? His fourth quarter was a bit passive, and he seemed to trade off with Wade a bit too much on who's turn it was to dominate. With Dwayne Wade struggling (most likely due to injury), it will be up to LeBron to carry the Heat. LeBron needs to be the single most dominant force on the court for Miami to have any chance of stealing game two. If he is played to a draw by Durant, the Heat will most likely lose. In fact, LeBron should do what Durant did, and choose to guard the opposing star. Durant was very effective in forcing LeBron to settle for jumpers from the elbows and mid wings. Durant wisely played off LeBron and used the length of his arms to contest his jumpers. LeBron should aim to shut down Durant, as well as outscore him by twenty. That should be his goal, to absolutely dominate the best player on the opposing team. If LeBron held Durant to just 18 points while he went off and dropped around 35, I bet the Heat would win convincingly. Role players hitting shots is always critical, but usually only in select spots. LeBron needs to carry the Heat on both sides of the ball for the majority of the game in order for Miami to be successful. There's nothing he can really do about Westbrook. Westbrook is going to shoot that pull up jumper, and he's going to attack the basket. Both plays will come from either the pick and roll or transition. An aggressive Westbrook can burn Wade, but it can't carry the Thunder to a title. However, an aggressive Westbrook, and a dominant Durant can absolutely deliver a title.

In the end, it will come down to which superstar takes over and puts his fingerprints all over the game. Game one belonged to Kevin Durant.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Thunder Impressive Series Victory Over Spurs (6.7.12)

Well, I guess it was too early.

It was too early to proclaim the San Antonio Spurs as the title favorites. The Spurs had won twenty straight games by an average point differential of +14.75 per game. They played unselfishly. Everyone contributed. Points came off of open looks. Defensive rotations were spot on. They looked great, and poised for a title. Tony Parker was spectacular. Tim Duncan was rejuvenated. Manu Ginobili was recovering well from injury and pulling off "Ginobillliiii!" type plays. The Spurs rolled through their last ten opponents of the regular season, and their first ten opponents in the playoffs.

The Spurs had not lost three straight games all season. Who could envision four straight? Well, the Oklahoma City Thunder must have. Kevin Durant played to his superstar abilities. Russell Westbrook continued providing his crucial stretches of brilliance. James Harden hit clutch shot after clutch shot.

So clutch, that every team in the Western Conference cannot wait until James Harden is offered a max contract when he becomes a restricted free agent in the summer of 2013. Harden is clearly worth more than he is being compensated, and Thunder ownership will be hard pressed to match such an offer from a competing team since Durant and Westbrook are commanding top dollar until at least 2016. Either Harden or Serge Ibaka will have to take a huge pay cut in the summer of '13 for the nucleus of the Thunder to stay together. With their victories over the Spurs, Lakers, and Mavericks, the Thunder obviously look like the team of the future for the Western Conference. However, the Harden/Ibaka contract situation may derail this team in future years.

Anyways, let's get back to the series. The Thunder flipped the script on the Spurs and turned that double digit plus average point differential for the Spurs into a -9.75 per game point differential throughout the final four games of the series. The Spurs ripped off that twenty game winning streak with excellent team play and consistent contributions from the bench. In the last four games, it all broke down. Parker struggled immensely with the defensive strategies of the Thunder. Coach Scott Brooks wisely put the bigger, longer, Thabo Sefolosha on Parker. Parker struggled and shot just 41.2% and averaged just 19.25 points per game in the final four games. Duncan looked old and failed to dominate in key stretches. Ginobili was brilliant - but for just one game. Key bench contributors fell off and could not capitalize on open looks. Everything surgical about the Spurs' offense disappeared. Crisp ball movement and striking execution perished. Open jumpers stopped falling. Confusion and doubt seeped in and led to hesitation and mistakes.

After narrowly defeating the Thunder in games one and two, it looked like the Spurs had broken down the late game moxie of the Thunder. Throughout this postseason run, the Thunder have been exceptional in closing out games. In particular, Kevin Durant is enjoying a Dirk-like clutchness that we all saw just a year ago. When the Thunder lost those close games, albeit on the road, it seemed like the late game invincibility of the Thunder had tapered off.

However, Kevin Durant and company responded with daggers in the next four games.

The Thunder blew out the Spurs in game three with a twenty point victory. The big three of the Spurs severely struggled and combined to shoot 12-32 for 35 points. Obviously such paltry numbers did not get it done.

Kevin Durant exploded in game four to carry the Thunder to a 109-103 victory. Durant shot 13-20, 1-2 from deep, for 36 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists, 1 block, and just 1 turnover. Even more impressive, Durant scored 28 of those points in the second half. He even set his playoff career high with 18 of those points in the fourth quarter. Simply put, he was unstoppable. It also helped that Serge Ibaka provided a completely unexpected 11-11 for 26 points. Durant and Ibaka outscored the big three of San Antonio. Duncan had a good game with 9-17 shooting for 21 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and a block. However, Parker and Ginobili struggled. Parker finished 5-15, 0-1 from deep, for 12 points, 2 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1 turnover. Ginobili finished 4-7, 2-3 from deep, for 13 points, 4 assists, 1 steal, and 6 turnovers. The role players actually stepped up in this game with 23-43 shooting for 56 points. Parker and Ginobili's struggles truly cost the Spurs the winnable game on the road.

Game five featured more of the same. The Thunder won 108-103. Durant finished 10-19, 2-6 from deep, for 27 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 1 block, and 4 turnovers. Durant produced another scorching second half performance to deliver the Thunder a crucial game five victory in San Antonio. Durant went off for 22 points on 9-13 shooting in the second half. Despite Durant's heroics, it was James Harden who provided the biggest play of the game. With less than a minute on the clock and a two point lead, the Thunder attempted to run a play for Durant, but the play broke down and James Harden held the ball in his hands. With the shot clock running down, Harden fired up a step back contested 3 that splashed through the net and put the Thunder up five with 28.8 seconds left in the game. Harden's 3 sealed the game.

This loss dealt the Spurs their first three game losing streak of the season. Ginobili provided his best performance of the four losses. He shot 11-21, 5-10 from deep, for 34 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, and 5 turnovers. Despite his great performance, Ginobili missed a decent looking opportunity from deep to counteract Harden's huge 3. Duncan provided another solid game with 7-10 shooting for 18 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, and 2 turnovers. However, it would have been nice to see Duncan demand the ball and get up more than ten shots. Parker struggled, shooting 5-14, 0-1 from deep, for 20 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, and 5 turnovers. Ginobili and Parker's inability to take care of the ball led to 21 total turnovers for the Spurs, which the Thunder capitalized on to score 28 points. Of the role players on the Spurs, only Stephen Jackson showed up ready. Jackson went 5-9, 3-6 from deep, for 13 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 2 turnovers in his 30 minutes of play. The rest of the role players combined to shoot 6-20 for 17 points.

Down 3-2 in the series, the Spurs needed to pull off an impressive road victory in Oklahoma City to continue the series. The Spurs came out hot and dropped 34 points in the first quarter. Tony Parker looked to atone for his previous games with some sensational play. Parker finished the first quarter 7-9, 1-1 from deep, for 17 points, 5 assists, and 2 rebounds. Parker scored or assisted on all of the Spurs first 25 points of the quarter. Incredible. Only Deron Williams has had such an exceptional quarter in a playoff game (Williams dropped 17 points and 5 assists in the fourth quarter against the Spurs in the '07 playoffs). Parker finished the first half 8-13 for 21 points, 10 assists, 3 rebounds, and 1 turnover. The Spurs led 63-48 at the half.

However, when it mattered the most, Parker couldn't make a play. Parker struggled to hit the pull up jumper on the pick and roll, and in doing so, he no longer was viewed as a threat. Parker went 0-7 from beyond ten feet in the second half. Five of those attempts were pick and roll pull up jumpers. The Thunder gladly went under the screens and watched Parker fire up bricks. Lacking the threat of a jump shot, Parker struggled to penetrate the lane and provide easy buckets for his teammates on dump offs or drive and kicks. Parker finished the second half 4-14, 0-2 from deep, for 8 points, 2 assists, and 2 steals. Parker finished the game 12-27, 1-4 from deep, for 29 points, 3 rebounds, 12 assists, 2 steals, and 1 turnover. That final stat line looks pretty good, but stat lines fail to tell the whole story.

Parker's second half meltdown may have ended the Spurs' season, but he was not alone in the blame. Ginobili also struggled, shooting 4-12, 2-8 from deep, for 10 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, and 3 turnovers. The bench also struggled mightily. Excluding Stephen Jackson, the role players went 4-15, 2-7 from deep, for 12 points. Only Tim Duncan and Stephen Jackson looked poised and unperturbed by the Thunder and the crowd. Duncan went 11-23 for 25 points, 14 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocks, and 2 turnovers. Duncan's performance was his best of the four losses. "Captain Jack" turned in his fourth straight solid performance by shooting lights out. Jackson went 6-7, all from downtown, for 23 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals, and 2 turnovers. Jackson hit numerous clutch 3's in order to give the Spurs a chance, but his only miss came with 43 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and the Spurs down by four points. Jackson had a good open look from the wing, but he missed it. Parker responded by bricking a hurried attempt from the corner following an offensive rebound.

Game over.

Series over.

Season over.

Durant provided another chapter to his legacy with his performance in the game six 107-99 victory. Durant shot 9-17, 4-8 from deep, for 34 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, 2 blocks, and 2 turnovers. Durant's monster performance highlighted his tremendous efficiency and his stat-stuffing capability. Durant was phenomenal. He even played all 48 minutes! Ridiculous. Westbrook backed up Durant with a solid performance. Westbrook shot 9-17, 1-1 from deep, for 25 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 block, and 5 turnovers. Harden also delivered with his 4-9, 3-4 from deep, for 16 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 turnovers.

All season long the Spurs relied on the big three and consistent bench play. In their only four game losing streak of the season, the big three failed to show up collectively strong. In game three, only Parker played well. Only Duncan played well in game four. Game five featured a great performance from Ginobili, and a solid performance from Duncan, but Parker struggled. Game six featured a great first half from Parker, but a complete disaster in the second half. Duncan played well in game six, but his effort was not enough. Not once during the losing streak did two of the three stars provide great performances in the same game. During the winning streak, these lapses were counteracted by stellar bench play, but in the defining moments of the season, the Spurs failed as a team. Not one guy can be blamed. Everyone turned in worthy, as well as abhorrent, performances.

They won as a team. They lost as a team.

Gone is the opportunity for greatness. The Spurs were on the verge of challenging the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers for the most dominant postseason run in NBA history. Four losses later, that 16-1 record continues to stand above the rest. Instead, the Spurs topped out at 10-4 and will now be spectators to the NBA Finals. The Spurs will come back strong next year, but with another year of wear and tear on Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker, the window for a championship is quickly closing. Despite the disappointing end to the season, I don't expect the Spurs to blow anything up. I expect them to return with the same team, minus maybe one or two bench guys. This team isn't going away, and they will challenge for a ring once again next season.

The biggest winner of the series is Kevin Durant's legacy. Durant is 23 years old, yet he is providing the stuff of legends. His ascension to super-duper-stardom may come with a victory in the NBA Finals, especially if it comes at the expense of LeBron James. Durant is riding a Dirk-like assassin streak in order to hit big shots in clutch moments and lead his team to victory. Overall, the Thunder remind me a lot of the '11 Mavericks. The Thunder have a bunch of hungry players who keep coming up big in the most important of occasions. Whether it's a Harden 3 in the final minute, or a Durant steal and transition pull up jumper, or a Westbrook ferocious dunk, it all keeps happening at crucial moments that are changing the momentum of the game.

Durant's "clutch gene" keeps coming through, and his teammates seem to relish the biggest moments because they know that #35 is on their side. Similar to a scene in Space Jam, the Thunder are sipping on the "secret stuff" that Kevin Durant is providing them. In the scene, one member of the Looney Tunes' cast fills up a water bottle and inspires his teammates by giving them the water bottle and saying that it contains "Michael's secret stuff." The teammates frantically grab the bottle and gulp the water down. The placebo effect of "Michael's secret stuff" causes the teammates to play extraordinary basketball because they believe that Michael Jordan's basketball skill has somehow been ingested. Well, the Thunder are doing the same thing. They are piggy-backing Kevin Durant's transcendent skill by providing their own flashes of greatness. They believe that Durant can always come through for them, and such belief lends incredible confidence in the team. It's a lot easier to take a shot that isn't considered a backbreaking miss if you happen to miss. That is the power of Durant. He gives Westbrook and Harden the confidence to play freely because he will always be there to back them up. In doing so, the entire team follows his lead.

Now the Oklahoma City Thunder are headed to the NBA Finals to face off against the Boston Celtics or the Miami Heat. Either way, I can't wait. Kevin Durant may begin his incredible ascent as a young superstar champion. LeBron James and the Heat may silence a nation of critics. The Boston Celtics may prove that a veteran core can still get it done. One way or the other, the story lines heading into the NBA Finals are "BIG." 

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Boston Celtics Can Inspire the Los Angeles Lakers (6.4.12)

If you are a Los Angeles Lakers fan, you are obliged to detest the Boston Celtics.

You do not wear green unless it is St. Patricks Day. Even doing that is uncomfortable. When St. Patty's does arrive, and you embark upon your voyage to get hammered with your friends, it is pertinent to understand that the only green jersey you can even think about donning is a classic Seattle Supersonics jersey. You can rep some Payton or Kemp, but no Celtics, ever.

However, the current Boston Celtics are the only beacon of hope for the current makeup of the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers are coming off of consecutive second round knockouts. The organization that vies for championships, 31 NBA Finals appearances in 65 seasons, is currently stuck in a mire. The Lakers won their 16th title in 2010, but to many, that seems like eons ago.

So, has the window closed on this Lakers' team?

Since the Pau Gasol trade, the Lakers have been to the Finals three times. However, those appearances all came in the first three years of this current five year run. Disappointment has stung LA for the past two years. The Lakers burned out against the Dallas Mavericks last season. Kobe looked old and was constantly getting his knee drained. Pau played the worst basketball of his career. Bynum wasn't a factor. Dallas swept LA and went on to win the championship.

This season, the Lakers' organization underwent a drastic overhaul. Anyone who ever spoke to Phil Jackson was shipped out. Anyone who mentioned the triangle offense was avoided. Even the employees of Staples Center were fired and replaced. Mike Brown was brought in to change the direction and philosophy of the team, yet his hire came without any prior discussion with Kobe Bryant. Seriously, the organization decided to hire a coach that would lead Kobe throughout his final years in the NBA without even discussing the option with the greatest Lakers player of all time. Not exactly the best method to initiate a new direction.

Don't forget about the Chris Paul debacle either. David Stern effectively thwarted the future of Los Angeles Lakers' basketball by vetoing the Chris Paul trade. In doing so, Stern denied the Lakers another decade of excellence with CP3 leading the way. The ramifications of the failed trade ran deep. Lamar Odom instantly felt betrayed and demanded a trade. LA let him go for absolutely nothing. Lamar failed miserably this season in Dallas, but who knows how he would have played in LA. Pau Gasol displayed maturity and came to work every day, but, despite his professionalism, his play really struggled until after the trade deadline. Once the deadline passed, Pau was able to play with confidence and resume his status as an elite big man.

Despite the drastic shifts within the organization, the Lakers entered the playoffs as potential title contenders. Kobe and Mike seemed to get along well as coach Brown earned Kobe's trust and respect with his constant dedication to his craft. Kobe responded with a successful season that nearly led to a scoring championship following his Orthokine surgery in Germany. Mike Brown unleashed Andrew Bynum for the first time by utilizing Bynum in a fashion that Phil Jackson never did. In doing so, Bynum made his first All-Star appearance this season. Bynum's emergence is a direct result of Mike Brown featuring him and trusting him. Phil never trusted Bynum in a big spot. Phil always went with Lamar to close out the fourth quarter. With Kobe still thriving in his prime, Bynum was not expected, or asked, to be a dominant factor during the Jackson tenure. This season, Bynum showed flashes of brilliance. However, he also had many head scratching moments of immaturity, as well as a knack for disappearing in big games. Overall, the Lakers finished the regular season with the third seed and a 41-25 record.

Now the future lies with Andrew Bynum. Such a proposition can strike fear into the heart of every Lakers' fan. We all know how great Bynum is on occasion, but we all understand that the key word is "occasion." Bynum fails to bring his best every single game. He just does. The greatest attribute of Kobe Bryant is that he is a grinder. Kobe grinds out the same game every single night. No matter what, Kobe gets his shots, and his points. Kobe's impact is always tangible. For the Lakers to succeed, Bynum needs to provide consistency.

Despite the doom and gloom of this season's flame out, the reality of the team is that the current construct of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum should have enough skill to carry the Lakers to another deep postseason run. The Lakers came two Kevin Durant shots away from moving into the Western Conference Finals. Despite the series defeat to the heavily favored Thunder, the Lakers should look at this season as a success. LA nearly toppled a foe that will look to contend in the West for the next decade. LA can play with OKC. They came up short, but LA can hang with OKC. Just look at Boston. The Celtics currently are in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. With the series tied at 2-2, the Celtics are two wins away from making another Finals appearance. Two wins! Even if Boston loses the series, the Celtics should serve as hope and inspiration for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Both the Celtics and the Lakers have enjoyed considerable success since 2008. The Celtics capitalized on the incarnation of the "Big Three" to win the title in '08 over the Lakers. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen led the biggest turnaround in NBA history, as Boston improved by 42 games. In '09, Boston started the season 27-2, however an injury to Kevin Garnett's knee derailed the season. The Celtics finished 62-20, but they lost to the Orlando Magic in the second round of the playoffs. The Lakers would go on to defeat Orlando in the Finals. In '10, the Celtics came out hot once again. Boston started the season 23-5. However, age caught up to Boston, and Doc Rivers limited the minutes of the big three as Boston sputtered to a 27-27 finish. The Celtics finished the season with the fourth seed in the East and a 50-32 record. Despite the unfavorable seeding, the Celtics knocked out Miami in five, upset the top seeded LeBron-led Cavaliers in six, and then dethroned the returning Eastern Conference Champion Magic in six games. Boston took the Lakers to seven games in the Finals, but LA eked out the victory for the '10 championship. In 2011, the Celtics revamped their roster and traded away their defensive stalwart, Kendrick Perkins. The Perkins trade crippled the season. Boston was 41-14 before the trade, but they finished the season 15-12. Boston entered the playoffs as a third seed with a 56-26 record. Boston swept the Knicks, but were bounced out by the new "Big Three" of Miami in five games. This season, Boston finished with the fourth seed and a 39-27 record. Despite struggling with age and injuries, Boston defeated the Hawks in six, eked out the series against the Sixers in seven, and are currently tied up with Miami at two games apiece.

After KG got hurt in '09, many analysts and critics felt that the big three era in Boston was over almost as quickly as it began. KG's knee injury, coupled with Ray Allen's tricky ankles, Paul Pierce's evolution into molasses, and Rajon Rondo's immaturity spelled doom. Yet, here they are. Boston snuck into the Finals in '10 and came one Ron Artest 3-pointer away from winning the whole thing. The '11 season should have solidified their demise. Boston was bounced, easily, by the Miami Heat in five games. The Heat absolutely dominated Boston. Pierce, Allen, and Garnett looked a step slower on everything when compared to LeBron, Wade, and Bosh. Yet, Danny Ainge, the general manager, kept the core together. Now Boston has a chance to sneak back into the Finals in '12. Maybe this time a three pointer from the most inconsistent shooter on the court won't drown out their title hopes.

Boston and LA's past five seasons have run a parallel path. Both made repeated trips to the Finals in their first three seasons together. Both struggled mightily in their fourth season, 2011. Both have pondered blowing up the whole operation, with LA making the CP3 deal, and Danny Ainge stating that everyone on his roster was available for trade. Both have seen the emergence of young stars, with Andrew Bynum and Rajon Rondo moving into star status, and Rondo currently knocking down the door for superstar status due to his stellar playoff play. Both are worried about the maturity of their young stars, with Bynum and Rondo each making boneheaded mistakes that make you wonder if they will ever be able to be carry the team as the focal point. Both are battling the eventual slowdown of their older stars coupled with the emergence of their young studs. Both have looked awful recently. Both have looked like champions recently. Both are battling younger big threes, with Miami and the Thunder looking to gobble up rings. Both are uncertain about their future.

Throughout it all, Boston's success this season should ease the anxiety of the Lakers' organization and fans. Boston is proving that hard work and effort can carry a veteran, championship savvy team. Boston has not looked dominant by any means, yet here they are. Boston sticks to the game plan and plays tough defense. Talent alone does not win them any ball games. Boston grinds away and keeps getting closer to the ultimate prize. Boston struggled against the young, athletic Hawks, but they kept at it and closed the series out. Boston struggled even more against the even younger and more athletic Sixers, but Boston walked away with a game seven victory. Now Boston is battling the uber talented Heat, aka LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. Whatever happens to close out the series, Boston has shown that a commitment to excellence can drive a team to unexpected heights. No one thought Boston would be here right now. Nobody.

After 2009, many thought the Celtics would be a distant memory. Well, it's 2012 and the Celtics are still vying for a championship. The Celtics should serve as a blueprint for the Lakers. After LA's disappointing exit this season, many clamored for reconstruction. However, maybe the best play for another championship is to just stick with it. If the goal is to maximize the career of Kobe Bryant, then LA may be better served to ride the trio of Bryant, Gasol, and Bynum for another championship run. I believe that Kobe has two great seasons left in him. After that point, Kobe will no longer be a focal point that can carry a team to a championship. It's now or never for Kobe and the Lakers. Although it may be tempting to trade Gasol or Bynum for something flashy, would that move lead the Lakers anywhere closer to a championship in the next two seasons? If the returning player isn't Dwight Howard, then probably not.

The Lakers have something that no other team has, two extremely talented seven footers. Such an advantage should only be superseded by an all-world talent. The Lakers only have four guys remaining from their last title, do they truly want to whittle that number down to three, two, or possible even one? Unless the Lakers can secure Dwight Howard or Deron Williams, I say ride it out. Boston has exceeded their mileage with unexpected returns, why can't LA?

Boston should prove to LA that the window for a championship has not closed. Give Mike Brown a full season to figure out how to effectively utilize Kobe, Pau, and Drew. The current incarnation of the Lakers can contend for a championship, but the organization needs to believe in them and keep them together. Danny Ainge put his whole team on the trading block this season, yet I'm pretty sure he is relieved that he didn't make any moves. Now Boston has a very realistic chance to win it all this year. Even if they don't, Ainge looks pretty intelligent for keeping the core of Boston together for another title run.

Will the Lakers' organization have the same faith in their team? Will the brass believe that Kobe Bryant can capture that sixth ring? Will the brass believe that Pau Gasol can be the best player on the court any given night? Will the brass believe that Andrew Bynum can dominate the paint every single night? Each scenario is possible. Each scenario is questionable. Ultimately, the decision of the front office will directly impact the title run. LA can trade away their size for youth and athleticism. Or LA can stick with it and fight for another title in the next year or two. One is not independent of the other, but each is full of questions.

If Boston has shown us anything, it's that consistent effort from star players, despite age or mileage, can lead to success. Bryant, Gasol, and Bynum have enough talent to get it done. But that talent needs to shine every single game. If inconsistency and passivity infects the 2013 Lakers like it did this season, then the Lakers will be stuck in early postseason exits without a viable option to improve. That's the problem. The Lakers have a roster that can deliver a championship, or cripple the future of the franchise. Both could happen. Just one could happen. Either way, Los Angeles expects championships.