Friday, June 1, 2007

Deja Vu?

I better make two disclaimers before I go on with the post: (1) LeBron has the potential to be the greatest player in the history of the NBA; (2) I didn’t watch last night’s game.

But I couldn’t help noticing that in espn.com’s experts round-up, no one compared last night’s game to a game last year that was eerily similar. Try this: beginning with 16 minutes left in the game, the team’s star exploded for 29 points to take a 3-2 series lead in the conference finals.

LeBron finished with 48/9/7. In game 5 of last year’s western conference finals against Pheonix, Dirk ended up with 50/12/3 (see my earlier post. The games had important differences: LeBron is a lot younger, has an awful team (the rest of them shot 0/9 in those last 16 minutes), and scored those 29 points in a close game on the road. He also scored the last 25 in a row for his team, including all their points in two consecutive overtimes. Dirk had a lot more help, and his performance quickly turned his game into a rout at home, so there presumably was less pressure on him for a lot of those points.

On the other hand, Dallas had finally beaten San Antonio for the first time ever, and they were trailing by 7 in the fourth quarter, facing the prospect of going back to Phoenix down 3-2. They also were playing a Phoenix team that would have Amare Stoudemire back the next year, which meant there was a very real window closing on their opportunity to get to the finals in a tough conference. Plus Dirk had had questionable playoff performances in recent years, and he was staring at a playoff legacy that could live or die by that series.

I don’t think that I’m just being a Mavs homer to make the comparison between these games. After game 6 against Phoenix last year, Mark Stein wrote, “Dirk Nowitzki has answered all the questions.” Bill Simmons said it was probably time to add Dirk to the NBA Pantheon. After the finals, though, the conversation sounded a lot different.

As for last night’s game, its “specialness” surely was enhanced by the recogniztion that LeBron might become the Greatest Ever, and we just never know when it’s going to happen. For Dirk, people were waiting for him to fail; for LeBron, people are just wondering when he’ll succeed.

In any event, here are the two players’ lines for those final 29 points of their respective games:

LeBron: 16 mins, 11/14 FG, 5/9 FT, 0 rebounds, 0 assists.
Dirk: 14.5 mins 8/10 FG, 10/10 FT, 8 rebounds.

As you may have noticed, Dirk shot better from the field and the line, and he also had a slight, 8-0 edge in rebounding down the stretch. LeBron was literally a scoring machine for the end of the game, but I think it’s also fair to point out that every assist and every rebound by a Cavs player over those last 16 minutes was by someone not named LeBron.

Here’s the thing: James might go on to become the Greatest Ever, and if so this game will be seen as a major starting point. But he has a significant “out”: if the Cavs make it to the finals and get beat 4-1 by the Spurs, no one will be surprised. They’re a bad team, playing in a bad conference against a Pistons team that wakes up every morning and thanks God that they play in the east. In the west, these two teams proably would have been seeded 6th and 7th, and there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have made it out of the first round. (Although perhaps I shouldn’t throw rocks in a glass house.) As great as LeBron was last night, if they hold on to beat Detroit, I’ll still take the Spurs in 6 for the championship, and most of the experts say the same thing.

But there’s another really important difference between Dirk’s 50 last year and LeBron’s 48 last night, and it’s the really depressing point that my brother brought up. For LeBron, it’s only going to get better from here. Dirk may have already peaked.

4 comments:

Jeremy said...

The most important difference between 'Bron and Dirk is not in the numbers. Rather, it is in the way they play the game.

Here is Simmons on LeBron:

The enduring moment was LeBron flying down the middle for a Dr. J retro dunk and Tayshaun Prince ducking for cover like someone reacting to a fly-by from a fighter jet. The Pistons wanted no part of him. They were completely dominated. They didn't knock him down, they didn't jump in front of him for a charge … hell, they were so shell-shocked by what was happening, they didn't even realize they should be throwing two guys at him.

LeBron dominates. Dirk merely comes out to play.

scoots said...

Yeah, I think I have to agree. People have said a lot that LeBron is eminently beatable when he shoots jumps shots, but when he goes to the basket he’s unstoppable, because he’s faster than most and stronger (pound-for-pound) than anyone.

Dirk and Wade, as examples, both play finesse games, so they rely a lot on the refs to open up the game for them. James is strong enough that he doesn’t need that.

That seems unfair, but then this is a sport, not a game. Size and strength matter. As long as you don’t try to say it’s because LeBron has heart, I’m with you.

Jake said...

I don't know how you define dominate, but if Dirk outscoring the entire Phoenix team in the fourth quarter of a key playoff game isn't "dominating," then I suggest you purchase a dictionary.

Read that again, he outscored the most potent offense in the league... single-handedly.

scoots said...

Yeah, it was a heck of a playoff run, and I feel fortunate to have gotten to watch most of it. That game 5 was about as much fun as I’ve ever had watching basketball.

Unfortunately, that also enhances the tragedy of the finals meltdown. The Mavericks still might regroup and win a couple of championships. But if they don’t, then we’d better relish those 50 points against Phoenix, because they were the all-time highlight for this franchise.