When I met Russia’s unassuming 7-foot center Timofey Mozgov in London during the 2012 Olympics, I did not predict him someday soon being crucial to the outcome of the NBA Finals.
Yet here he is, the anchor of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ suddenly elite defense, their rim protector extraordinaire and occasional offensive relief valve, helping them to an unforeseen 2-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors.
Mozgov has been quite simply the most impactful defender at his position in these playoffs. He is holding opponents to just 39.0% shooting at the rim for the postseason, the stingiest number of any big man who made it past the first round.
Remember how Indiana’s Roy Hibbert made the defensive rule of verticality famous by mastering the art of jumping straight up to challenge opposing penetrators, arms pointing to the sky so as to avoid fouling? He was the bane of LeBron’s life and helped the Pacers take a series lead over the Heat in two of the last three postseasons.
Now LeBron has a Hibbert of his own, and he is a crucial member of James’ depleted but accidentally perfect cast of role players because he, like Matthew Dellavedova, provides a critical defensive ingredient that Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving never could.
Going into Game 2 of the 2015 Finals on Sunday, a 2-0 Warriors lead was seen by many as a foregone conclusion. 39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists later, LeBron James was memorably spiking the ball high off the Oracle Arena hardwood and into the Oakland sky with the series tied at 1-1 and his greatest night as a Cavalier in the books.
This was a special performance, and it stemmed from his improved shot selection.
I wrote after Game 1 about two competing versions of LeBron on offense, about how too many Bad LeBron sightings kept his 44-point night from being one of his better Finals performances.
In Game 2, he set the tone with a first half that was Good LeBron in the extreme: a player making the most of his talents as a passer, scorer and dominant physical force, carrying his team to a surprising lead.
In the first quarter, he attacked the paint time and again both off the dribble and out of the post-up. He took ten shots and I had to compile them all in one YouTube video because every single one of them was smart:
LeBron James put up 44 points in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals as the Cavaliers went down to defeat in overtime, failing to take advantage of what was probably their best chance to steal a game on the Warriors’ home floor. It was the highest-scoring Finals game of James’ career, and an at times dominant, yet at times frustrating performance.
In many ways, LeBron did a perfect job of exhibiting what I view as the good and the bad of his offensive game.
The good: He is an unstoppable scoring force who can bring a defense to its knees when he posts up, attacks the basket, and takes on-balance shots in the flow of the offense.
The bad: He too often bails out the defense with ill-advised, long-distance, low percentage shots, often fading away, completely outside of the flow of the offense. When he does this he fails to take advantage of his strengths and reduce his teammates to useless bystanders.
Good LeBron was on display in abundance, as he posted up no less than 26 times – surely as much as any time in his career. As an onlooker who often bemoaned his unwillingness or inability to do work in the low post throughout the first half of his career, it is refreshing and rewarding to see him going to his now beautifully-refined post game. Continue reading
The Chicago Bulls took a 1-0 lead in their second round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers last night, stealing home court advantage and setting up something close to a must-win game for the Cavs in Game 2.
At the heart of the Cavs’ loss was a lackadaisical, curiously careless performance from their leader LeBron James.
James put up 19 points on 9-for-22 shooting with six turnovers – his lowest output since a 2-for-10 night in Game 5 of last year’s Conference Finals. He appeared to lack focus and a sense of urgency.
The season is in its infant stages, but it is never too early to celebrate a player who is putting up 27.7 points, 7.2 assists and 6.3 rebounds and playing some impressive defense. That player is not LeBron James. It is the Warriors’ new and improved Stephen Curry.
Coming into the season, Curry was 40/1 to be named MVP – the 11th favorite to win the award. Based on A) the news that Kevin Durant would miss 8 weeks through injury and B) my firm belief that the Warriors would be much improved under Steve Kerr, I wagered a harmless pound on him. At this stage I wish I had wagered £100.
With KD out and LeBron having a sluggish-by-his-standards start to the season and Cleveland playing .500 ball, the MVP race is, for now, wide open – making those odds look laughably long.
Whilst Anthony Davis is a once-in-a-generation force of nature who is doing unseemly things on the defensive end, the unwritten rule is that the MVP must win a bare minimum of 50 games. AD’s Pelicans may not even make the postseason. Besides, he is only 21 and has plenty of time to win several MVPs before he is done.
The time is now for Steph.
A year ago, Kyrie Irving was the toast of the NBA – a 23 points per game scorer and the leading “clutch” performer in the league at just 20 years old. “It’s Kyrie Irving’s world; soon we’ll all be living in it,” proclaimed one excited reporter. In the offseason Irving was ranked by ESPN as the 8th best player in the league.
Firstly, the hype was somewhat unfounded – many were basing their inflated opinions of Irving on stats and highlight plays alone rather than a deep understanding of his game and his influence on a team that remained heavily under .500.
Secondly, and most maddeningly, Kyrie has not only failed to make a leap in his third season as a pro, he has actually regressed from last year.
The Chicago Bulls traded Luol Deng last night for a soon-to-be-waived Andrew Bynum and some maybe somewhat useful draft picks.
That Deng, whose contract expires this summer, is being given up for salary cap relief and second rounders is a reflection of the NBA’s financial realities and Chicago’s new long-term direction rather than his value as a player and accomplishments as a Bull. Let us appreciate that value and those accomplishments here as we celebrate the finest player to ever come out of Great Britain (and Sudan).