Lebron Needs Help

Classic sudden death playoff games break one of two ways, the game creates a legend or a legend makes the game. Sunday, one legend and one superstar made the game. Forget Bird vs. Wilkins from ’88, go back to Oscar Robertson and Sam Jones in 1963 to find the only other time two players scored over 40 points in a Game Seven. Add Lebron and Pierce to the annals after an epic duel in Boston.

James outdid Pierce with 45 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds to 41, 5, and 4, but the Pierces’ Celtics got the best of the Cavs 97-92 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. In a game featuring two stars at their best, a 38-year-old forgotten role player made the biggest shot, and was the difference in the game. PJ Brown buried an open jumper with 1:21 left to give Boston a three-point cushion. Off a timeout, Delonte West, the only other Cav to show up Sunday, missed a good look at a three, turning the game into a Celtic foul shooting contest for the final minute. Brown, who didn’t even play in the NBA until February this season, finished with 10 points, including six in the final stanza.

He took a few bad shots, maybe fell in love with the three ball too much in the fourth, should have pulled up before his last ill-fated drive to the basket, and as Van Gundy pointed out on the broadcast, missed a boxout on the crucial jump ball late in the game. However, Lebron can answer any criticism levied toward him with a simple question – where’s the help?

The 23-year-old now knows how Jordan felt his first 5 or 6 years in the league, except there is no Pippen on this team. Cleveland stinks. It’s a disgrace what surrounds Lebron. Forget 2010, he may be better off on the Knicks right now, and that’s saying something. Ben Wallace is no longer a rebounding and defensive monster, yet remains an offensive liability. Sczerbiak did not score. Did Ilgauskas even play in the second half? Many people forget the Cavs actually have two former Number 1 draft picks on the team. Clearly the GM who took Joe Smith is no longer employed. Explain to me how Anderson Varejeo and Sasha Pavlovic held out for new contracts before the season. Danny Ferry could dig into the D-League for better talent, or find a sharp-shooter like Boston’s Eddie House in free agency. Though spotty at times, West gave a valiant effort, the only other Cav that actually played like he wanted to win at all costs.

Without help, James almost did it all by himself. Scoring aside, he came up with two big steals in the second half, the second leading to a dunk that trimmed the Celtic lead to 89-88, the closest Cleveland would get. He skied for clutch rebounds after painfully watching former rebound legend fail to box out, allowing Boston to tip back offensive rebounds and maintain possession, forcing Cleveland to get multiple defensive stops.

In the press conference, James intimated the team needs to improve. He handled it with class, shouldering the blame, giving credit to Pierce, critiquing his own game and where it needs to improve. The bottom line is clear, get this man help. Ferry has cap flexibility, he has the biggest star in the world to entice players to come, get it done. At this point, forget finding a Pippen, just improve this make the rest of this team NBA-caliber.

Boston again escaped, this time hiding behind Pierce. Ray Allen was admitted to the Witness Protection Program, only to emerge for a few late-game foul shots. Garnett played decent, but 13 points, 13 rebounds hardly says Big Ticket. If Tim Duncan puts those numbers up in Game 7 tonight, he’ll be killed and the Spurs will lose. To my surprise, Rajon Rondo stepped up with a solid game, enough to keep playoff vet Sam Cassell glued to the bench, though Cassell’s putrid performance in this series also contributed to that.

8-0 at home, 0-7 on the road. No team who played decisive games in the first two rounds ever won the NBA title. The Celtics need to shape up immediately, or this dream season will end. Detroit will get a game in Boston, in fact they will get one of the first two. That’s what the Pistons do. Billups is rested, Lebron is out of the way, Detroit is ready. If Boston intends to advance, the Celtics have to show up on the road. 69 points for a 66-win team is unacceptable, especially in a Game Six against a mediocre, at best, defensive team. Garnett’s legacy is at stake. Rewind before the season, skeptics quietly questioned that none of Boston’s Big Three had advanced to the NBA Finals, and none was known for knocking down the big shot. Well, no need to wonder quietly anymore. Pierce answered the bell, Allen had his bell rung, and the verdict is out on KG. He has not played like a Hall of Famer, has not looked for the ball with the game on the line, and has not stepped up when he had his chance. The season ends in six games unless that changes.


Why Cavs Can Beat Boston

Two or three losses makes you think, at four its a steak, now Boston’s road problems are a troubling trend, following its fifth straight post-season road loss in Cleveland, evening up the Eastern Semifinal at two games apiece. Home-road dichotomy aside, the Celtics find themselves in trouble because they wilt under pressure.

Boston trailed by 3 points after the third quarter. They have three All-Star, superstar players, Cleveland has one, who continues to struggle by his standards. Logic says the Celtic trio steps up, makes big plays, closes the game out, and take control of the series. Yet offensively challenged Anderson Varejao outscored Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett combined in the deciding 4th quarter. Not a tremendous feat considering Allen and Garnett were shutout, attempting only three total shots. That’s Boston’s problem, nobody wants the ball in crunch time. Same situation during Game 4 in Atlanta, reluctance to take the big shot.

The Cavs don’t suffer from that problem. Despite shooting an historically poor shooting performance in the series, Lebron wants the ball no matter how many he misses, and he’s not afraid to the deciding shot, or take it hard to the basket. Like a preying animal, James smelt blood late in the fourth, and sunk his teeth into the entire Celts defense, driving by Pierce and Posey, before giving Garnett – the Defensive Player of the Year – a facial with a powerful, rim rattling signature dunk. A microcosm of the game, Boston on its heels, Cleveland on the attack.

Despite the road problems, Boston has continued to dominate at home, playing like a completely different team. But as the road losses mount, the pressure to win at home builds, and if it comes down to a close game, Cleveland has its go-to guy, but where will Boston turn? Monday night you would not have known KG was even on the floor in the fourth quarter if Lebron didn’t posterize him on that dunk.

All season Boston proved me, and many critics, wrong. Could Rondo run the point, would age catch up with them, can this team play defense? They answered each question emphatically. The last unanswered questions, none of the stars has ever won big in the playoffs and who takes the last shot, may sting Doc Rivers’ squad. Let’s say the Celts are in trouble if Rondo leads the team in scoring again.

NBA Trade Deadline Winners

What a difference a year makes. 2008 proved anything but quiet at the deadline with a flurry of past and future All-Stars, a hall-0f-famer, big contracts, and championship contenders all involved. Needless to say it impacted the playoff landscape. With the phones silenced for now, time to assess the damage. We’ll focus on the teams that made the big moves – apologies to New Orleans, Portland, Denver, Detroit, and Toronto, I don’t see the impact.

The Winners
Lakers – LA made out like bandits, landing Pau Gasol for a point guard unlikely to realize his potential in LA, and a bag of balls. Gasol and Kobe clicked immediately, forming a dynamic inside out offensive duo. With Phil Jackson at the helm, two top notch scorers, the best player in the world, the right mix of veteran and young role players, a dynamic athlete now playing under the radar in Lamar Odom, the Lakers have formed the perfect storm to ride to the top. Not to mention 7 feet of potential lingering on the bench for a return. Forget a healthy Bynum, LA is the best team in the league right now, Bynum makes them scary.
Miami – Jettison a $20 million albatross for a dynamic offensive and defensive player. Criticize Pat Riley all you want for the coaching job, but consider he removed Shaq, Ricky Davis, and Antoine Walker – three bad contracts – from the salary cap, expediting the rebuilding process. A one year trial for Marion to find out if they want to team him with Wade for the long-term, or use the cap space on another star in 2009 or 2010.
New Jersey – A young point guard with nice upside locked up until 2013 at a reasonable price, expiring contracts, and draft picks for a disgruntled, highly paid superstar that publicly requested a trade. Consider how difficult it is to get equal value for star caliber players, Thorn made out nice, opening the door for NJ to re-tool and still compete in the watered-down Eastern Conference.
San Antonio – Subtle, yet important. Like the team itself, quiet assassins, San Antonio grabbed a veteran inside defensive presence to counteract the Gasol and Shaq deals, providing Duncan with help inside. Kurt Thomas can knock down the 15-foot jumper, another offensive weapon to go alongside Horry come playoff time. Don’t underestimate his toughness in a playoff series.
Atlanta – A scary collection of athletic talent, Bibby provides the veteran presence on and off the court the young team needs. A playmaker to create shots for Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Joe Johnson, et al., Bibby improves the Hawks outside shooting and fits right into the transition game they excel in. Atlanta is close to becoming a force.
Seattle – Seattle moves into full-fledge rebuilding mode, dumping any and all veteran possible to stock up on draft picks and less expensive contracts. Since winning is not the objective, Seattle accomplished its mission.

Could Have Done Better
Cleveland – With LeBron quietly pressuring the team to make a move, Ferry made a splash with a trade involving a full roster of players. On the surface, Cleveland improves, acquiring shooting help with Sczerbiak and West, inside scoring with Joe Smith, having a solid season with over 17 ppg in Chicago, and the former defensive player of the year and rebounding monster Ben Wallace. A clear upgrade over Hughes, Gooden, Simmons, Brown, and Newble, though Gooden is much better than he’s played this season, the question remains if Wallace can rediscover his former self. Losing out on Bibby, who the Cavs could have snatched with Gooden in the package, along with the uncertainty of Wallace may leave Cavs fans – and a certain superstar – wondering what if come May.
Phoenix – Wrote about this previously, high risk, high reward trade by Steve Kerr. The type of move that can cost Kerr his job, or elevate him to genius. Phoenix was not winning the title with the team as it was, credit him for his boldness, not settling for another good regular season and tough playoff loss. On the upside, Shaq provides the toughness, rebounding, and interior defense the Suns lacked in the half-court game, liberating Amare on both ends of the court, leading Phoenix to the title. The downside, Shaq continues his downward trend, Suns fall in the first or second round again, get saddled with a bad contract for 2-3 years marking the downfall of this group. The reality lies somewhere in between, expect a rejuvenated Shaq to play well, help Phoenix develop a half court game for the playoffs, but the Suns still fall short in May and June
Sacremento – Mission half accomplished, moved Bibby, hung onto Artest. The bad boy had suitors, the Kings should have taken advantage of the opportunity.
Memphis – Can you say Fire Sale?
Dallas – Similar to Phoenix, the Mavs had to change things up to have a chance to take the next step. Kidd brings leadership and a grittiness to a team that clearly lacks the veteran presence. Dallas needs Kidd to find his former self after a sub-par season for an underachieving Nets team. His presence will benefit Dirk, Howard, and Terry offensively, but does nothing to shield Dallas from the Duncan’s, Shaq’s, Stoudemire’s, and Gasol’s of the newly West. At 35, though still playing at high level, you can make a strong case Kidd ranks behind Williams, Paul, and Nash at point in the West, all in the same Western Conference scrum as Dallas. If that proves true, Dallas loses out big time. They lose a young potential star with a good contract, become the oldest team in the NBA, tie up the salary cap with a big number for the next few years, assuming a Kidd extension, all for a player on the downside who does not solve their biggest weaknesses and does not put them over the top. The move reeks of desperation. However, give them credit for taking a chance, not settling for 55 wins and a playoff exit.
Chicago – Involved with every major trade rumor the past year – Kobe, KG, Gasol – the Bulls held their assets, watched Gordon, Deng, and Hinrich plummet in value for arguably the biggest disappointment in the NBA this season. In the end, they hold all three, acquiring the likes of Gooden and Hughes. What’s the plan in Chi-town? Yes, they end the failed Ben Wallace experiment, cutting losses. Is Chicago rebuilding, trying to make a run, planning to hold Gordon, Deng, Hinrich, Duhon, et al.? Why Hughes, who plays the same position? Will Gooden take playing time from Tyrus Thomas and Joakhim Noah, who both stood to benefit without Wallace. Too many questions.
Boston, Orlando, Houston You may ask why. All three teams need point guard help – Boston a veteran to split time with Rondo, Houston and Orlando a playmaker to setup their scorers. Houston tried by acquiring Bobby Jackson, but that does not put them over the top or out of the first round in the West – a waste of Yao and McGrady. Boston will play in the playoffs. Who do you want in a big spot, Billups or Rondo? Down in Florida, Nelson has disappointed, and Arroyo is nothing more than a backup. Still young with good upside, Orlando waits until next year without a point guard.