by Brian Batty
For all of the advanced statistics, over analysis, and breakdown of every single box score at a microscopic level, basketball is a simple game. Since its inception and until the last game to ever be played (the day the aliens from Independence Day show up and win this time because Will Smith refuses to do a sequel) the best player will win. It’s a tried and true formula dating all the way back to George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers. And with that being said, LeBron James is by far the best basketball player right now in the entire world. Iceberg Slim, also known as Kevin Durant, may be playing out of his mind stringing together 30 point games like it’s just another Tuesday staff meeting for every nine to fiver in America, but LeBron is still number one. In my lifetime (I’m too young to remember Mike doing his thing) I’ve never seen a basketball player affect the entire game the way he does. The floor seemingly shifts to whatever side of the court he’s on, on both offense and defense. He can run an offense with the control of a Peyton Manning, and make even the best wing players in the world look like your average high school JV player on defense. It truly is remarkable, and even for someone like me who is still holding the LeBron hater bandwagon together by a barely visible wooden plank – I appreciate greatness when I see it.
This year LeBron and his Miami Heat are striving towards their third straight championship and fourth Finals appearance in a row. The latter being a much tougher feat then the casual basketball fan would realize. The last team to go to the Finals four years in a row was Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics in the 1980’s. There are a lot of factors that go into that. When you’re a great team that has won it all multiple times, it’s human nature to not have the same burning desire inside of yourself to win it again. The first one is the hardest; you dream about it, you think about it every single day in practice and when you work out. It’s your driving force to do that one more set, to put up those one hundred extra jump shots in a hot gym in the middle of the summer. It takes over your competitive being, you become all about one thing, a championship. And after you’ve won a few of them, it is just about impossible to find that same passion inside of you. A few of the greats, Michael Jordan and Bill Russell just to name a few, had no problem finding that inside of them. But remember, they are the exception, not the rule. That same hunger exists inside of Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Paul George right now. None of them have reached the peak of their profession with only Kevin Durant having a taste of it to this point.
Since coming to Miami, including this season and the playoffs, LeBron James has played 332 games. That’s also 332 games of being the most important player on both sides of the ball; guarding the best player on the other team and running the offense on the other end. As I mentioned in detail earlier, no player is asked to do more for his team. Are you kidding me? He is fatigued. He has to be. This season he has been accused of coasting and he has vehemently denied it. Of course you did LeBron, you have to, but anyone with two working eyes and previous knowledge of your game knows, you are definitely coasting. And that’s ok! You’re allowed to. You’ve earned it. Ok enough talking directly to LeBron, I got a little carried away there. The point remains, the best basketball player in the world is a little tired. He may not win MVP this year, that will more than likely be the previously mentioned Iceberg Slim, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less of a player. He’s saving himself until May and June when the games matter.
The Indiana Pacers are coming, and they are coming fast and loud. They have no qualms in pronouncing what they want this year. They want to win the championship, and they want to beat the Heat doing it. They want the number one seed because in their minds, if they had home court in Game 7 last year they would have been playing the Spurs in David Stern’s nightmare Finals. Luckily for David Stern, and quite honestly for all of us, that didn’t happen. They weren’t ready yet. They would have gotten taught a lesson in basketball 101 by Dr. Poppovich and his Teachers Assistant, Tim Duncan. But it worked out for the rest of us NBA fans as we were treated to the greatest basketball series I’ve ever seen live (The 1984 Finals were the best, it’s all on YouTube if you don’t believe me. Especially watch Game 4, you owe it to yourself).
Game 4 of the 1984 NBA Finals
But this year, the Pacers look ready to go. And like the big, bad wolf, they’re here to huff and puff and blow Miami’s house down. Teams are only shooting an insanely low 41% from the field and 33% from the arc, which rank first and second in the league respectively. If you break down the advanced stats, the story remains the same. It is impossible to get an easy bucket against them, and you have to earn everything you get. Now how does this translate to playing Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals? Miami’s offense is predicated on LeBron creating shots with three point marksman all over the floor. When they get hot their three point shooting can be absolutely terrifying, we’ve all seen it, I’m not uncovering some crazy basketball theories here. But the question is can those shots fall again for yet another playoff run?
The Heat are vulnerable inside when they go small with LeBron and Bosh being the “bigs” on the floor. The Pacers biggest strength? Size. They go big no matter who you throw out there. They don’t double team anybody and dare you to beat them that way. It’s all going to come down to that Game 7. It will be in Indianapolis this year. Barring any catastrophic injury, it’s basically set in stone already in the garbage fire that is the Eastern Conference. I just don’t see them having enough offensive firepower to win it though. Like I mentioned before, LeBron is the best player in the world, and in that Game 7 he knows he has to be the best player in the arena that day. It is kind of amazing, looking back just two summers ago, that someone could have so much confidence in a player who seemingly was predisposed to wilting away in a big game. One trick I think the Pacers may be saving in their back pocket that we could see a little in the second half of the season is a 2-3 zone. Now you don’t see zone defense in the NBA very much, but do you know the last time we saw it used almost exclusively? The 2011 Finals when the Dallas Mavericks beat these same Miami Heat. The zone can cut down on three point shooting, and its biggest flaw, giving up easy offensive rebounds, works right in favor with Miami’s biggest weakness.
Now if the Heat were to get past Indiana, which I think they will, the team waiting for them on the other side could be a number of squads. The Thunder look like possibly the best team in the league, but that all depends on whether or not Russell Westbrook comes back healthy after yet another knee injury. I think they may still be one piece away, as they are going to be depending on very young players in Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb who have about as much big game NBA experience as I do. The Spurs were 18 seconds away from being champions last year and making this article basically irrelevant. And the Clippers, while clearly talented enough, are probably still one more big man away. They really can’t depend much on Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan late in games because of their poor free throw shooting. Although I will say Blake has been shooting free throws much better this season, it may just be an anomaly and could quite easily come crashing down to earth when everything is on the line late in the game. It’s very hard to go to in depth into who will win the Western Conference, and if you say you know who’s coming out of that side of the league, you’re lying to yourself. It will be really fun to watch though, as two from Oklahoma City, Portland, San Antonio, Los Angeles (and for the first time ever, not the Lakers), Golden State, and Houston won’t even make it out of the first round of the insanely stacked West.
I’m big on microcosms in sports. I think the mental side of things is more important to this stuff than a lot of people realize. When games slow down, everyone shoots basically the same percentage and gets off basically the same shots; the talent gap gets so small that the best players are what put everything over the top. With all that said, I think the Heat will do it again. They’ll three-peat and cement themselves in basketball lore in the process. LeBron and the rest of his buddies in South Beach know this is probably their last run together as these Heatles that we’ve all come to hate, then love, then hate, then love and round and round it goes over the last few years. One thing I do know though, for all the uncertainty undoubtedly ahead of us in the second half of the season, this is going to be a lot of fun. Enjoy the ride NBA fans; you’re witnessing greatness in front of you.