|Posted on June 18, 2013 at 7:30 PM|
We’ve been here before. Game 6 of these NBA Finals feels like the hundredth game that will “determine LeBron James’s legacy.” But because Lebron has already won a championship, this time feels different; there’s less pressure because he's already won, and yet, in a way, there’s more pressure on him to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke.
We all know that in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season, LeBron submitted perhaps the greatest elimination game performance in NBA history, pouring in 30 first-half points en route to a mind-blowing 45-15-5 statline. Since then, he has faced one such “do or die” game – in Game 7 of the ECF this year against the Indiana Pacers, in which he turned in a ho-hum 32 points and 8 rebounds. Besides those two games, however, LeBron has lost every high pressure game of his career, often putting up impressive individual numbers, but never coming out with victories.
In 2007, his first trip to the NBA Finals, he shot an abysmal 32/90 from the field in the series, missing 16 of 20 threes, and was stifled by the Spurs’ defense. In 2008, he battled Paul Pierce in Game 7 of an early round series, put up 45 points, and lost, spurring this comment from PTI’s Tony Kornheiser: “I think to be a great player, these are exactly the games you have to win. If you have 45 and you need 49, you have to get 49.” In the 2009 ECF, he recorded 25-7-7 against an unintimidating Orlando Magic team, and lost. In 2010, after mailing in Game 5 of the ECF with 3/14 shooting on the night, he bounced back with 27-10-19 in Game 6, but lost again. Then, he infamously checked out of the 2011 Finals, scoring 18 total points in six 4th quarters, and Miami was upset by the Dallas Mavericks.
Looks like a career path we’ve seen before (Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Doctor Julius Erving, and Moses Malone, to name a few): A superstar player struggles to supplement individual success with team success at the beginning of his career, partly due to poor supporting casts, but then figures out how to truly embrace big moments, with the help of improved teammates and/or coaching. But losing tonight would remove LeBron James from that group, because once great players “figure it out,” they're not supposed to revert back – after Michael Jordan broke through to win his first NBA Championship in his seventh year, he won the title in his next five full seasons, only twice being pushed to a Game 7, never fading one iota, averaging over 30 points per game in every postseason.
LeBron is not Michael. Jordan had an on-off switch that always stayed on. LeBron’s on-off swtich flips back and forth, and people assume that he can control his switch, but do we really know that for sure?
In the 2012 Finals, LeBron found the perfect balance between getting his teammates involved like Magic Johnson and taking over the scoring like Michael Jordan – kind of like Larry Bird in 1986. Now, that balance is gone. After being criticized for being too passive in the first two games of these Finals in which he scored 18 and 17 points, respectively, LeBron began ball-stopping. Outside of a few fastbreak dunks, his baskets have been unassisted, which was not the case during Miami’s 27 game winning streak just a few months ago. This habit of not moving the ball quickly has rubbed off on the Heat as a whole. They averaged 23.8 assists per game during the streak (assisting on 61% of their field goals), and 23.2 through the first 10 games of the playoffs, but only 17.9 in their last 10 games (assisting on just 51% of their field goals).
LeBron was lauded for his 33-point, 15/25 shooting performance in Game 4, but the fact of the matter is that he still wasn’t moving the ball like he was last year and earlier this year, and still attempted 12 shots outside the paint. Yes, he made 70% of his perimeter shots in that game, but when those same shots aren’t going down (like when he went 2/13 outside the paint in Game 3, and 2/7 in Game 5), just like they weren’t in the 2007 and 2011 Finals, the Heat have been largely unsuccessful. Check out two of his more egregious cases of holding the ball and settling for jump-shots, here and here.
In contrast, when he gets shots off of a legitimate offense, like this one in Game 4, they are much more likely to fall.
The Heat need to get back to the screening and cutting that made them one of the best half-court offenses in the league. Their most successful stretch of the first five games came in the second half of Game 2, in which LeBron set pick after pick for Mario Chalmers, which, with proper spacing, gave LeBron enough space to survey the floor and find open shooters. Curiously, they have rarely used this offense since. However, in Game 4, they found success with Dwyane Wade – Chris Bosh pick-and-rolls:
Tonight, the Heat must continue to run these two-man plays to get switches and keep the Spurs’ defense on its feet. They’ve been doing too much standing around on the offensive end.
It hasn’t help Miami’s cause that point guards Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole were borderline unwatchable in Game 5. On five straight possessions in the second quarter, Parker took one of them off the dribble, scoring or drawing a foul on four out five (Parker was 7/7 within 10 feet of the basket on isolation plays for the game). On offense, they combined to shoot 2/11 from the field and both had laughably horrific three-point attempts in the second half. Furthermore, they've been so inconsistent shooting from the outside, that their defenders are focusing their attention on Lebron James rather thanthem:
Sticking with the role players, Mike Miller, recently inserted into the starting lineup, shot 0/2 in 46 minutes over the last two games, and has been a total liability on defense. Take into account that Udonis Haslem was 1/2 from the field in the last two games, Chris Andersen was bizarrely benched for both contests after firing up the Heat defense in Game 2, and Shane Battier has been awfully cold from three-point range, and Miami is now very limited with its lineups. Furthermore, with Manu Ginobili now starting for San Antonio, the Spurs’ small-ball lineup may have figured out how to beat a Heat with a taste of their own medicine.
Lastly, Miami has had Bobcats-like defensive lapses in this series, many of which resulting in threes for Danny Green. Check out this stupefying play in which all five defenders converge on Tiago Splitter, of all people, leading to an open three-pointer:
In fact, nearly every Miami defender has been guilty of ball-watching to some extent: Haslem, Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade, Chalmers, Miller, and even LeBron have inexcusably left Danny Green open for threes.
Ultimately, regardless of how these other factors play out, this game will be about LeBron James. We’ve seen him explode for 45 points in do-or-die games, we’ve seen him go cold from the field, we’ve seen him flirt with triple-doubles, we’ve seen him look motivated at times, we’ve seen him look unmotivated at others, we’ve seen him struggle to get teammates involved, and we’ve seen him defer to teammates. That’s why he’s the most riveting athlete in professional sports – he’s just so unpredictable.
Win or lose, LeBron will show up to win tonight. The man averages 31 points and 10 rebounds in career elimination games; he’s not going down without a fight.
Yet, if he didn’t get hot in the ECF last season, we’d be looking at a guy with four MVPs across ten seasons, and no rings to show for it. He has a tendency to shoot more, and miss more, from the perimeter in big games. Considering the fact that he’s starting to look more and more like young LeBron in these Finals, can we really trust that he’ll be able to replicate last year’s prowess under pressure? I wouldn’t be so sure. And have you noticed that the Heat are 5-6 in their last 11 games, not winning back-to-back games once?
Prediction: Spurs win Game 6 103-100
* If we see this look from LeBron during pre-game warmups, please discount this pick