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.
Hassan Whiteside was a second round pick in the 2010 Draft who played 19 nondescript games over the first four years of his career and bounced around from Sacramento to the D-League by way of Memphis, Lebanon and China.
Now, he is breaking out as the Miami Heat’s back-up center and quickly becoming one of my favorite players in the league.
Over Miami’s last four games, he has put up 14.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4.0 blocks and 77.1% shooting in 24.0 minutes off the bench. Not coincidentally, the Heat have won three of the four.
What exactly is going on?
Quite simply, they are a completely different team with him on the floor.
This week, Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki passed Moses Malone to become the seventh-leading scorer in NBA history. His rise up the all-time scoring charts is a testament to his incredibly diverse scoring ability and his longevity. Let us pay proper respect to his greatness and consider where he ranks among the all-time best at his position.
Dirk’s offensive abilities are well known to anyone reading this blog.
The best-shooting big man we have ever seen, at seven feet tall he is able to get his shot off over any defender – be it a face-up jumper or his patented fall-away off one leg. He is the only player 6’10” or above to make at least 1,500 threes. He is a master of head-fakes to get his defender off-balance, and he is comfortable taking smaller opponents in the post and finishing with either hand at the rim. He is a great teammate and is excellent at seeing the floor and passing out of the double-team.
He has aged well and he has adjusted seamlessly to shooting a few less shots per game than he used to, something past-their-prime superstars normally struggle with. Remarkably, he is still the cornerstone of a contender today at age 36, powering a Mavs offense which, built on shooting and floor spacing, is truly assembled in his image. Not coincidentally, it is the most efficient in the NBA.
With a quarter of the regular season in the books, NBA All-Star balloting began in earnest yesterday.
Of course I took the first available opportunity to vote for my ten most deserving starters – three frontcourt players and two guards from each conference:
FC: Anthony Davis (New Orleans)
25.1 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 2.9 BPG, 32.9 PER, 10-11 record
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.