The Miami Heat were done. They were down 3-2 to an inferior Boston Celtics team that had simply outplayed them. LeBron had failed to score in the final 8 minutes of a close loss in Game 5 in a game that brought back memories of game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010. Same teams. Same situation. Same result, losing to an inferior team.
Except something happened. Something that hadn’t happened since LeBron’s game 5 failure in 2010. LeBron stopped caring what everyone thought. He stopped trying to be “unselfish” and went into “I’m the best basketball player on the planet and I know it mode.” That’s what we haven’t seen from LeBron in years. That’s what’s always frustrated me about him in the past 2 years. He left Cleveland to join one of his greatest rival’s team’s and let him remain the alpha-dog. He frequently passed in key situations. He started caring more about setting up his teammates than winning.
He became the bad kind of “unselfish,” the opposite of the good kind of “selfish” that Jordan was, what I call competitive selfish, an attitude where you want to win more than anything and if that means your teammates also win then so be it. Jordan was that kind of selfish. Brett Favre was that kind of selfish. LeBron used to be, but since 2010 he has been over-thinking everything.
In a way I don’t blame him. In this 24/7 news cycle, EVERYTHING he does is questioned. For years. Would Michael Jordan have started 2nd guessing himself in the same situation? Probably not. But we don’t know. For the past 2 games, however, LeBron stopped caring what everyone thought. He led. He took over games, big games. I don’t what exactly what happened. Maybe it was that kid yelling “good job, good effort” at him (if so can that kid be MVP?). Maybe it was the fact that Wade was struggling so he had no choice but to become “selfish” and take over. I don’t know what.
But LeBron hadn’t looked that good since 2007, when he brought a team that had absolutely no business being there to the finals on the strength of 25 straight scored in game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pistons. That team’s leaders in minutes played were LeBron, Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Sasha Pavlovic, and Donyell Marshall. Eric Snow started 45 games at point guard. They made the finals.
In Miami, he hadn’t played like that yet. In Miami there was always the temptation to be 1a to Dwyane Wade’s 1b even though LEBRON IS BETTER THAN HIM and the team is less efficient that way. For the past two games, he didn’t care about this being “Wade’s city” or about splitting the “alpha dog” role with Wade. He made Wade HIS sidekick because he’s the best player on the planet and that’s the way it should be.
If LeBron continues this in the Finals, they will win. If he doesn’t, they will lose because Kevin Durant is nearly as talented and knows his role. And that’s why these Finals will be so interesting. Can LeBron keep this up? Remember it’s only been 2 games, but he used to do this all the time in Cleveland because he had to. If he can, the Heat will win and LeBron will have EARNED his MVP and the title of best player in the league. If he can’t, Durant and the Thunder will win and Durant will have proved that he’s the best in the league. And the media scrutiny will be back on LeBron and rightfully so because everyone knows he CAN and probably SHOULD win this series.
Oh, and these finals might be a preview of a good percentage of the finals matchups in the next decade. Something tells me this isn’t the last time the Heat and Thunder will play in the NBA Finals. These Finals might get record ratings (insert joke about David Stern rigging them to go 7 games, although it’s not a joke because it’ll probably happen). When’s the last time we saw the league’s two unquestioned best players met in the finals? 1987? Maybe 1997-1998 (Jordan and Malone)?
And that brings up a better question. Who is the 3rd best player in the league? We know, unquestionably, who the two best are. Durant and LeBron. Put them in either order, fine, but argue that there’s a player in the league better than those two and you’re an idiot. However, who is #3? You can make arguments for so many different players, but you can also make counter arguments for all of them.
I raised this question on Twitter (@stevenlourie) a few days ago, mentioning Rondo in the tweet. I got these responses: Kobe, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki, Derrick Rose. You could probably throw Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Love into that discussion without anyone looking at you funny. But look at the counter arguments you can make for all of these players.
Rajon Rondo- Has never averaged more than 13.7 points per game, 62% career free throw shooter, 24% three point shooter
Kobe- 34 in August, shot 43% last year, has never won without Phil Jackson
Dwight Howard- Frustrating flip flopper, had back surgery
Chris Paul- Never been out of the 2nd round, knee problems
Dirk Nowitzki- 34 this offseason, coming off a down statistical season
Derrick Rose- Torn ACL, might never be the same
Tony Parker- The Spurs almost traded him last offseason
Dwyane Wade- Currently on a milk carton in the greater Miami area
Russell Westbrook- 43% career shooter, doesn’t seem to understand how to play point guard yet (key word is yet. He’s only 23. I haven’t given up on him “getting it” yet)
Kevin Love- Doesn’t play any defense
I said Rondo because of how he played this post-season and because I think he’s turned a corner as a player. He is capable of both taking over a game offensively at any time and having a good game even when he’s not scoring and he can lock down anyone 6-6 or shorter defensively. This postseason he averaged 17.1 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game, 11.8 assists per game, and 2.4 steals per game while being the best player on the same court as 5 future Hall of Famers (LeBron, Wade, Garnett, Pierce, Allen) for 5 games of the Eastern Conference Finals. As a Celtics fan, I’m incredibly excited to begin building around him and trying to delete everywhere I ever said we should trade him for Steve Nash and Marcin Gortat because it “gives us a better chance to win now.”
And that brings me to my next point. What’s next for the Celtics? As it’s been said eloquently before, the Celtics were in year 5 of a 3 year plan this season. Conventional wisdom suggests that this team should have been blown up 2 years ago, but after they made no moves at the trade deadline this team basically went into Eminem mode (I’m not even really supposed to be here right now, so fuck it, might as well make the most of it) and took the Heat to 7 games in the Conference Finals. Before game 7 I tweeted “win or lose, the 2012 Celtics have given absolutely everything they had this season.” They all played through injuries, even the coach Doc Rivers had a major back injury. They won at least 75% of the effort plays and gave 110% every single night. The Celtics played like there was no tomorrow because there wasn’t one.
Well now it’s tomorrow and the Celtics are at the crossroads they all saw coming. The 2012-2013 Celtics will either look different or incredibly different and there is no 3rd option. Ray Allen is a 37 year old free agent. Kevin Garnett is a 36 year old free agent. Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo will have their names thrown in trade talks and even though I just said a few paragraphs ago that I was excited for the Celtics to build around him, the unbiased “stock trader” fan in me thinks it couldn’t hurt to see what they could get for Rondo if they sold high.
The good news for the Celtics is that their current payroll for 2012-2013 is 34.5 million so they basically have a blank state. They can probably resign Kevin Garnett somewhere around 30 million over 3 years and Brandon Bass has an option for 4 million which will probably be exercised. Allen will probably be let go because of the emergence of Avery Bradley. This means that the Celtics can actually bring back their starting 5 from the Philadelphia series at a payroll of around 49.5 million and 3 of the 5 would be under 30.
If they use their cap space and 2 1st round picks wisely, the 2012-2013 Boston Celtics will be a lot deeper than the 2011-2012 Boston Celtics were and they still have one of the best coaches in the business. The 2011-2012 Boston Celtics had Keyon Dooling, Marquis Daniels, Mikael Pietrus, Greg Sietsma, and Ryan Hollins as their bench guys, which meant that their over the hill starting lineup had to play way too many minutes, especially in the playoffs. They can add strong bench guys in free agency this offseason and I wouldn’t be opposed to Ray Allen being one of them at the right price. The Celtics can legitimately bring back their top 6 guys from a team that made it to game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals and still be under the cap.
Can’t a Garnett/Bass/Pierce/Bradley/Rondo starting 5 compete again in 2012-2013 if they add the right bench guys? They did this year without a strong bench and with Bradley missing the Eastern Conference Finals. The Spurs did it this year with a similar formula. A better bench will allow Garnett and Pierce to play fewer minutes and Bradley’s absence in the Heat series was not mentioned enough. Bradley was their best on ball perimeter defender and they played a team with two of the best perimeter scorers in the league. You can’t tell me that wasn’t a huge absence, probably even bigger than the Bosh absence for Miami because Bosh only missed 4 games.
However, unlike last year, they won’t have that “no tomorrow” feeling motivating them like they did this year. This is clearly the Heat and Thunder’s league right now. The Celtics will still only be a fringe contender in 2012-2013. And yes, I realize this probably should have been 3 posts, but this is my 1st NBA post since last year’s finals.