Thursday, December 6, 2007
Redemption in Las Vegas
This summer, the titans of the game, LeBron and Kobe, went to Las Vegas with holes in their hearts and chips on their shoulders, the both of them coming fresh off of utter beatdowns at the hands of better teams. Both of them saw that they still had a ways to go before getting their teams a championship, which LeBron needs to take the next step towards becoming the Next and Kobe needs to redeem the second volume of his story. Both of them saw they had a ways to travel to get the ring, but they would have to go in different directions. LeBron's road led him to look inward, while Kobe had to look outside.
LeBron and the E Street Band's improbable path to the NBA Finals saw LeBron lifting one weight from his shoulders and finding another-in one week, LeBron took the final step in clearing himself of all the "too soft," "doesn't want it bad enough," and "can't make the big shot" labels by slamming the door on the seemingly superior Pistons in games 3 and 4, having his legendary game 5, and then out-thinking the Pistons' reactionary double-coverage with deft passing in game 6 to seal the series. In leading his ragtag bunch to the finals by systematically mixing in his stretches of dominance with deft leadership and team-involvement, LeBron proved himself the consummate team leader, a man capable of putting an entire team on his back and carrying them to an entirely different plane with not just his skills but his knowledge of when to deploy them, a distinction previously reserved for MJ.
Unfortunately, LeBron was stopped cold in his tracks by a San Antonio team hellbent on exposing LeBron's still-incomplete individual game, cutting off his driving lanes, keeping him from getting his teammates involved, and forcing them to beat him by doing something other than going to the basket and leading a trail of bodies in his wake. Their strategy worked; LeBron's mid-range jumper continually fell short, and when he tried to post up Bruce Bowen to keep the defense from loading up on him, his lack of refinement in the post and inability to create easy looks for himself was exposed as well. (Quick aside: KD's got a New Job! Thank God; I was going through withdrawals.) All told, LeBron shot the ball 90 times in 4 games and only made 35% of his shots; in a series decided by 24 points, LeBron knew that while many would say the Cavs were simply overmatched, in reality he knew that the ultimate reason for the loss, or at least the sweep, was that holes remained in his game.
Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant quickly suffered a 5-game loss to the mighty Suns. Kobe played spectacularly in the series, slapping up 33/5/5 on 47% shooting, numbers as good or better than any player in any series during the entire playoffs. Yet Kobe was unable to impose his will on the series the way MJ did back in the day; his greatness failed to carry over to the rest of his team, and only Lamar Odom posted double figures in scoring for a talented offensive team in a high-scoring series. The Suns may even have stifled a chuckle; not only was their strategy to let Kobe get his points and leave his teammates out, they put that strategy in :07 Seconds or Less, which included the Suns' strategy meetings against the Lakers when they met in the playoffs the previous season. Coupled with Kobe's inexplicable fold in Game 7 the previous year, many began to say (okay, this is mostly my theory, but I think a lot of people secretly thought it), that while Kobe had raised his game to a level of individual perfection not seen since Jordan, he did not possess the mysterious and intangible quality that Jordan acquired in the legendary stage of his career-the ability to individually control any and every game, to make his teammates better, and to win big games through sheer savvy and force of will. While Kobe was great as Shaq's partner, and may even have been better than Shaq in the 3rd championship year, as an alpha dog he was no Jordan. Kobe then compounded all the questions about his leadership by getting caught on tape ripping teammate and future franchise center Andrew Bynum, and capped it all off by demanding a trade on May 30th, looking to flee the team he had ultimately built in his image by chasing out Shaq. (I know this is now a disputed point-Kobe was a free agent, and made it clear to the Laker brass that if they retained Shaq, he was not going to sign with the team, forcing them to choose. It's in Phil Jackson's book, and I'm going to trust him on this one.)
Then, as it so often does, Las Vegas changed everything in a hurry. On a team full of franchise guys like Jason Kidd, Chauncey Billups, Dwight Howard, 'Melo and LeBron, Kobe stepped into the alpha dog role with ease. On a team that even LeBron and 'Melo said was Kobe's to command, Kobe checked his ego at the door; the NBA's scoring leader the last two seasons kept his shots in check, finishing 3rd on the team in scoring. He stayed within the offense, almost never forcing a fadeaway, and made sure the hot scorers kept the ball in their hands. He gladly took the toughest assignment on defense every night and gave his man 40 minutes of hell. He even gave pep talks. He was, finally, the undisputed leader of a truly great team.
Meanwhile, LeBron, the memory of all those bricked midrange jumpers still fresh in his mind, came out and unleashed his new jumper on the unsuspecting international community. It was revealed that he'd been more or less living with a shooting coach all summer, and had taken the fade and "string-pull" out of his shot entirely, making him LeBron 2.0. This was not the LeBron we'd come to know and love over four years, disregarding entire chunks of the "right way" playbook and instead simply overpowering everyone with his unprecedented bag of skills. This was the perfect machine of basketball, drilling spot-up jumpers when he didn't feel like just going right through everyone and throwing it down. His 11-11 game shows a game so perfect it's legitimately frightening. After a 35% performance in the Finals, LeBron shot 76% in the FIBAs, along with 62% from beyond the three-point arc. And he led the team in assists. For one shining tournament, LeBron not only could do many things better than anybody had ever dreamed of, but his game was entirely devoid of flaws. Somewhere, Charley Rosen officially gave up.
Then, just like in the real world, the summer was over and reality set in-it's a lot harder to lead a normal team to glory than a team whose worst player is probably better than anyone else in the tournament's best player, and it's a lot harder to hit shots when you don't have Jason Kidd, Kobe, and Carmelo setting you up with perfect looks. While Kobe may never triumphantly lead a team he can truly call his own to the promised land, and LeBron will almost certainly never shoot 76% over an entire season, Kobe and LeBron have been able to carry over some of the lessons from their summer of redemption into the games that count. Kobe's "only" scoring 27 points a game this year, and has yet to enter himself into the MVP discussion, but his team is off to a solid 11-8 start, and youngsters Jordan Farmar and Andrew Bynum are blossoming under Kobe's leadership. What's more, Kobe is starting to show the will to win games by himself; tonight, Kobe put the upstart Nuggets and AI's 41 points away with an MJ-style 4th quarter. Finally, Kobe vetoed an offer that would have put him alongside Chauncey, Rasheed, and the rest of a Pistons squad almost undoubtedly more talented than Kobe's Laker teammates, and in the weaker Eastern Conference to boot, showing, at least to me, that Kobe's committed to sticking with the Lakers and being the kind of leader he was in Vegas.
Meanwhile, LeBron's team is 9-11, and clearly worse at this point than Boston, Orlando, and Detroit, who have their swag back; while the team could afford to go without LeBron for a game or two last year, this year they've become dependent on him, and have looked positively lost during his 4-game injury stint. However, LeBron is getting as close as we've ever seen anyone to individual perfection, putting up an obscene 31/8/8 nightly on 49% shooting, putting up triple-doubles and 40-point games so often they're just not surprising anymore. His jumper is still a weakness, and he's only at 70% from the free throw line, but a new post game and commitment to going all-out every night have allowed him to seize the crown of the league's best right now.
LeBron and Kobe still have a long road ahead of them, but here's hoping that what happened in Vegas for those two will not...you know the rest.