LeBron James, prior to Wednesday's Game 5 (Getty Images)
Miami Heat 106, New York Knicks 94 (Miami wins series, 4-1)
It's hardly a novel realization, though Lord knows we've attempted to relay as much in the wake of this game, but it stands as a pretty profound one. The Miami Heat are a scary basketball team, as has been the case since the team's opener on Christmas Day, and it's going to take quite a lot to take them out four times in a seven-game playoff term. The New York Knicks attempted this, in early spring, and could only manage to take one game in five tries. And as poorly as New York played at times, this was only about 13 percent their fault.
Our sensible yet heartbroken Dan Devine will have more on his Knicks' future later on Thursday, so for now you're going to have to hear about Ball Don't Lie fawning over the Miami Heat. Not so much resigned to the fact that the team will take the championship — we think there could still be obstacle(s?) along the way in the East, and several teams out west could pick and probe once the Finals hit — but because this team is such an odd monster that we're not exactly clear what is best built to knock it over.
Mainly because of LeBron James. Dwyane Wade had all the pretty plays on Wednesday night, thrilling us and reminding us with his wraparound passes and clever drives, but LeBron's all-around play continues to astonish. The educated fan, as is the case with most art, tries to find some sort of paradigm that reminds, some attempt to link James with the past, and it's OK to guess. But somehow, even nearly nine years since the Cleveland Cavaliers won the rights to select him first overall in the NBA's draft lottery, James continues to evolve, surprise and defy comparison. And apologies for blathering on so much following the appropriate dismissal of a limited and injured team in the first round.
James is almost starting to look like Julius Erving, but with some odd Kevin Garnett-ish mixture of defensive know-how mixed in. He's not some outright scorer, a Jordan or Kobe bent on taking down an entire defensive scheme even with all eyes fixated on him. He can, and has, but often doesn't peer over the defense, picking out teammates over and over again like Magic Johnson. His team, though top-heavy with Wade and Chris Bosh (19 points, seven rebounds, zero turnovers in his start at center), isn't good enough for that.
No, James is some monstrous power forward from hell at this point. We'd still like to see him post up more, but even in his (still, sadly, but also excitedly) formative stages, James is dominating in weird areas. He's so good that — even after a 29-point, eight-rebound, seven-assist night — we still feel as if he's scratching the surface. We're not unreasonable, there.
That's 40 percent of the story. The other 60 percent is filled with his defensive exploits, and we promise that we're not just 40 percent of the way into this recap. We'll finish soon.
James obviously shirked away from the spotlight last June against the Dallas Mavericks. Perhaps he got it in his head that his team needed to lose at that stage before it could win, or he just martyr'd his way out after a year of incessant (and deserved) criticism. And while the Mavs won that series way more than Miami lost it, it's hard to see the 2012 version of LeBron James letting Dirk Nowitzki do what he did last June. It nearly goes without saying that Carmelo Anthony certainly doesn't take the sort of heady shots built off intelligent spacing that Nowitzki does, so Carmelo (35 points on 31 shots; the Knicks needed his 35 points but not those 31 shots) was an easier guard, but that doesn't take away from how scary James can be in that role as a defensive stopper.
He destroyed Paul Pierce in the playoffs last year. Shut down Derrick Rose. Manhandled his regular season foes in 2011-12 and made life hellish for Carmelo Anthony. All at once, LeBron James is adding to his legacy, while making his 2011 Finals turn look all the more inexcusable. Growing before our eyes, while pissing us off more and more about the way he pissed away the Finals away last year, even if we were all rooting for the Mavs.
This was step two. Regular season done, Knicks gone till November. Step three bounds into action soon with the upstart Indiana Pacers. This is going to be fun.
Memphis Grizzlies 92, Los Angeles Clippers 80 (Clippers lead series, 3-2)
Accustomed though we may be to attempting to find every bit of wrong and wrong-er and wrong-est from behind this keyboard, it's impossible not to fall in love with this series.
The Clippers are full of big names, big salaries and potentially overrated and outmoded performers. Their coach? We have issues with him. The Grizzlies appear, at times, to be lost in the moment, failing to recognize what made them so dangerous down the stretch of 2010-11, and what gave them home-court advantage (!) in the first round of the playoffs a year later, despite significant injuries to the team's frontcourt. Lionel Hollins, the team's rightfully celebrated coach, has made some curious choices since their playoff run started a week and a half ago.
And yet, a frantic Grizzlies win kept this thing alive, and we couldn't be happier. Plenty of chippy play and needless flops, again, but both teams appear to have had their way with this first-round set of referees. And the drama and shot selection and goofball rotation choices and out-and-out nonsense that we're getting from both sidelines isn't taking away from what has become a fantastically refreshing series between two teams that nobody was expecting to see in the second week of May — even if the lockout pushed that schedule ahead a wee bit.
The Grizzlies won this game because the team came out undaunted. It understood that ball movement, spacing and interior work run through the great Marc Gasol would put the Clippers in a hole. Not to pick on someone that has been picked on quite a bit, but the Grizz continually went at Blake Griffin defensively, and as a result the group was up 14 points after the first 12 minutes.
From there, of course, things fell apart. Memphis went away from Gasol, the literal and figurative weight of Zach Randolph got in the way of him acting as a potent offensive threat as the game went on (he's a big dude, and he hurt his knee in a way that made it so he couldn't really stay in NBA shape; this isn't a criticism), and Rudy Gay's hero ball instincts took over even though he made one nice jump hook and one game-clinching lay-in late as the Clippers attempted to come back.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles' spacing took a beating as the desperate Grizzlies tried to close off angles and take Chris Paul off the island he seemed to delight in living upon in the team's previous series wins. Mo Williams nailed some tough jumpers in the second half, but he was 4 of 12 during that span and 8 of 21 overall on his way to 20 points. The Clippers were forced into 24 3-point attempts, but only culled 21 points out of them. Caron Butler took 10 shots and scored eight points.
In other words, the Clippers played the Grizzlies. In Memphis.
Game 6 comes next, with the Grizzlies attempting to keep their hope of matching last season's second-round appearance alive, and Lionel Hollins' group will have quite a bit to improve upon to pull things out. The ball has to work inside-out. The team has to be ready for a crew of referees that will think home-team-first and reason-second. It's only natural, all those jump shots and referee reactions to that initial feint, and the Grizz have to be aware of this heading in.
If the team remembers that it has been there before, and that the underbear title was swept away some 12 months ago, they might have a shot.
Strike that. They should have a shot. Give us a game, men. And then a seventh game.
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