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.

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Thunder Erase 18-Point Deficit, Advance To NBA Finals

After falling behind by 18 points in the first half of a pivotal Game 6 at home, it looked like Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder were going to head back to San Antonio for a next-to-impossible elimination Game 7. Instead, they rebounded with a monumental second half to win their fourth straight and win the Western Conference Finals in six games over the mighty Spurs. Oklahoma City will take on the winner of Boston and Miami in the franchise’s first NBA Finals since 1996 back when they were the Seattle Supersonics. Durant led OKC to a 107-99 victory with 34 points, 14 rebounds and five assists as the Thunder outscored San Antonio 59-36 in the second half.

It certainly didn’t look like things would play out well for the Thunder in the first half, though. After struggling for three straight games with Thabo Sefolosha shutting him down, Tony Parker made a point of starting off on a strong note. Parker single-handedly gave his team a big lead early on, dropping 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting. Parker had 21 points and 10 assists by halftime. And although he only scored 12 points the rest of the way, his first prolific performance in the first quarter supplied San Antonio with a 14-point lead after one and was the exact spark they needed to get the game started on a good note. Stephen Jackson and Tim Duncan were also terrific in the first half; Jackson knocked down all four of his 3-pointers (in fact, Jackson finished with 23 points and made his first six 3-point attempts) while Duncan was a much bigger force in the paint with 12 points at the half. However, Kevin Durant hit a monumental and impossible 3-pointer at the buzzer to cut the Spurs’ advantage to 63-48 and give his team a little bit of hope of a comeback in the second half. Which is exactly what they did.

Kevin Durant willed his team to victory once again, leading the Thunder in their comeback from an 18-point deficit.

As soon as the ball was inbounded at the start of the third quarter, the Thunder showed why they’ve been undefeated at home in the postseason so far. Oklahoma City went on an 11-2 run to start the third and it looked like a completely different game. OKC’s defense, which had been at the mercy of Tony Parker and superior 3-point shooting (9-of-15) in the first half, suddenly made its presence known again as the Spurs’ perimeter shooters started to cool down. Russell Westbrook, how had been struggling with his shot for the entire Western Conference Finals, picked a great night to elevate his game, dropping 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting to go with eight rebounds and five assists. Durant and Westbrook were absolutely unstoppable in the third, combining for 22 of the Thunder’s 32 points in the period as they cut the Spurs’ lead to just one heading into the fourth quarter.

James Harden had struggled heading into the game’s final period, but he once again gave the Thunder a huge lift in the fourth by making his free throws and knocking down another killer 3-pointer to put his team up six with three minutes to go as the Spurs were threatening. Harden had 16 off the bench, but Derek Fisher’s performance was even more key for the reserves, as his nine points came at critical moments that kept momentum on OKC’s side and helped him live up to his title as a true “Spur-killer.” Serge Ibaka’s 10 points and Sefolosha’s nine were also nice additions that helped this young and talented team advance to the NBA Finals.

James Harden struggled early on but once again cashed in a solid fourth quarter performance to help OKC finish the series off.

For the Spurs, nobody really got going other than Parker, Jackson and Duncan. Parker had 29, Duncan had 25 and Jackson had 23, but other than Manu Ginobili, no one scored more than seven. The Spurs’ depth all but disappeared once again as no one other than Jackson had any success with their shot. Kawhi Leonard put up a measly five points while Gary Neal could only manage seven. Daniel Green only played four minutes and joined Boris Diaw with a goose egg in the scoring column. It also didn’t help that Gregg Popovich shortened up his bench and it came back to haunt them as Duncan, Ginobili and Parker were visibly gassed in the second half. Without their legs, San Antonio’s incredible 3-point shooting in the first half completely disappeared and the Spurs went from 9-of-15 to 11-of-26 by the game’s end. The Spurs missed shots, committed too many turnovers and racked up fouls on illegal screens to forfeit any and all momentum. Parker had a few late layups to allow the Spurs to hang around, but eventually the Thunder finished them off with free throws and the Western Conference Finals ended in six.

After facing a 2-0 series deficit, the Thunder could have rolled over and let their inexperience take over and the veteran Spurs would have advanced to yet another NBA Finals appearance. But Kevin Durant was spectacular, Westbrook and Harden added in key performances here and there and the rest of the Thunder emerged as quality role players and defenders on a San Antonio side that specialized in overwhelming opponents with depth and scoring. Ever since Scott Brooks made the adjustment of switching Thabo Sefolosha on Tony Parker, the Thunder did not lose. And although Parker lit up OKC in Game 6, the Thunder’s defense stepped up big in the second half and held their tough opponent to just 18 points in the third and fourth quarters. Now the Thunder will have the chance to play for an NBA title against the winner of the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat. OKC has now beaten the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs on their path to the Finals, eliminating all three teams that have come out of the West for the last 13 years. Either way, OKC should be an overwhelming favorite to win it all; the Celtics, while resilient, experienced and well-coached, cannot compete with the Thunder’s youth and experience, while the Heat can’t perform in the fourth quarter or overcome how well this athletic and energetic team is playing right now. The Celtics are playing their best ball right now and are still having problems with a Heat team that isn’t. And with the way Durant has played lately, along with Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka and a bunch of constantly improving role players, the Thunder have a clear advantage of whoever they face in the Finals.

The Thunder aren’t satisfied to just make it to the NBA Finals. They want to win it.

Dwyane Wade Leads Miami To Eastern Conference Finals

After Larry Bird called his team “soft” following the Game 5 rout in Miami, the Pacers responded early in Game 6, jumping out to a 13-3 lead and dominating the Heat in the paint. But a spectacular playoff performance from Dwyane Wade and way too many Indiana turnovers gave Miami a 103-95 win on the road to end the series in six (like I predicted) and send the Heat to the Eastern conference Finals.

Wade exploded for 41 points on 17-of-25 shooting while also adding 10 rebounds, singlehandedly keeping the Heat relatively even with the Pacers in the first half by scoring 20 points in the second quarter. The Pacers had taken an 11 point lead in the first quarter as they out-rebounded Miami 14-3 and got 22 of their 28 first quarter points in the paint. But Wade’s brilliant second quarter performance had the Heat down by just two at half. The Heat also got some big help from Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller, who combined for 27 points and seven 3-pointers. LeBron James wasn’t much of a factor early, but helped close out the resilient Pacers down the stretch and finished with 28 points, seven assists and six rebounds. However, as great as Wade was and as helpful as it was for Miami to get a big game out of LeBron, Miller and Chalmers, the Pacers killed their chances with an atrocious 20 turnovers. They also got absolutely nothing out of their bench, who gave up Indiana’s 11 point first quarter lead within minutes and then allowed the Heat to extend a four point lead to 10 before the start of the fourth quarter. Indiana’s starters had a combined +/- of +13; their bench was at -73.  It’s true that the +/- stat doesn’t work cumulatively, but just looking at those number sheds a little bit of light how awful the Pacers’ bench was in this game. Indiana’s starters build leads up, but those leads evaporated as soon as the subs came in, and because those subs had to be taken out right away, the starters didn’t have enough gas left in the tank at the end from playing so many minutes.

Dwyane Wade was simply unstoppable and led the Heat past Indiana and on to the Eastern Conference Finals.

David West led Indiana with 24 points, George Hill had 18 and Danny Granger added 15, but it wasn’t enough to match Wade’s prolific night. Roy Hibbert continued his streak of underperforming, finishing with just 12 points and eight rebounds. Some of the disappointment in Hibbert’s inability to dominate a Miami side without Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem has to fall on Frank Vogel, who didn’t get him enough shots, but the majority is on Indiana’s “All-Star” (don’t even get me started on how Hibbert made the cut but Granger was snubbed as an All-Star). West was dominating the paint and getting good post position against Shane Battier, but Hibbert couldn’t establish good post position against Ronny Turiaf or Joel Anthony, often catching the ball out of the paint and far away from the basket. You combine Indiana’s awful bench, the 20 turnovers, Hibbert’s ineffective post game and his lack of a presence in the paint on the defensive end (Wade was on fire but if you’ve got a 7-footer protecting the basket, a lot of Wade’s drives to the rim shouldn’t be so easy), and it’s no wonder the Heat got the win and the series.

I said all along that without Chris Bosh, the Heat were in trouble (and I still stand by that, Miami doesn’t win the Finals without Bosh on the floor). I said the balanced scoring of the Pacers would give them an advantage over two superstars, and although the Heat advanced, I was pretty much right. Without Miller and Chalmers going off tonight, the Pacers force a Game 7. But the brilliance of Wade and LeBron cannot be denied in the last few games of this series. They simply overpowered Indiana and with a mediocre Hibbert failing to make this series his, the Heat advance to the next round. Indiana should be proud of what it accomplished this year and even in this game, never quitting and staying resilient until the end. They have a bunch of solid pieces, a great coach, a promising future and they gave the Heat a good series. Hopefully Hibbert is more aggressive next year as Danny Granger and Paul George continue to develop. But unfortunately for my sleeper team, two elite superstars look like they’re about to waltz into the NBA Finals.

Danny Granger and the Pacers had a great season, but they killed themselves in Game 6 and Wade took over.