Wednesday, June 6, 2007

King for a Day ... or More?

LeBron's highlight reel Game 5 against Detroit will stand out as one of the greatest playoff performances in NBA history for sure, but only a casual NBA fan would be looking for LeBron to repeat that same performance in Game 6.

He didn’t match his 48-point score whenever, wherever, however performance. If anything, he did better.

In Game 6, which turned out to be the deciding game as the Cavs topped the Pistons for their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals, LeBron scored only 20 points. But his 14 boards and eight assists were both team highs.

His own offense was overshadowed by a previously unknown second-round draft pick rookie, who poured in 19 of his 31 points in the key fourth quarter.

Even without leading his league in scoring, LeBron had his stamp all over the game. This series will be remembered for LeBron’s maturation. And if he can turn it into a victory in the Finals, which begin Thursday night in San Antonio, it will go down as his career-defining moment.

LeBron gets it now. He has learned how to win and more important he has learned how to win under the brightest lights on the biggest stage and in the enemy’s gym.

The reason Daniel Gibson was open -- wide open -- for those three-pointers in Game 6 was because the Pistons knew they couldn’t win without stopping LeBron. What they didn’t realize was that LeBron has learned that he could lead his team to victory without shouldering the scoring burden.

There have only been a handful of players who could control a game without scoring. Few realized that LeBron was in this category before this series.

Sure, LeBron has unstoppable scoring machine in Game 5 was beautiful to watch but that’s not what validates greatness. It was Saturday night’s Game 6 that will solidify LeBron’s place in basketball history.

He took exactly what the Pistons gave him, which wasn't much. He handled the ball on almost every trip down the court. Instead of forcing up shots, ala Kobe Bryant (go watch the 2004 finals) he tried to find open teammates, and he hit the boards. What other superstar player not named Steve Nash would pass up the glory of scoring just to get a win? What other superstar understands the nanosecond-by-nanosecond flow of a game so completely, that his instincts – to shoot or not to shoot – are almost always correct?

It's a freaking short list, people.

LeBron led his team in rebounds and assists and for the series, he averaged nearly a triple double. The most telling thing about LeBron's game is his ability -- at only 22 years old -- to read and react to defenses from moment to moment. On top of that, he's somehow convinced a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time group of players that they are title contenders.

LeBron has become a true leader. He's got his team believing in him and themselves. This is no small accomplishment in professional sports. I seriously wonder if any player so young has been able to accomplish so much with so little talent on his team.

This is why I’m predicting LeBron will lead his team over the Spurs in the NBA Finals.

Yeah, I know. Crazy, huh?

Maybe not.

Nobody has given the Cavs a chance. In Vegas, the Spurs are 2-1 favorites to win in five games.

The Spurs are the smart pick for sure.

They are peaking at the right time. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli are healthy. Tony Parker is getting better and wiser every year. They have the deepest bench in the playoffs. They have the best active coach (all due respect to Philip) in the NBA. And they've already been to the mountaintop three times. This Spurs team has never lost in the NBA Finals. And, they have home court advantage.

With all that going for the Spurs, why should the Cavs even show up?

Here's why.

First off, the Spurs Western Conference run, while impressive, was easier than it could have been. Phoenix was the series that was supposed to be the default NBA Finals – the two best teams left in the playoffs. But Robert Horry, Amare Staudamire and David Stern turned that into a dud. Golden State had already taken out the number one seed, which left the Spurs to face the young, inexperienced and ultimately overmatched Jazz.

Not surprising then, the Spurs dismissed them with professional ease.

Second, the Spurs have not faced a defense as good and as disciplined as the Cavs. Anyone who paid close attention to the Cleveland-Detroit series, knows the Cavs out-played the Pistons on the defensive end.

And San Antonio plays offense a lot like Detroit. The Spurs like to run a measured half-court offense, feed it to Duncan on the blocks or use their guards to drive and dish to open three-point shooters.

After watching them take down Detroit, this might not surprise the Spurs, but the Cavs should be able to slow them down, which will keep the games close. And keeping the game close is the key to this series.

Because in the playoffs (as we've seen this entire postseason) close games come down to the fourth quarter. Especially those last seven or eight minutes, it's make-or-break time. The intensity ratchets up higher and then keeps going up impossibly more and more. These are the moments that separate the winners from the also-rans.

These are pros. They’re supposed to be able to hit a three with a hand in your face. But what about hitting a three with a title on the line and your palms are sweaty besides and the ball is slick and your heart is pounding so hard it’s making your hands shake?

Can you make that shot? Or will you apple up and clank it off the rim?

If the two teams find themselves in a close fourth quarter in this series, you might say that a team as experienced as the Spurs would have the overwhelming advantage.

But like I said earlier, the Spurs have hardly been challenged this playoffs. Sure, they’re peaking but is it because they’re finally jelling or is a mirage? Is the reality really that they’ve had a relatively easy road to the Finals?

On the other hand, Cleveland was just baptized by fire.

LeBron & Co., had to look into their own hearts, had to battle the odds of being down 0-2 in a seven-game series. And they not only survived, they came out as a totally different team. You want to talk about peaking, look at the Cavs.

And they’re fresh off of a war, while the Spurs had a comparatively easy series with Utah. While the Cavs fought off the Pistons, the Spurs were at home watching and waiting – and more likely than not hoping for a Cavs win. Because before their collapse against the Cavs, the Pistons were the proven winners. The one team you didn’t want to face.

Well, now that’s the Cavs.

The Cavs, you might be interested to learn, who went 2-0 against the Spurs this season. The Cavs who right now have the league’s best player, this year’s Dwayne Wade, the one guy nobody can stop. Not even defensive grand master Bruce Bowen.

The Cavs who have an active shot-blocking seven-footer and some very nice interior defenders. A host of decent shooters. A tougher complimentary player in Larry Hughes and a coach who was schooled at the Gregg Popovich’s side (he was with the Spurs back when they won their first title).

What I'm saying is the games are going to be close. And if they’re close, I think the Cavs can win. Not just with LeBron's offense, but with his leadership.

I'm picking the Cavs. In six.

LeBron’s earned his crown. Now it’s time for him to wear it.

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