LeBron James, King of Basketball
LeBron James is the best basketball player I've ever seen. I am old enough to have watched the tale end of Michael Jordan's career, but not old enough to have truly processed it as it was happening. I understand that he was able to impact a game in a way that few others in the history of the game had and perhaps no other prior to that point with all due respect to Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell and any other player one could name.
However, it is merely not possible to have a greater impact on a game though than what LeBron James did last night. Jordan and the other legends may have equaled it at some point, but none have ever been better.
James had 41 points for the second straight game. He is averaging 34.5 ppg in the last two NBA Finals combined. His performance last night again upped his average in elimination games to a stunning 32.9 ppg, the best average when facing elimination in NBA history (min. 5 games played). Last night was his 17th time facing elimination. He's 9-8. Before trying to throw shade because he's barely above .500, Jordan was 6-7 when facing elimination. Facing elimination means you're likely facing a better team. That's why you're on the brink. After last night James has staved that off more often than not.
In order to do it again, he'll likely need another herculean performance. James is playing at a level right now that is simply stunning. Rarely in sports can we so clearly see the brute force that a player is having on the outcome of a game. James is cutting hard, soaring to the rim like a flying basketball space alien. He's rebounding at an elite rate. There seem to be seven of him on the defensive end. And for his new trick? His jump shot has been excellent.
James is shooting just under 50% (15-31) from outside of 8 feet in the last two games, including dead on 50% (7-14) from 3pt range. There's really not much the Warriors can do about that. The best they can do on his spot-ups is play the percentages and hope he starts missing again. Although with the rhythm and confidence he's playing with right now, that doesn't seem likely.
The Warriors do have to consider changing how they're playing him in the post and in pick and roll though. James is arguably the best passer in basketball, so it's an admittedly risky proposition. The Warriors scramble so well that blitzing pick and rolls and double teaming him in the post to get the ball out of his hands has to be an option.
Oracle is going to be a zoo Sunday night. None of the Cavs have ever played in a game this big outside of James. While Cleveland is undeniably at their best when everyone is involved, I'll take my chances with other guys staying composed and hitting shots over James ethering me again if I'm Steve Kerr. Again, this has something to do with the trust in the Warriors to scramble and get at least decent contests on some of these shots, but it has more to do with the zone James is in right now.
Keeping up with the Curry's
Steph Curry is having one of the weirdest series for any player I can remember. More on that in a moment, but (and I can't believe I'm about to type this) a word on his wife's night first.
I honestly feel bad for Ayesha Curry, who is now getting absolutely slaughtered on social media for having an incredibly human moment. Of course, it's fair to acknowledge that she helped put herself in this situation by tweeting about LeBron's high road comment, but what happened to her last night needs to be looked at by the league.
I'm not talking about her "this is rigged" comment. That's preposterously stupid, and she knows it. That's why she deleted it, even if the screenshots will live on forever. She also apologized. It was an incredibly stupid thing to say and it couldn't be further from the truth despite what any tinfoil hat wearing doofus might want to believe. Calls change based on location because referees are human. They do not change based on some edict from the league to create more basketball. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong and I've already wasted more words on that than it frankly deserves.
However the league should absolutely look at why the hell the Warriors family bus wasn't allowed into the arena before tipoff. That can't happen. I don't want to say there is no excuse for it, because I don't know the circumstances around why they wouldn't be let in, but barring some legitimate security threat that somehow impacted their ability to get the bus in and unloaded I can't possibly think of a good reason why 100 of the Warriors family and friends were stuck outside the arena.
Then there is the absolute catastrophe that happened when they got inside. Per Ayesha's tweets, her father was nearly arrested because he was thought to be a counterfeit credential seller in some kind of mixup in what she called an instance of racial profiling. Common sense has to prevail here. It would make logical sense that Ayesha's dad was with her and the rest of the Curry clan, so when they're all going "no that's Steph Curry's father-in-law" then it's time to stand down. There is no reason for that to happen. Combine that with the frustration she witnessed on the court and I understand why she was incredibly angry by the time the buzzer sounded. That said, she's got to be an adult and show some self-restraint. Don't tweet while angry, especially about the league that's been quite good to two generations of the Curry family.
There's also something to be said though about the mass reaction to all of what happened. People love to be mad, so the "rigged" tweet got a predictable hysteric reaction. However I wonder if the actual important stuff had been reported in a different manner if the reaction would have been different. Instead of coming straight from her on Twitter, what if Ayesha had pulled one of the Warriors beat reporters aside and told him or her what had happened? I think the reaction is much different. That's exactly what I would advise her to do next time too. Sometimes the delivery is as important as the message, especially when Twitter is involved.
As for the two-time MVP who actually played in the game: what a bizarre night. Steve Kerr should have been fined $25k for his comments about the officiating last night (he was), but that doesn't mean he wasn't right. I didn't like a number of the calls on Curry, and he had every right to be upset after he fouled out. The game was over. The technical didn't matter. He shouldn't have thrown the mouth guard but only because that risks some disciplinary action (he was also fined and will not be suspended, which is the proper outcome both by NBA precedent and common sense). He stood up for himself in a place where the game was out of hand and he has every right to do that. However...
Time, score and situation dictate how any player plays. Curry did a poor job in the 4th quarter of playing to his foul situation. Was the strip on Kyrie Irving clean? Yeah, probably. There was some contact before the strip, but nothing worthy of a foul. That said, why is he reaching if he has four fouls? Curry has to be smarter, just like he had to be on his sixth. Why in the world is he near LeBron 85 feet from the basket? Just get back on defense. It's a poor job by a smart player who absolutely knows better.
Curry is having a truly bizarre series overall. He's had two 30 point games. He's set the NBA record for threes made a finals series and done it while shooting 42% from deep. Those are all good.
He's only shooting 41% overall and his touch around the rim has left him. He shot over 65% in the restricted area during the regular season. He's at 45% in The Finals and that's resulted in a drop-off from his 30.1 ppg regular season average down to 23.5 ppg in the championship round. That, quite obviously, is bad.
On top of the decreased scoring, his assists are down too. He averaged 6.7 apg during the regular season and is down to 4.0 during The Finals. Some of that is on his teammates who aren't hitting shots (you'll see the notes on Harrison Barnes below and cower in horror), but it's also due to his destructive turnover rate. He's averaging 4.3 per game, meaning he's averaging more turnovers than assists.
Even when he is scoring, his points just don't seem as impactful. He had a flurry in the second quarter last night, but because the Warriors defense isn't stringing together stops, those offensive flurries aren't resulting in the game-changing runs that have been a Golden State staple for the past two years. They finally had one late in the 2nd quarter last night when Thompson scored 8 points in a 10-0 run making the game manageable at halftime, but the hole was so big from the first quarter disaster that it really wasn't enough.
On To Game 7
Why are "Game 7" the best two words in sports? Simple. It is the only time human nature is even in a series. Early the pressure is on the home team. The urgency isn't as great from the road team because they're not supposed to win. The series then flips to the other location where either the pressure is on the new home team to hold court, or the new road team to even it out because they lost Game 1 or 2 at home. From there it flips again depending on who is home if the series is tied or who is facing elimination if it's not. Game 6 always has one team facing elimination. Game 7 represents both teams with equal stakes and those stakes are everything to gain and lose.
As previously mentioned, Oracle will be a zoo. The question is will it be a nervous crowd, a crowd out for blood or the usual celebratory type feeling that Oracle has? If it's either of the latter two, Golden State is in good shape. If the crowd is nervous, that could play into the psyche of a group that has to be a little bit on edge.
That said, this Warriors team is extraordinarily mentally tough. Curry's mindset doesn't make me nervous. He's going to come out with something to prove after he felt disrespected Thursday night. Green just has to play within himself, which he did as he returned from suspension even if it wasn't his best night. Klay Thompson's competitive spirit has been on display the entire playoffs. Those three will determine the outcome more than any other three players for the home squad, so that sits well for Golden State.
The one player that they need to get out of his own head is Harrison Barnes. Bluntly, Barnes has murdered them the past two games. He cannot make a shot, and it is absolutely killing their offense. Offenses are designed to get certain shots and when a player is getting wide open shots and missing them at the rate Barnes is it's impossible to be productive. The numbers are absolutely staggering.
Barnes is 1-19 the last two games on jump shots, including 1-11 from three. All of those three point attempts were catch and shoot shots, which is the skill he's most called upon to utilize. Those are his shots. Of those 11 attempts, nine came with no defender within six feet of him, or what the NBA categorizes as WIDE OPEN through their player tracking data. If all of those outside numbers weren't hideous enough, Barnes is 1-3 on layups too. He has not put the ball in the basket from any distance under any circumstance.
Barnes is a thinker. He's a really smart, sharp and intellectual person by all accounts. He's got two days to clear his head and his teammates and coaches will surely help. They know him well and will certainly have a plan, whether that is to lock him in the gym with a shooting coach or taking him to the spa to clear his head. They know. They will do their best. He has to respond.
Of course more offense is only part of the equation and how they choose to defend James and how quickly LeBron adapts to whatever that is, are the likely determining factors in Game 7 barring a Steph Curry and Klay Thompson explosion that even LeBron can't match.
The Warriors quite obviously need to start better. Last night was a disaster in so many ways. James completely controlled the game on offense while the Warriors offense was anemic. I do think it was a case of simply missing shots for the first half of the quarter. They had so many open looks and just didn't hit any of them. The game was actually close until Curry went out with his second foul and then the Cavs exploded.
Cleveland just played with more urgency and more pace. One thing the Warriors need to do in Game 7 is return to whipping the ball around and moving with purpose, including simply getting the ball up the floor. The Warriors have walked or jogged up the floor more in this series than I can ever remember seeing them in the past two years. They steal points by getting the ball up the floor quickly.
During the regular season, 38.1% of the Warriors shots came in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock with a whopping 21.7% of their shots coming within the first six seconds. That's more than one in every five shots. Those numbers are down during The Finals to 37.3% in the first 10 seconds and only 17.1% in the first six seconds.
The Cavs deserve a ton of credit for getting back in transition, but the Warriors shouldn't be afraid to really push it and see if they can get back to stealing those points in the first few seconds of a possession. That said, they can't overdo it because dumb shots lead to transition the other way and LeBron in full fledge freight train mode.
This series started with three blowouts and has lacked a 48 minute competitive game, but it has still been an epic thanks to some individual performances for the ages. We are watching greatness, and we'll get to watch it one more time Sunday night with a championship on the line.