HoopsHabit – Ranking the Best Current NBA Player at Every Age

This is a fun one: Here’s my HoopsHabit article with the best current NBA player at every age.

Boston-Brooklyn Brawl

Last night in Boston, a hard foul from Kris Humphries on Kevin Garnett resulted in a brawl that will likely result in fines and/or suspensions for Rajon Rondo and Gerald Wallace as well as Humphries and Garnett. Garnett was going up for a shot in the second quarter when Humphries fouled him. On KG’s way down to the floor, it seemed as though Humphries extended his arm and gave him a push with his hand to send him down harder. Rondo quickly took issue with the foul, getting in Humphries face and pushing him out of bounds. A brawl soon erupted with Rondo swinging and Humphries doing his best not to get run over as the aggressor Rondo drove him back into the stands. As the two were jostling in the crowd, Wallace and KG stepped into the fray as well. The brawl ended pretty soon after Wallace entered the mix because, well, who wants to get into it with Gerald Wallace? Once the players were separated, Boston’s so-called leader emerged without his jersey. He probably won’t be needing it for a while.

Rondo, Humphries and Wallace were all ejected from the game and Garnett received a technical foul. Rondo’s ejection meant his consecutive games streak with 10 or more assists came to an end at 37, which is tied with John Stockton for second on the all-time list (Magic Johnson holds the record at 46). Although Humphries’ foul was uncalled for and likely would have resulted in a flagrant foul or a technical foul, Rondo’s actions call for harsh punishment from the league and deservedly so.

Rajon Rondo immediately went after Kris Humphries after his hard foul on Garnett.

Not only was it Rondo’s fault that the fight carried into the stand, but this brawl in Boston wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t taken such issue issue with the hard foul. Wanting to protect your teammate is understandable, especially since such a foul could have hurt an older guy like KG, but Rondo has to learn that his actions and his bad attitude are unacceptable. There’s a difference between sticking up for your teammates and hurting the team by being a punk. If this were a first-time offense it wouldn’t be so bad but Rondo’s been subject to these outbursts of bad behavior before. The league will (and should) suspend Rondo for multiple games, with Wallace, Humphries and KG all potential targets for fines and/or suspension as well.

We’ve heard for years about how intelligent Rajon Rondo is and we’ve seen it on the court too. We understand how competitive this young point guard is and without that competitive fire and leadership, the Celtics would probably just be another aging team. But as some point in time, Rondo will need to step up and be a real leader of this Boston group. Doc Rivers said it best, but this kind of tough guy routine isn’t actual toughness. If anything, Rondo’s overreaction shows how soft he is and how easy it is to bother him if something like a hard foul can get that far under his skin. There’s nothing wrong with being competitive, but a guy who shoves referees, gets in regular spats with guys like Dwyane Wade and now has multiple ejections under his belt, he should know better. I personally miss the days when NBA rivalries got a little nasty and when players didn’t back down from anybody, but it’s a different league now. Players get technical fouls just for looking at a referee wrong. And because of this changing culture of referee control and league reviews, Rondo needs to cut the tough guy routine and be the leader Boston needs. And staying on the floor is a good place to start.

If the Celtics want to challenge anyone in the East this year, Rondo will need to fix his attitude.

2012-13 NBA Preseason Rankings

With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.

2012 NBA Draft Recap

In a particularly deep draft class, a few teams came out as clear winners with multiple picks that are set to have an immediate impact, while others simply settled for the best selections available. Here are the winners, losers and question marks of the 2012 NBA Draft:

Winners: New Orleans Hornets

No surprises here, but the New Orleans Hornets came out better than everybody as far as their draft picks are concerned. By virtue of the (flawed) lottery system, the Hornets stole the number one pick from the more deserving Charlotte Bobcats and didn’t let it go to waste, taking the clear best choice with Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis. However, the Hornets also put their 10th pick to good use, picking up Duke guard Austin Rivers, son of Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. Then New Orleans used their 46th pick to grab the small forward Darius Miller, a fellow UK teammate of Davis. With Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers in the backcourt and Anthony Davis in the middle, the Hornets have a very talented, very young core group to build around in the future. The Hornets won’t find immediate success as they still need talent at the forward positions, but this draft couldn’t have gone any better for a team that floundered in its first year without Chris Paul.

Anthony Davis was taken first in the 2012 NBA Draft by the New Orleans Hornets.

Winners: Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets also had a nice draft, capitalizing on multiple selections early on. What they intend to do with those picks remains unclear, as the Rockets’ plan to lure Orlando into sending Dwight Howard to Houston for numerous draft picks has been mentioned many times, but for now, they have a young nucleus to work with. The Rockets took advantage of UCONN’s Jeremy Lamb still being on the board and grabbed him with the 12th pick before selecting Iowa State’s Royce White at number 16. Two picks later, they added Kentucky power forward Terrence Jones to the mix. While the Kyle Lowry/Goran Dragic situation plays itself out, at least Houston was able to add young talent to their roster for the time being. Keep an eye on this team during the offseason however; they could be looking to make some major moves.

Here’s a look at the young talent that the Houston Rockets brought in this year.

Winners: Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers didn’t have the sexiest draft and they will most likely continue to struggle next season, but they did make good use of their picks. Portland has been seriously lacking at the guard positions ever since Brandon Roy was forced to retire and Raymond Felton has been extremely disappointing for Rip City. So with their number six pick, the Blazers selected Damian Lillard, a dynamic point guard from Weber State with one major attribute in his ability to score in droves. The Blazers also tried to get LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum some help in the front court by picking up Meyers Leonard with the 11th pick. Leonard has a lot of work to do to be a contributing big man in the NBA, but he also has the potential to help out in the paint.

The face of Portland’s new point guard: Damian Lillard

Winners: Golden State Warriors

Once again, this is a team that may not be a contender next year, but they’re certainly starting to turn things around with a young nucleus. After trading Monta Ellis for an injury-prone big man in Andrew Bogut, many feared the worst. But the Warriors had a solid draft, picking up Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Draymond Green and Ognjen Kuzmic. While Kuzmic might not have much of an impact, the other three picks are very good ones. Harrison Barnes will have a chance to make an immediate impact while Ezeli will strengthen a frontcourt that depends too much on the shaky health of Bogut. Green isn’t the most enticing pick, but I think he will contribute if he can work his way into the rotation with David Lee, Klay Thompson and a hopefully (healthy) Stephen Curry.

Harrison Barnes joins Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green in Golden State.

Winners: Milwaukee Bucks

With mediocre position in the draft, the Bucks were able to get a quality big man and shot-blocker in John Henson, as well as a skilled shooter in Doron Lamb. Although these two acquisitions might not turn many heads this season, Milwaukee got a little bit of what it needed after trading away their injury-prone center. The backcourt is set with Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, now the Bucks needed to add a paint presence and more shooters on the perimeter, which is exactly what they did.

The Bucks needed a shot-blocking big man and they certainly got one in John Henson.

Winners: Oklahoma City Thunder

They only had one pick in the draft, but the Oklahoma City Thunder sure made it count by picking up Perry Jones III out of Baylor. Although there are some concerns about Jones’ knee, the rewards outweighed the risks by the time the 28th pick of the draft rolled around. If PJ3 can stay healthy, he can be an extremely helpful presence in the paint off the bench for the Thunder, especially if they can’t hold on to Serge Ibaka. At the worst, he’ll be a bust, but the Thunder did just make it to the Finals, so if anyone can afford to take the chance, it’s OKC.

Perry Jones III may have been the steal of the draft, falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder with the 28th pick.

Losers: Brooklyn Nets

This was already decided months ago, but the decision to give Portland draft picks in exchange for Gerald Wallace makes this an easy choice for one of the bigger losers in the 2012 NBA Draft. Wallace was a dynamic player…when he was in his prime. With that decision, the Nets settled for Ilkan Karaman with the 57th pick, which was their only selection of the night. Not exactly the kind of way to convince your star point guard to stay instead of bolting for Dallas. That could change if the Nets are able to find some way to entice Dwight Howard to come to Brooklyn, but if not, there’s little reason for Deron Williams to stay.

Was he really worth not getting any new talent in the 2012 NBA Draft?

Losers: Phoenix Suns

It’s ironic that I’m labeling the Suns as losers when they actually made an intelligent selection based on what was left by the time their 13th pick rolled around, but choosing a great passing point guard in Kendall Marshall only reaffirms the fears that are in every fan’s mind: Steve Nash might really be leaving. Suns management denied that free agency had anything to do with it, but why else would they ignore the other gaping problems in their roster if they weren’t at least a little concerned that Nash might be gone next year? Yes, the Suns are lacking a big in the backcourt after Nash (Sebastian Telfair is the Suns’ second point guard at this point) and Phoenix is already up to their ears with small forwards, but is choosing a backup point guard really the best draft strategy with the 13th pick if you really think Nash is going to stay? I didn’t think so. Everyone was big on this pick, but all I see right now is an insurance policy.

The Suns swear the Kendall Marshall pick wasn’t influenced by free agency coming up, but why else would they take a passing point guard unless they were worried Steve Nash might leave?

Losers: Los Angeles Lakers

I loved watching Robert Sacre play at Gonzaga, but it seemed that with each passing year he never seemed to get better. Los Angeles didn’t have great position in this year’s draft which was part of the problem, but I don’t see Sacre having much of an impact and I certainly don’t see him providing help in the paint for a team that may be trading Pau Gasol away very soon. The Lakers would have been better off with a role player like the undrafted double-double machine Drew Gordon, who can score and grab rebounds. They did get their hands on Darius Johnson-Odom from Marquette by virtue of Dallas’ pick, but I just don’t see him helping a very lackluster LA bench. The Lakers have problems to sort out and even though a few offseason moves could quickly right the ship, the 2012 draft didn’t accomplish very much.

Robert Sacre is heading to LA, but he won’t be able to replace Pau Gasol is he’s traded away.

Losers: Charlotte Bobcats

Yes, they got Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a very coveted piece at the number two spot in the draft. But after hearing rumors about what some teams were offering Charlotte for the chance to pick up Gilchrist, it’s a little disappointing the Bobcats weren’t able to work out something better. Not that Gilchrist won’t be able to help in some way in his first season with the abysmal Bobcats, but at this point Charlotte needs a miracle to turn their organization around. They already got screwed over in the draft lottery when they couldn’t land the number one pick, so I don’t think Gilchrist (and the strikingly similar selection in Vanderbilt’s talented Jeff Taylor) will be enough to turn this ship around.

The Bobcats got Kidd-Gilchrist, but then spent their second pick on the similar Jeff Taylor.

Question Marks: Boston Celtics

There were already question marks surrounding the Celtics before the draft got underway. Will Kevin Garnett be back? Is Boston still planning on trading Rajon Rondo any time soon? Will Brandon Bass stay? And would Ray Allen really leave for the Miami Heat? Now they’ve added more questions to the mix with their selections of Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, two talented big men who also have slight downsides. For Melo, there are rightful concerns about his attitude and overall basketball IQ, making him a bit of a project for Doc Rivers. As for Sullinger, the risk of his back problems could prevent him from seeing a lot of playing time. But that’s okay, the last injury-prone big man out of Ohio State turned out to be just fine and had a long and successful career, right?

The Celtics picked up two quality big men, but both are major projects for Boston to work on.

Question Mark: Dallas Mavericks

After a lot of trades and flip flopping of picks, the Mavericks ended up with Jared Cunningham (an attacking shooting guard from Oregon State), Bernard James (a 27-year-old center from Florida State) and Jae Crowder (a very undersized but tough “power forward” from Marquette). While I understand the need to put young pieces around Dirk with young in the hopes of rebuilding with Deron Williams, I’m not sold on Dallas’ selections. They’re not terrible selections and they could prove me wrong very easily, but for the time being, I need to see where the Mavericks’ offseason takes them.

I still need to see how these draft picks play in to acquiring Williams before I pass judgment.

Question Mark: Indiana Pacers

The Pacers had a tremendous season but fell short to the Heat because of two main reasons: 1) Roy Hibbert crawled into a deep dark hole and couldn’t be bothered despite Indiana’s enormous advantage in the paint (especially with Chris Bosh out) and 2) they didn’t have a consistent sixth man to help ease the pressure when their starters needed a breather. Indiana can’t do anything about Hibbert except hope he rises to the occasion next time, but they had power over the second part of that equation. Unfortunately, I don’t see Miles Plumlee as the answer to the bench problem. On a team with Tyler Hansbrough and Lou Amundson, why use your only pick in the draft for another unathletic rebounder who can’t score? In their defense though, they did get their hands on Orlando Johnson, a dynamic scorer from UC Santa Barbara who could be the exact lift off the bench the Pacers need. But for the moment, that hope remains uncertain.

You’re looking at the face of a coach who doesn’t have much to be excited about after the draft.

Question Mark: Minnesota Timberwolves

With Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love to build around, the Timberwolves are one of the youngest and most promising squads of the future. Unfortunately, the 2012 draft did little to make that statement even stronger. I’ve always liked Robbie Hummel and I do think he can add points off the bench because he’s an elite shooter and a smart player. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be enough to raise the Timberwolves to the next level. Hummel has pretty much reached his peak (or will soon enough) and the Wolves really could have benefitted from a better spot than the 58th pick of the draft.

The Wolves have a promising future, but needed to do more in the 2012 draft.

Question Mark: Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets are usually very good about their draft picks (Kenneth Faried is going to be a beast next year), but this year raised more than a few doubts. Nuggets fans are usually pretty accepting and trusting of their management, but I have to question the drafting of so many foreign players who haven’t proven they can play at an NBA level. Denver took Evan Fournier of France and Izzet Turkyilmaz of Turkey, who both have many areas they need to improve. However, the Nuggets also took Quincy Miller from Baylor, who could be quite the steal if he stays healthy. Nuggets fans trust their management and it usually pays off, but I need to see more before I can say it was another successful draft for Denver.

I don’t see any Kenneth Farieds in the Denver’s 2012 draft selections.

Question Mark: Cleveland Cavaliers

Sure, they added some length with Tyler Zeller and moved up in the draft to go along with their fourth pick. But I’m still struggling with the selection of Dion Waiters as the number four pick of the 2012 draft. Whatever Cleveland saw at the NBA Combine must really have impressed them, because Waiters’ stock rose incredibly fast after being projected in the middle of the first round just a few weeks ago. Zeller adds more size and depth to a Cavs team in need of both, but if Zeller can’t produce and hold his own at the next level and if Waiters doesn’t pan out to be a complementary guard for Kyrie Irving, Cleveland might regret this draft.

I can’t help but think the Cleveland Cavaliers could’ve done better with their picks in the draft.

In closing, here is the complete list of every pick of the 2012 NBA Draft:

  1. Anthony Davis – New Orleans Hornets
  2. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – Charlotte Bobcats
  3. Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards
  4. Dion Waiters – Cleveland Cavaliers
  5. Thomas Robinson – Sacramento Kings
  6. Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers
  7. Harrison Barnes – Golden State Warriors
  8. Terrence Ross – Toronto Raptors
  9. Andre Drummond – Detroit Pistons
  10. Austin Rivers – New Orleans Hornets
  11. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers
  12. Jeremy Lamb – Houston Rockets
  13. Kendall Marshall – Phoenix Suns
  14. John Henson – Milwaukee Bucks
  15. Maurice Harkless – Philadelphia 76ers
  16. Royce White – Houston Rockets
  17. Tyler Zeller – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Cleveland Cavaliers)
  18. Terrence Jones – Houston Rockets
  19. Andrew Nicholson – Orlando Magic
  20. Evan Fournier – Denver Nuggets
  21. Jared Sullinger – Boston Celtics
  22. Fab Melo – Boston Celtics
  23. John Jenkins – Atlanta Hawks
  24. Jared Cunningham – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  25. Tony Wroten Jr. – Memphis Grizzlies
  26. Miles Plumlee – Indiana Pacers
  27. Arnett Moultrie – Miami Heat (traded to Philadelphia 76ers)
  28. Perry Jones III – Oklahoma City Thunder
  29. Marquis Teague – Chicago Bulls
  30. Festus Ezeli – Golden State Warriors
  31. Jeff Taylor – Charlotte Bobcats
  32. Tomas Satoransky – Washington Wizards
  33. Bernard James – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  34. Jae Crowder – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  35. Draymond Green – Golden State Warriors
  36. Orlando Johnson – Sacramento Kings (traded to Indiana Pacers)
  37. Quincy Acy – Toronto Raptors
  38. Quincy Miller – Denver Nuggets
  39. Khris Middleton – Detroit Pistons
  40. Will Barton – Portland Trail Blazers
  41. Tyshawn Taylor – Portland Trail Blazers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
  42. Doron Lamb – Milwaukee Bucks
  43. Mike Scott – Atlanta Hawks
  44. Kim English – Detroit Pistons
  45. Justin Hamilton – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Miami Heat)
  46. Darius Miller – New Orleans Hornets
  47. Kevin Murphy – Utah Jazz
  48. Kosta Papanikolaou – New York Knicks
  49. Kyle O’Quinn – Orlando Magic
  50. Izzet Turkyilmaz – Denver Nuggets
  51. Kris Joseph – Boston Celtics
  52. Ognjen Kuzmic – Golden State Warriors
  53. Furkan Aldemir – Los Angeles Clippers
  54. Tornike Shengelia – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
  55. Darius Johnson-Odom – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Los Angeles Lakers)
  56. Tomislav Zubcic – Toronto Raptors
  57. Ilkan Karaman – Brooklyn Nets
  58. Robbie Hummel – Minnesota Timberwolves
  59. Marcus Denmon – San Antonio Spurs
  60. Robert Sacre – Los Angeles Lakers

Heat Beat Celtics, Advance To NBA Finals

After falling down 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics were poised to move on to yet another NBA Finals and it looked like the Heat would once again come up short in their quest for a championship. But then LeBron James took over, finishing off Boston with another prolific game at home in the series clincher, which came just two days after propelling his team to a decisive Game 7 with a monumental performance in Game 6. In a 101-88 victory in Miami, LeBron led the Heat back to their second consecutive NBA Finals with 31 points and 12 rebounds.

Credit Doc Rivers and the aging Celtics for contending with this talented Miami team, but LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were too much for the hobbled Boston side in the end. After yet another sluggish start, Wade woke up in the second half and finished with 23 points, six rebounds and six assists. Meanwhile Bosh, whose playing time was limited in Game 6 after returning to action from an abdominal strain, came off the bench and chipped in 19 points and eight rebounds, made even more impressive that nine of those points came off of three huge 3-pointers the riled up the crowd and acted like daggers to a Boston defense that already had its hands full trying to slow down LeBron and contain Wade. LeBron paved the way and Wade’s performance in the second half was key, but Bosh was the X-factor that helped the Heat pull away in the fourth quarter as they outscored Boston 28-15. In fact, LeBron, Wade and Bosh scored Miami’s last 31 points in the game. However, they also got a little help from some role players along the way. Shane Battier, who had been struggling with his shot throughout the series, knocked down four 3-pointers to finish with 12 points. Mario Chalmers had nine and Udonis Haslem added seven as well, making up for Mike Miller’s goose egg.

LeBron James was terrific once again as the Heat advanced to the Finals. Can he keep it up against the Oklahoma City Thunder?

For Boston, the loss was extremely disappointing but in truth, they were outmatched in this series and the Eastern Conference Finals would most likely have been decided in five games if Bosh had been on the floor the entire time. However, the Celtics battled and got a lot out of some aging veterans, which they should be commended for. Rajon Rondo had yet another playoff triple double, leading his team in scoring with 22 points in addition to 14 assists and 10 rebounds. Paul Pierce followed up with 19 points, Brandon Bass added 16 (14 of which came in the first half), Ray Allen had 15 and Kevin Garnett added 14. Every one of Boston’s starters scored in double figures, but the Celtics got absolutely nothing out of their bench. Without Avery Bradley, the Celtics’ bench scoring in this series was up and down, but in a decisive Game 7 on the road, none of Boston’s reserves made any impact with their limited minutes. Ryan Hollins was the only bench player to score for the Celtics, and he only had two points. The Celtics jumped out to an 11-point lead in the first half, which was cut to seven just before halftime. In the second half, Miami outscore Boston 55-35 and the game was tied heading into the fourth. From there, the Heat’s big three took over: Bosh hit two key threes in the corner, LeBron had a colossal three from a few feet behind the 3-point line and Wade finished it off with a three-point play that extended Miami’s lead to 12.

Without Avery Bradley to guard Dwyane Wade and chip in some points, it’s a wonder the Celtics were able to extend the series to seven games. Then again, without Chris Bosh, it’s not surprising the resilient Celtics were able to hang around with Rondo and Garnett playing so well. Although they didn’t quite have it in them to overcome LeBron, Wade and Bosh down the stretch, Boston had a terrific season and certainly overachieved by advancing so far in the East. For the Heat, their dreams of winning a title after assembling the big three are still very much alive. LeBron James continued his streak of dominance by stepping his game up for the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, but there should be concern about how well the Heat match up with the Thunder. LeBron is playing out of his mind right now, but unless Wade seriously steps up his game and Bosh continues to produce at a high level, the Heat don’t have the depth to contend with a young and athletic Thunder team that really came into its own agains the San Antonio Spurs. Whatever the case, we’re sure to be treated to one hell of an NBA Finals between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat.

LeBron James led the Heat, but Chris Bosh was the X-factor off the bench that helped Miami advance to their second consecutive Finals.

LeBron James’ Transcendent Night Forces Game 7

Like him or not, the league MVP wasn’t ready to let his team bow out of the Eastern Conference Finals just yet. Because of LeBron James’ transcendent night that had Celtics fans heading for the exits early in the fourth quarter, the Heat took Game 6 in Boston with a 98-79 win, tying the series up at three games apiece and forcing a decisive Game 7 back in Miami. Although the Celtics didn’t help matters by coming out flat, it was LeBron’s 45 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and 19-for-26 shooting night that singlehandedly kept the Heat on top, never allowing Boston to close the gap or give their fans something to cheer about.

LeBron’s stats during the postseason are unquestionable, but after the Heat lost three games in a row to a Celtics team everyone perceived as being old and banged up, the world waited for him to have a truly dominant game. Up until that point, LeBron was dropping just under 30 points a night, but it still wasn’t enough because his team was losing and he wasn’t enforcing his will on anyone. We wanted to see this superstar play with fire and passion, much like Kevin Durant did during the Thunder’s remarkable four-game winning streak to take the Western Conference Finals. And after dropping Game 5 at home, it was do or die time for the Heat. So in Game 6, with all that pressure and the possibility of elimination acting as yet another oppressor to a team that constantly deals with mass criticism and often unwarranted hate, LeBron James gave us one of his marquee playoff performances to send this series back to Miami for a chance to advance to the Heat’s second straight NBA Finals. And it wasn’t as though LeBron exploded in a given quarter or made a huge run to topple the Celtics at home. The MVP’s domination was consistent and thorough all night, spread out through the course of the game, providing his team with big buckets time and again to instantly drain any momentum Boston was trying to build. The Heat took a 10-point lead at the end of the first quarter, with LeBron scoring 14 of his team’s 26 points. Dwyane Wade, who has been criticized of late for his slow starts and generally uninspired play, once again had little to contribute in the first half. But LeBron covered all that up, heading into the locker room at halftime with 30 points and a 13-point lead. He was getting to the rim. He was knocking down jump shots left and right. He was draining 3-pointers. And when he gets going like that and when the jumper starts falling, he’s nearly impossible to guard. Simply put, the Celtics had no hope of containing him.

LeBron unleashed one of his finest playoff performances on the Celtics to force Game 7 in Miami.

It goes without saying that LeBron got some help from his teammates. Wade (slightly) picked up his game in the second half and finished with 17 points, even if it took him 17 shots to get there. Chalmers went 3-for-3 from downtown to chip in nine, Shane Battier added eight and Chris Bosh had seven off the bench. But taking a look at this game from a statistical standpoint and from a morale standpoint, LeBron’s big night was the sole factor that kept Miami’s playoff hopes alive. The Heat once again didn’t get the kind of production the need out of Wade, Chalmers, Udonis Haslem, Battier and even Chris Bosh (if the Heat want to contend for an NBA title, he’s going to have to get back to form pretty soon). But it didn’t matter because LeBron James would not allow his team to falter. It didn’t matter that the Heat had lost 15 of their last 16 games in TD Garden before Game 6. It didn’t matter that everyone was criticizing him for not playing with fire or for simply going through the motions. Because when it mattered most, LeBron let his game do the talking.

For Boston, LeBron’s prolific performance is discouraging, but what’s worse is how flat they came out in a golden opportunity to close out the series at home and avoid a dangerous elimination Game 7 in Miami. Rajon Rondo led Boston with 21 points and 10 assists, but none of the other Celtics’ starters played particularly well. Brandon Bass’ 12 was a nice addition, but Kevin Garnett also scored 12, which is significantly low for this resilient powerhouse who’s been capable of dominating Miami’s interior defense at times. Ray Allen added 10, but the most disappointing performance of the night was definitely from Paul Pierce, who finished with just nine points on an appalling 4-of-18 shooting night. Pierce has risen to the occasion in the past against LeBron, especially during the playoffs, but tonight was LeBron’s night and there was nothing Pierce or anyone else could do to stop it. The Celtics didn’t entirely let Game 6 slip through their fingers as much as LeBron James completely yanked it out of reach. A loss like this is disheartening, but don’t write Boston off just yet; outbreaks of “Let’s go, Celtics” chants at the end of the game might be just the thing they needed to keep their heads after such a convincing defeat. Those chance seemed pointless to the rest of the world, but for Boston, they showed just how much faith the fans have in their team and that can mean the difference on the road. However, if LeBron plays anything like he did in Game 6, or if he finally gets some help from Wade and the rest of his supporting cast, the Celtics stand no chance.

Pierce and the Celtics had better hope they play better in Game 7 in Miami if they want to advance to the NBA Finals. Or that LeBron James plays a lot worse.

Celtics Snag Road Win, Take 3-2 Lead

When the Celtics fell into a 2-0 hole in Miami against LeBron James and the Heat, the Eastern Conference Finals looked like they would be wrapping up early. And even when they defied expectations by defending home court and knotting the series at 2-2, everyone assumed the Heat would just take Game 5 at home and have two chances to finish Boston off. But after a 94-90 win in a pivotal Game 5 in Miami, the Boston Celtics look like a team to be taken seriously again.

Kevin Garnett led the Celts with 26 points and 11 rebounds and Paul Pierce scored eight of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, including a dagger 3-pointer over LeBron James to give Boston a four-point lead with less than a minute to play. Pierce’s big-time bucket was reminiscent of James Harden’s clutch three that sunk the Spurs in Game 5 and helped Boston win its third straight game to take a 3-2 lead on the series. The Celtics never led until the third quarter, when they went on a 15-1 run as the Heat once again went through a dry spell. Miami didn’t have a field goal for more than five minutes and once they fell behind, the veteran Celtics held on to their narrow lead, which was particularly impressive since Boston’s stars were struggling from the field up to that point. Rajon Rondo had only seven points on 3-of-15 shooting, Ray Allen had 13 points on 2-of-9 shooting (he knocked down eight free throws) and Pierce was only 6-for-19. However, Garnett’s brilliance, Pierce’s fourth quarter resolve and Boston’s role players stepping up proved to be too much. Mickael Pietrus had 13 points off the bench while Brandon Bass had another solid performance with 10.

Kevin Garnett had another all-around dominant performance and Paul Pierce came alive in the fourth to give the Boston Celtics the critical road win in Game 5 and take a 3-2 lead.

The Heat tried to get Dwyane Wade going early on and for the most part, it worked, as LeBron and Wade combined for 14 of the Heat’s first 16 points. Unfortunately, Wade was nowhere to be found again until the fourth quarter. LeBron led Miami with 30 points and 13 rebounds while Wade pitched in 27, 14 of which came in the fourth. The Heat also got an initial boost from Chris Bosh, who made his return to action with nine points and seven rebounds in 14 minutes off the bench. Unfortunately for the Heat, Erik Spoelstra didn’t play him much down the stretch as Miami watched a perfectly winnable Game 5 slip away. Although Wade was absent until the fourth quarter and LeBron was dominant until the fourth quarter, they were the only one who put up points for the Heat. Mario Chalmers continued to struggle with his shot and only had nine. Udonis Haslem, who was inserted into the starting lineup, made a poor debut with only three. Shane Battier only put up five and Mike Miller had just three off the bench. In fact, no one scored more than nine for the Heat other than LeBron and Wade. Miami also couldn’t get their hands on a few unlucky 50-50 balls, including one that led to a 3-pointer from Pietrus after Rondo perfectly tipped a phenomenal block from Wade to the wide open man in the corner. And after Pierce’s dagger three, the Celtics hit their free throws and finished off the road win to send the series back to Boston for an elimination Game 6.

The Miami Heat missed a golden opportunity to take back control in this series at home, where they have been nearly unstoppable during the postseason. It’s amazing how much of a difference coaching is making in this series; Doc Rivers is guiding and old and hobbled (but determined and experienced) Celtics team to the Finals while Erik Spoelstra is letting a team with two of the game’s biggest superstars underachieve once again. If the Heat do lose this series, Spoelstra’s job could (and should) be in serious jeopardy. But for now, the Eastern Conference Finals shift back to Boston, where a rocking TD Garden will make things even more difficult for a Heat team struggling to find support outside of LeBron and Wade. Chalmers and Miller need to start knocking down 3-pointers again, Haslem has got to make himself an offensive option and Chris Bosh will need to be ready for extended minutes (Spoelstra’s decision to bench him for the entire fourth quarter of Game 5 was ultimately dumb, but not indefensible; there will be no excuses in Game 6). If Bosh can play like he was before his abdominal injury, he will have a huge impact on the offensive end by putting up points in the paint and on the defensive end by matching up with the formidable Kevin Garnett. But the key to getting such a difficult win on the road in an elimination game will be Dwyane Wade. LeBron James shows up to play every night and has been quietly putting up nearly 30 ppg in the postseason, but Wade has been all too inconsistent in the playoffs this year. When Wade does come to play, the Heat are nearly unstoppable, as evidenced by their two-man demolition of the Indiana Pacers in the second round. Miami needs their supporting cast to step up and knock down perimeter shots and a good game from Bosh would definitely be a plus. But after losing a game where Rondo and Pierce both shot so poorly, the Heat need Wade to go off to force Game 7.

Do LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have what it takes to force a Game 7 in Miami?