There has been a lot of talk about LeBron James’ legacy and whether the last two games of the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston have done anything to start turning people back on to his side. There has been a gradual shift, but the problem with LeBron has never been his talent, it has been his ability to finish. So unless he finishes this season with an NBA title, what he did against Boston will be just another reminder of the frustration of “close but not quite” that is LeBron James.
Rob wrote yesterday about the importance of a ring to cement a legacy, but unfortunately for LeBron, simply winning the title against Oklahoma City will not be enough. His perceived lack of “killer instinct” is only one of the major criticisms against James. The other is the fact he had to join Dwyane Wade’s team to get to a championship.
In order to be granted the full benefits of “Ring Protection” LeBron must slay both those dragons. He needs to not only win the NBA Championship, he must go out there and be the reason they win the title. If he does the first without doing the second, he allows people to devalue his ring because it isn’t entirely his.
He needs to leave no doubt that he is the primary reason the team won the championship.
Last year, Dirk Nowitzki entered the NBA Finals facing similar criticisms as LeBron. In order to shake the perception that he was just another “great but never won a title” guy, he needed to go out and dominate. His ring protection is strong because he went out and did just that, to the point that people overlook that this season ended in a first round sweep. Last year could have been an aberration and 2012 was just a regression to the mean, but Dirk’s performance helps blind people to that.
If LeBron goes out there and averages 25-7-5 but Dwyane Wade returns to Batman status from Aquaman-land and takes over 1 or 2 of the games, the doubt will creep in. I am not saying LeBron needs to average his Game 6 total 45-15-5, but he should be closer to Game 7 (31-12-2) and he needs one defining moment where he takes over a game and is the main reason the Heat win.
A lot people are basing their opinion on the last thing they saw, which is the Thunder dispatching the Spurs after being down 2-0 and the Heat fighting to come back from 3-2 deficit to win the series against and aging and hobbled Boston Celtics team. The problem with that is that both of those instances may be a little bit of a mirage.
The Thunder’s victory over the Spurs was impressive because San Antonio was the hottest team in the playoffs winning 20 straight games including sweeping the first two rounds of the playoffs. The problem with that is that the two sweeps were against the Utah Jazz and the Clippers, not exactly top shelf competition. San Antonio is a great team, but that window is closing fast and the Young Thunder overwhelmed them.
Miami’s path to the conference finals was similar to the Spurs in that they faced a team that really shouldn’t be there and a young up and coming team before facing Boston. People think Miami’s struggles with a team very similar to the team the Thunder dispatched (older veteran team with championship pedigree) is indicative of the fact that they will struggle with Oklahoma City. Truth is, Miami struggled with Boston because the Celtics do not allow Miami to do what they do best, which is run, run, run. Like Oklahoma City, Boston is a jump shooting team that is prone to streaks of missing a lot of shots. The key difference is that when Boston misses shots they go back on defense while the Thunder attack the boards. Miami just could not run the way they wanted to against the Celtics and were bogged down in a half court game (think a hockey neutral zone trap). When you factor in that the Thunder turn the ball over a lot, there should be more opportunities for Miami to run. Oklahoma City relies on their athleticism to wear teams down, but they just might be facing a team that can match their athleticism.
The key to the series is Russell Westbrook. He can create his own shot from anywhere on the court and when he is on, he is on. But there is a reason Westbrook reminds people of Stephon Marbury. He has lapses in judgment and is prone to bad shooting nights. If you take out his 9-17 in Game 6 against the Spurs, he only had one game in the series where he shot over 38%. Now add in the fact that the Miami Heat play suffocating team defense and can put LeBron on him if he gets hot (ask Derrick Rose what that is like) and it could end up being a very long series for Shirtbury.
So, will the Heat do it? A lot of people are picking the Thunder because of their depth and their explosiveness and athleticism. They certainly deserve all the praise they are getting, but I think people may be allowing their disdain for the South Beach nWo to cloud their judgment a little bit. While the ESPN “experts” are fairly split down the middle (12-10 in favor of OKC) it is guys like Wilbon, Broussard and Barry picking the Thunder while guys who break down numbers for a living, like John Hollinger and Tom Haberstroh are picking the Heat.
My Pick, Heat in 6.