The Mozgov factor: The unexpected rise of the Russian Roy Hibbert

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.

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The Spike Game: LeBron’s greatest night as a Cavalier

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:

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Good LeBron, Bad LeBron: The greatness and imperfection of James’ 44-point Game 1

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

NBA Finals, Game 5: screenshot diary and analysis

With the Spurs up 3-1 hoping to finish the job unlike last year and the Heat just hoping to survive to play another game, a Game 5 screenshot recap is a must.

Pre-game

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This girl’s name is Colbie Caillat apparently. She delivers the best national anthem rendition of the series so far.

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This lad just outplayed the best player in the world twice on his own home floor. Will he continue his incredible post-Game 2 play?

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Mario Chalmers’ Finals disappearance

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Mario Chalmers has disappeared.

The Heat’s starting point guard is averaging 3.5 points and 27.8% shooting through the first four games of the NBA Finals. He has more fouls (12) than points (10) and nearly as many turnovers (8) as assists (9). He has been thoroughly outplayed by not just Tony Parker, but Patty Mills too. His slump pre-dates the Finals; he has not scored double figures in 13 games.

Prior to this season Chalmers had developed a well-earned reputation for being a gamer, someone who could be relied upon in the postseason. He had become that valuable asset on any winning team: the role player unafraid of the big moment, the unsung fourth wheel who picks up the slack when called upon.

He was the Heat’s second-leading scorer in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, dropped 25 points in Game 4 of the 2012 Finals (the “Mario mother*cking Chalmers!” game) and at Kansas hit the biggest shot of the 2008 NCAA national title game.

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NBA Finals, Game 2: a LeBron performance to remember

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Game 2 of the 2014 Finals was another in a long line of statement games for LeBron James. Coming off Crampgate and a Game 1 loss, a response of sorts was required. It was delivered.

Setting up shop around the rim and not shooting his first jumpshot until three minutes into the third quarter, James played an almost exaggerated version of what I consider to be his ideal game as a scorer. Time and again in the first half he attacked the basket off the dribble or allowed others to initiative the offense whilst he bullied Spurs defenders into the low post, refusing to budge until the possession was over.

He was relentlessly aggressive, putting an immense amount of pressure on a defense which prefers not to double team. It is this kind of rough-and-tumble on-ball and off-ball physical contact he has at times shied away from him during his career, so it was rewarding to see him embrace it to such an extent in such a big game, from the very first possession:

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NBA Finals, Game 1: screenshot diary

The Finals are here and it’s the Heat/Spurs rematch we anticipated all year long. A Game 1 screenshot diary is a must.

Pre-game

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Remember when the NBA used to get adults to sing the national anthem?

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Duncan and Sean Marks stroke hands, and we’re ready to go. Little known fact: six of Marks’ 11 starts as an NBA player came with the Heat.

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NBA Finals, Game 7: screenshot diary

Game 7 of the NBA Finals. A full screenshot diary is mandatory.

Pre-game

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Who the hell is Jesse Williams and why does he keep appearing on my screen?

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It’s the last time we’ll see this little girl for a while. And thank god; she has the largest head size to body size ratio in American history, and she’s nowhere near “cute.”

1st Quarter

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11:54: It’s game time, and the American Airlines Arena is full. It must be Game 7 of the Finals.

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11:17: Why is there a fan in full Golden State Warriors uniform? And why is he shouting at Gregg Popovich?

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10:02: Tim Duncan steals the ball from Bosh, goes on an open court dribbling adventure and finishes with the dunk. JVG: “That was a slow break.”

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8:31: Mario Chalmers’ start: one stupid turnover, one stupid foul, one stupid shot off the side of the backboard.

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7:04: Kawhi Leonard makes a facial expression!

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4:12 The LeBron Stopper is in the game. LeBron (1-for-4) promptly bricks a baseline J.

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1:59: The Spurs roll out the “Jesus wept, let’s pray the Heat don’t go on an 8-0 run with this group on the floor” lineup: Neal / Ginobili / Leonard / Diaw / Splitter.

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0:36: The Heat go on an 8-0 run.

2nd Quarter

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6:40: Tony Parker and LeBron James have a discussion with Danny Crawford …

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6:40: … Tim Duncan ends the discussion.

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5:08: Gary Neal banks in a lucky 3. Battier did the same for the Heat in Game 6. In the immortal words of Shaq, “one lucky shot deserves another.” Now we’re even.

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3:23: Wade scores his third mid-range J of the game. His legs are bouncy, and he’s affecting the game in a positive way in every possible area.

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2:53: It’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Less of this please, Miami.

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2:47: The Spurs continue to beg LeBron to shoot 3s. He converts; he’s 2-for-2 from downtown.

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0:01: Wade hits again and equals his entire Game 6 scoring total with 14 first half points. Calls for Spo to bench him officially look silly. The Heat lead 46-44 at the half.

3rd Quarter

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11:46: The Heat fans were in their seats for the start of the first half. You don’t expect them to be in their seats for the start of the second half as well do you?

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10:04: LeBron is left wiiide open. He hits; he’s 3-for-5 from downtown.

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9:12: Leonard opens the 3rd with 6 quick points. Mike Breen tells us for the 250th time in the playoffs: “He has HUGE hands!”

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8:49: Danny Green makes an atrociously bad pass that leads to a Wade dunk. Remember when we thought Green was the Finals MVP?

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8:02: More of this please, Miami.

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7:06: James Harden’s brother is a Miami Heat usher.

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5:56: Wade gets into the paint and scores again. He has 18 points and numerous contests and hustle plays. He is the unquestioned MVP of this game so far.

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5:27: Green hits his first three of the game. His Zoom Soldier V1s are reduced to £49.99 at Footlocker.

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3:37: LeBron: 5-for-7 from downtown.

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3:43: Diaw whips (another) gorgeous entry pass to Duncan, who scores. The Spurs go up 65-64 despite LeBron’s long-range shooting. Diaw has played flawless basketball the last three games and is absolutely impacting the NBA Finals. Even Boris couldn’t have seen this coming when he was busy shooting 41% from the field for the Bobcats last season.

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2:18: Bill Russell is tired.

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0:27: Battier’s three ties the game at 69. Two weeks after falling out of Miami’s rotation completely, he’s 4-for-4 from downtown and looking like 2012 Finals Shane Battier again. And only the good lord Jesus Christ above knows how this game will conclude. Let’s hope He doesn’t get mentioned too much during the post-game interviews.

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11:39: Battier: 5-for-5 from downtown.

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8:40: Duncan scores off a clear Parker lob pass that Mike Breen describes as a “wild shot.” We hear Duncan shout, “that’s a hell of a pass, boy!” The moral of the story: Mike Breen is a prat.

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7:00: Ginobili drops the ball out of bounds.

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6:03: Ginobili throws the ball into the first row. It’s unclear why he’s still in the game.

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6:03: “Why did I cut Stephen Jackson?”

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3:50: LeBron misses another open three. He’s now 5-for-10 from downtown. The Spurs are within three but living on a knife edge.

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3:24: LeBron attacks in semi-transition and finds Battier for his sixth three. The Heat go up 6.

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3:11: Chris Bosh gets called for the foul on a Duncan and-1. He assumes the toilet bowl position.

Image3:01: Is this the least inspiring fan sign in NBA history?

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2:00: Kawhi knocks down the biggest shot of his life to cut the lead to two.

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0:50: Duncan misses from point-blank range …

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… twice.

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0:39: Duncan blew the Spurs’ last chance, and he knows it. Now Spurs fans can complain about a third title they should’ve won in the Duncan era (along with ’04 and ’06).

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0:29: LeBron comes off the Chalmers pick-and-roll …

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… and gives the Heat a 4-point lead. LeBron has 35. The Spurs have gone under every screen when defending James, treating the MVP’s jumpshot with absolute disrespect. In Game 7 it has finally cost them.

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0:26: Ginobili dribbles into trouble and again throws it away, his third turnover of the quarter, sealing the victory for the Heat. We await his retirement speech.

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0:01: The absolute least deserving fans in pro sports see their team repeat as champions. At least they didn’t leave early this time.

Post-game

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Juwan Howard kisses LeBron.

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Popovich kisses Wade. What the hell is going on?

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Tim Duncan has confetti on his forehead.

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David Stern speaks needlessly for 30 seconds, and then Micky Arison does the same. Can we please hear from LeBron?

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Chris Andersen says something unintelligible to Bill Russell, who looks at him awkwardly.

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LeBron claims his second straight Finals MVP. We hear Birdman in the background: “That’s a bad man! That’s a bad man!” LeBron started the Finals slowly, and seemed to be reverting to 2011 Finals LeBron before his epic headband-less Game 6 finish, but he survived and came up big in Game 7 to top off his finest individual season to date.

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LeBron shares this insight: “I’m LeBron James, from Akron, Ohio. From the inner city!”

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JVG rubs it in for any San Antonio fans still watching with this final analysis: “(The Spurs) will always believe they gave away Game 6. And they had their chances (tonight). Duncan, point blank at the rim to tie it. … Heartbreaking for the Spurs.”

And so concludes one of the most compelling seasons in modern NBA history.