Saturday, May 23, 2009

long live the king

I didn’t grow up a huge fan of the NBA. Raised not far from D.C., my siblings and I found more to root for in the Washington Redskins than the Washington Bullets. It wasn’t until after I started playing basketball on a team, and I'd developed an appreciation for the complexity of offensive and defensive schemes, that I started paying attention to NBA playoffs. And of course, the playoffs are the only part of an NBA season that really matter. We generally know which teams deserve a playoff spot by the All Star break, and going by the number of home team losses this post season, seeding doesn’t appear to be that important a motivation for successful teams in the last quarter of the season.

I recognized this pretty early on, so I became mainly a fan of the NBA playoffs, where a seven game series between titan teams could read as an epic with many intricate storylines. Instead of Hector vs. Achilles, it was Magic vs. Bird, icon vs. icon. And from the 1990-91 season to the 1997-98 season, generally the block of years I spent watching basketball (until fairly recently), there was only one team, one player, that really mattered. Michael Jordan. Until recently, the undisputed, best all-around basketball player in history. Because of him, the Chicago Bulls won six championships in that time, Jordan capturing the Finals MVP title each time. There was none better, and there was never going to be anyone better.

Not that we didn’t look. Every time a new, talented player seemed to show promise, he always seemed to fall short in comparison. He wouldn’t have the numbers, he wouldn’t have the fortitude in clutch situations, he wouldn’t have the fierce competitiveness…whatever the shortfall, he just couldn’t be like Mike. It was impossible.

Only two players really come to mind who have arguably come close, and they both played on a team that happened to employ Michael Jordan’s former coach, Hall-of-Famer Chicago Bulls coach, Phil Jackson. The L.A. Lakers had their own three -year dynasty, though Chicago of course had two of them. And they did so with Shaq and Kobe. I don’t mind when people draw comparisons between Shaq and MJ; you can’t deny that Shaq changed the game in his own right. But they played different positions, with different strengths. Shaq was bigger than everyone else, but MJ was BETTER than everyone else, and that’s a significant difference. And Shaq’s numbers still didn’t come close to Jordan’s. I think there’s much more of a valid comparison between Kobe and MJ. Both are noticeably better than most anyone you put against them, but are clutch, both are extreme competitors. But the three years that the Lakers won the championship, it was Shaq, not Kobe, who won the Finals MVP. And Kobe hasn’t won a title without Shaq since he had him shipped out of L.A. I like Kobe - at least, I like WATCHING Kobe - but I don’t think he’s going to have another shot at that Finals MVP this year, or really ever again.

Because we finally found him. Maybe not the next Michael Jordan. Maybe BETTER than the last Michael Jordan.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have exactly ONE thing going for them, at least for the next two years. LeBron James. They had the best record in the NBA, they played the best on both sides of the floor, and they would be nowhere near the playoffs without King James. They lost exactly two games at home all year, one of which was a game that no longer mattered at the end of the season, and they swept the first two rounds of the playoffs. Their first game in the third round, a home game, was nothing short of shocking. They lost in the final seconds to the Orlando Magic, a team with a seemingly under-qualified coach, who had been down 2-3 against a Garnett-less Boston Celtics team the previous round, before winning the last two games to meet the Cavs. After the loss, James was met with criticism at his passing the ball away in the final seconds of the game. “Why didn’t he take the potential game-winning shot?” “Michael Jordan would have taken that shot.” “There’s no way Jordan passes that ball in that situation, even if he had three people on him.” Maybe that’s true, but passing the ball when you’re double-teamed to a wide-open, high-percentage shooter is the right move. And they lost because of it.

No worries, though. There was absolutely no chance Cleveland wouldn’t wipe the floor with Orlando in retribution two nights later, another home game. Sure enough, Cleveland was up 23 points early on Orlando last night. So imagine my surprise to see the teams tied with about 5 minutes left when I checked back on the game last night. At the time, I told one of my buddies that I could feel a potential Jordan-like moment coming. No way was LeBron not the one taking The Shot tonight. The same thing happened last year in the playoffs. LeBron was criticized for spreading the ball around late in a game the Cavs ended up losing, and you couldn’t pry the ball away from him the next game.

Alas, it didn’t seem to matter. Orlando went up two points with one second left. One second in an NBA game is no time at all. You can work with three seconds, maybe two seconds, but one second just isn’t enough time to turn to the basket, get your feet set, and jump higher than the two guys in your face who both know the ball is going to you. Everyone in the stadium knows the ball is going to you. There’s no chance. Michael Jordan might have been able to do it, but MJ was one of a kind.

LeBron James needed only .5 seconds to get that ball in the air. A picture shows a couple fingers still on the ball with the clock in the background still at .6 seconds. As the ball reached its apex, James was already shuffling into the backcourt. He knew. He knew because he’d seen Jordan do this countless times. He knew because he dreamed of this moment his entire adolescence. He was going to be like Mike.

Three points in one second won the game for Cleveland that night. A game that shouldn’t have even been close, granted. Who knows, Orlando might even take this series. But that doesn’t change the fact that for me, King James finally earned the comparisons made between himself and MJ. I’m looking forward to the next decade.

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