Heat of the Moment

lebron-james-dunk-contest1Is there a need to go into a deep analysis of last night’s victory by the Miami Heat over the Indiana Pacers?  You watched it. I watched it.  If you didn’t watch it, the game can be summarized pretty easily: Lebron James.  King James.  That is the story of the game.

For those who continue to pick at the edges of his growing legacy, and say, well, he is not as good as Michael Jordan, I laugh. Not because he is as good as Michael Jordan, or isn’t.  I laugh because a ball player dominates the ball games and the league for the most part, the most familiar response to his rise is, he is not as good as Michael Jordan. Is that the best retort to offer? That is like someone saying during the heyday of the late Johnnie Cochran, the lawyer, you are a pretty good lawyer but you aren’t as good as Johnnie Cochran. Johnnie Cochran, for those of us who witnessed how he performed in court and out, was the best of the best during a certain period. It is no shortcoming to not quite make his standard.

But truth be told, Lebron James stands alone this year in the league. He is slowly moving past most of the legends of old and if he continues on his current path, he will be someone everyone will be compared to in professional basketball.

For a short period last night, he made every play. Every pass, every rebound, ever shot, all of it, he made it. He defended like a man possessed. He attacked the basket, he shot jump shots, he led the break. When the smoke cleared, his team, down by 4 at the half were up by 12. Game over.

The Indiana Pacers really had no answer. In fact, each team in the league has no answer for this. None.  They will have to rely on King James losing his focus or doing his famous deferring to his teammates at crunch time move he has been accused of many times over the years even though he is the guy. Could you imagine Johnnie Cochran during the OJ Simpson trial, telling one of his assistants, you handle closing argument?  It wouldn’t and didn’t happen because Johnnie Cochran lived for the moment.  Michael Jordan lived for and was always in the moment. Now and then, King James is out of the moment. He drifts mentally. He drifted famously for a game in Boston many years ago and his Cleveland Cavaliers lost. He drifted in Game 2 of this series and his team lost.  It is a slight flaw in his game that has caused him some problems.

But in the end, it is all teams have to hope for these days. Lebron James, please lose your focus. Give us a chance to win. Otherwise, the Heat will win this title. Four games, Five games. They will win. The Pacers have no real answers other than this or to hope for some injuries to Heat players. And the Spurs don’t either. Maybe if Dwayne Wade is so injured, he can’t go they can win. But it is one guy’s league right now which probably explains why fewer and fewer people are watching this spectacle; they know how the movie ends.

Photo: Sports Illustrated

The Heat of the Night

fantasy_g_hibbert_300If you are the Miami Heat, you should not be worried. Sure, the Indiana Pacers are formidable. They have a dominant big man in Roy Hibbert and quite a star in Paul George; however, you got out rebounded 49 to 30 last night. You shot 35 percent from the field; Indiana shot 50 percent. Your best player fouled out on phantom moving screen call (none of the conspiracy theorists who think the NBA is fixing this for Miami complained about that atrocious call or the fake elbow by James minutes before that also got a foul), and yet, you still had a shot to win that game last night. But which Miami Heat are we going to get next game? The Game #3 Heat, or the Game 1,2 and 4 Heat, the squad that looks like they play in spurts.

I was amazed last night watching Miami go from a ball moving, methodical machine in Game #3 that took Indiana apart like they were a AAU team to the old Miami, of the past. You know the one; they dribble too much. Every play was some version of isolation again. Lebron doesn’t take enough shots. Wade is on for a quarter but then he is way off, and I mean, off. And of course, Chris Bosh looks anemic and afraid.

Miami also went back to trying to gamble on defense to get points, something which is admirable but not reliable unless the other team is reckless with the basketball. It seems at times that Miami is impatient. They want to get to the Finals and Indiana is like a pesky mosquito they keep swatting but who keeps surviving.

For three of the four games in this series, Miami has scored 93 or less. The one game where they moved the ball side to side crisply, and ran plays and sets, Indiana had no chance. So you ask, why didn’t they just play like that last night? Was it Indiana’s defense? Indiana’s rebounding? What was it that made Miami got back to the Miami that looks vulnerable?

I can’t explain it. But a few things are obvious if we take the series at face value.  Lance Stephenson should be on the court and should attack. Roy Hibbert should touch the ball in most of the sets for Indiana because the Heat can’t guard him with one man.  And George Hill has to shoot with confidence.  Funny thing is, even if all of that happens, there is no guarantee Indiana can win unless the Heat play bad, shoot bad, and Lebron fouls out again. All three of those things will not happen again. He will not foul out again and in Game 6, which is his history, he will have his game face on and he will be looking to destroy. Also, I am sure right now the Heat’s coaches are showing them the tape of Game 3 where the ball moved quickly and crisply and they got any shot they wanted, and Game 4 where they dragged the ball up the court, dribbled around a lot, and did the isolation over and over like they were doing the fox trot.

Still, I got the Heat winning this. But the real winner in the series is the San Antonio Spurs, the old guys who are in Texas soaking in ice and resting their weary bones. They now have at least 8 more days off because of the Heat’s lack of focus last night.  And yes, I said the Heat, the NBA, as the conspiracy theorist say, will not allow Indiana and San Antonio to bore us in June.

The Souls of Heat Folk…

Dallas Mavericks v Miami Heat - Game One

I do expect the Miami Heat to win it all this year. I stated early on only injury, the wild card in sports, could stop them.  In the NBA, the talent is so concentrated and has been that way for so long, this is what you get: dominance by one player and his team. So that it is now with Lebron James, the most talented player the league might have ever seen physically.

All should know I don’t think the Indiana Pacers can beat them four games in a series and advance despite their success against Miami this year and in the past. Winning one or two games is available to many teams. Winning four is monumental.  With their very talented forward, Stuart Granger out, they are as Walter Mosley would tell them, “always outnumbered, always outgunned.”

With that said, the Pacers still should give it their all and try to win if they have guts.  But watching last night’s game, you got to wonder if they haven’t been checkmated. It usually happens in a series. Charles Barkley says there is a time in many a series when one team knows the other team is better than them and they can’t win. Pacers are close to that moment.   The decision to play Bosh and Haslem and spread Roy Hibbert away from the basket to defend is a tough one to counter. Miami also had excellent ball movement last night, swinging the ball right and left and then in the paint, and back out.  It made Indiana dizzy, and they are the best defensive team in the league.

Yet, I kept saying you got to try something. One thing surely is, why were they just letting those passes  go by so easy. They never stepped up their ball pressure. Meet the guy with the ball earlier. Meet them in half court and force them to pass. Never trapped the corners. They also never went zone. Yes, that dirty word for the wacko NBA:  zone.  Here is a note on zone defense in the NBA by Zach Harper of CBS Sports:

“Zone defense is such a tricky thing for NBA defenses to do. If you were to treat the NBA like a college basketball game and play a heavy amount of zone throughout the contest, you’d likely see the skill of offensive players consistently get the ball to the middle of the zone before finding cutters from the weak side or shooters in the dead spots of the zone. It’s not something you can consistently play against NBA talent. But you can often go to it as a surprise weapon in your defensive quiver at key spots in games just to turn the opposition a little on their head.”

I agree with this analysis. Don’t play it all the time but when Miami went into a zone (no pun) scoring, you have to slow them down. You have to change the patterns. You have to break rhythm.  If you are outgunned, you got to go bunker basketball.

In the 2011 Finals, the Dallas Mavericks did that and it worked. They played zone. They kept Wade and James out of the paint. They dictated the kind of shots Miami would take. It helped win that series.  Historically, Miami has had trouble with zones. Not super major trouble but enough to slow down their scoring machine. That is all you need.

Unfortunately, Indiana coach Frank Vogel says, no zone. They haven’t practiced it so they won’t use it.  Good night Indiana.

But question is, if it is Miami v. San Antonio, will Greg Popovich roll out the zone to slow down the machine? His team is ancient though very talented. They will need to slow down the Miami engine.

We shall see, and good luck.

Lebron’s Lay-up

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I keep watching the tape of the incredible play by Lebron James that won the game last night for the Miami Heat. Over and over I watch it.  I actually think Miami can still win the game but King James, if Hibbert is in, does not get a lay-up. If anything (if George makes the same mistake on the overplay), he probably gets a mid range jump shot that he can make off the glass easy.  So get Indiana’s coach off the hook a bit, George made a colossal defensive error.

But if you watch the play. Ray Allen is a decoy on the play as James sets a psuedo screen. Allen cuts to the corner to shoot his patented jump shot. Chris Bosh is trying also to free up Allen as he cuts towards the basket.  If Hibbert is in the game, he will be guarding Bosh. Bosh winds up near the basket so Hibbert would have been in the lane waiting.  Not to say James could not just go over him but it is more obstructed play and there is a chance he would have to fade out unless he thinks the referees will call a foul. I have my doubts. More than likely if Hibbert slides over, James stops and shoots. He might pass to Bosh but time might be short. He likely has to shoot once he cuts to the basket. It is a shot he can make at a high percentage.

Some things are obvious about the play as well and they are mental. Did James think I am going to beat him like this? He is going to play me hard and with Hibbert out I can get a real close look if not a layup. I am thinking: Yes. He had this play thought out in his mind. Hibbert is not in, it means they are playing the jump shot. It makes the coaching move look that worse. By taking Hibbert out, you are conceding you are worried about the jump shots. So, James is thinking, I am going to the basket. Frank Vogel even concedes in the interview he probably played it wrong. He was thinking James dishing off to Bosh as an option. If I am coaching, I take that chance over a drive to the basket. You can’t stop everything; you choose your poison, contest, if he makes it, oh well.

But the coach’s mistake is compounded by George’s overplay. If they are playing jump shot, you don’t even rush hard as Reggie Miller points out. You lay off and when James catches it, you close to contest without fouling. You want most of all to obstruct a clean look but make them take a jump shot. If Indiana was doing statistical models, they would probably see that the layup is like a 90 plus percent shot but the jumper is like 50 percent. With someone contesting it, it is likely lower.

Thus, it is easy to see: two monumental errors were made by Indiana in one play.  And then, of course, Miami had a great play called and Lebron went for it. But this one was too easy; Jordan, Kobe, Magic Johnson; I can ever remember a superstar getting a layup because you are worried he might pass to someone else so you take out your goaltender? What? 

Tim Duncan, Celtic

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Rewind to 1997. The top prospect for the NBA Draft was a 6’11” quiet, completely fundamentally sound power forward named Timothy Theodore Duncan of Wake Forest University.  Duncan was a standout at Wake Forest and it was clear he was going to be the #1 pick in the NBA Draft. The Boston Celtics had the inside track. They had a 36 percent chance according to reports of obtaining the “Duncan” pick because they had been awful the year before, and had two lottery picks increasing their chances.

As luck would have it (surely not of the Irish kind), the San Antonio Spurs, who had also been awful the year before, got the #1 pick. Rick Pitino, who had was coach and GM of Boston back then, saw his great career take a turn into darkness. By 2001, he was gone from Beantown.

One wonders what would have happened had the Boston Celtics gotten Duncan and not San Antonio though I think we know. The year prior to Duncan’s arrival, the Spurs were 20-62. His first year on the team, with David Robinson returning from injury, the Spurs went 56-26, probably the largest win increase by a team in the NBA history. Duncan averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds and 2 blocks and it was pretty clear, a dynasty had been born in the NBA in Texas, with or without Robinson.

Duncan maintained that excellence throughout his career. He has won two MVP awards, been voted to 14 All Star games, and is in the top 20 in nearly every meaningful category for a big man. His career averages are as follows: 22 points, 12 rebounds, 2.5 blocks. Even this year, at 37 years old, he is averaging 18 points, 10 rebounds.

The Spurs have soared during his time there. To put that in perspective, remember that the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics account for about half the league’s titles. The The Celtics have 17, the Lakers have 16. Next on the list is the Chicago Bulls with 6 titles. The Spurs have 4 all with Duncan (1999, 2003, 2005, and 2007). They also have 10 division titles during that time as well.

One has to wonder what the Celtics might have been if the NBA ping pong balls had fallen their way but we will never know. But in 1997, their team had some parts to build around.  Dee Brown, Chauncey Billups (he was drafted with one of their two lottery picks so he might have not made it), Pervis Ellison, Dana Barros, Kenny Anderson, Bruce Bowen, and Antonine Walker were all on a team that finshed 36-46. If you think that is bad, the year before the Celtics were 15-67; they improved 21 games without Duncan. Imagine what they do with Duncan not to mention the future.

One thing to consider is the next year, the Celtics drafted Paul Pierce. With Duncan the year before, it isn’t likely they get the 10th pick and get Pierce. But, considering the Celtics would have had their horse for the future, do they need a Paul Pierce?  The Celtics during the Pierce era (or the non-Duncan era) have one title, and one loss in the championship. They also have six division titles. But even though they broke through with the Big Three in 2008, Boston fans have to still be saying – if only we got Duncan, things would have been different.

Case in point: San Antonio is, of course, in the Western Conference Finals with Tim Duncan. Boston and Paul Pierce are home, eliminated in the First Round.

The Return of Molefi Asante

molefi14Dr. Molefi Asante passed through Michigan recently. I tried to go hear him speak but missed him. I bought an updated copy of his famous book, “Afrocentricty: The Theory of Social Change” instead and read it like in just a few hours.

Back in the early 1990’s, the book (and other similar books) and Asante were hot on the underground intellectual circuit and then even in mainstream media. It is a moment hard to forget.

Most of my friends had a copy of the book and we talked about his theories on African people and African culture all the time. My buddy, the poet, D.J. Renegade (Joel Dias Porter) could discuss the book in depth with anyone and was the main person who helped me understand Asante’s theories on Afrocentricity.

Over the years, I have wondered what happened to Asante, so it was good to see he is still writing books, giving lectures, and still teaching. It is also good to see he is still promoting Afrocentricity, the theory. I also recently learned he is now back in charge of Temple University’s famous Department of African-American Studies (it was the first in the nation to offer a PhD in African-American studies). He stepped down in 1996 after some controversy; he has now recently returned to the fold.

As for his legendary book, it appeared at a quite interesting time for African people.  It was 1980, the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Liberation Movements were basically over and Ronald Reagan was about to become President of the United States.  Blacks, in America, were still forging a new identity and language in the aftermath of the end of perhaps their most progressive period. The afros that had appeared in the 1960’s and 70’s were slowly shrinking, some of the players in the Civil Rights Movement were becoming caretakers of America’s cities as elected officials, and yet, not enough progress had been made.   Asante’s book appears amidst a very conservative period that was underway and slowly the book began to gather a reputation.

I remember encountering the book for the first time nearly 10 years after it was published when I first began to write poetry. It was a popular tome in the black bookstores in Washington D.C. The book wasn’t necessarily an easy read but it was a short book that explained what it wanted to do and expressed it easy. Here is Asante explaining the theory and the book in the Revised and Expanded edition:

“I wrote Afrocentricity because I was convinced, and I remain convinced, that the best road to all health, economic, political, cultural, and psychological in the African community is through a centered positioning of ourselves within our own story.”

One would have to be hard pressed to dismiss this statement. What racial or ethnic group should not position themselves in their daily lives? This is not a statement of superiority but equality as human beings. That is how I always interpreted it.  Only in the West has it been argued that doing so makes African people promoters of segregation and separatism. Of course, in the West, the culture of Africans and the history has been hidden and ridiculed, dismissed as primitive and worthless. Asante’s books challenged all of that and made many of us ask real questions about history.

Asante explains in the book that the theory is a “mode of thought and action in which the centrality of African interests, values, and perspectives predominate.” He calls Afrocentricity the “centerpiece of human regeneration” and a “transforming power that helps us capture the true sense of our souls.”

African people have to become their own liberators, according to Asante (and many others) and their history, tradition, and culture, must become the central focus of their lives.  He admits at the end that it is not an easy task but one that is necessary. But the reason for this is obvious. Racism, that constant in the U.S. and other parts of the world, is the antithesis to African-American (African) existence.

Asante’s theory did create attention and controversy. He was attacked and dismissed by scholars (many European scholars in the West) who were quite upset that he wanted to shift the focus of education and culture for Africans to African history and culture. Many tried to trash his theories completely; called his idea – myth. These attacks were not surprising. Racism has to try to advance the notion that Africans are inferior everyday otherwise, it dies.

Asante was attacked but he survives and is still doing his work. Whether he is right or wrong, that is a good thing.

Dwayne Wade – #3, all time…

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Mark Jackson, former NBA guard, college great at St. John’s and now coach of the Golden State Warriors, says, Dwayne Wade is the third greatest shooting guard of all time.  When I read it, I did a double take. That was mostly just an impulse reaction because I had never considered who is the third best shooting guard of all time. One part of me dismissed Jackson’s pronouncement because I was sure there are lot of great shooting guards who have retired. Wade is still building his legend and making his mark; so I said, let him make it, and then let us judge it.

But Jackson, I am sure, is a student of the NBA, and he is not off base with this statement.  There are surely some great shooting guards out there in history so it was worth a look.

For one, it is clear Jackson thinks Michael Jordan is #1 and Kobe Bryant is #2.  Will I argue? No. Surely, not with #1; he is likely to many people one of the greatest, if not the greatest NBA player of all time – Mike Jordan. Bryant is a worthy #2 and even if he isn’t your #2, to say he is #2 is not preposterous.

So I came to Wade.  He has two NBA titles, one of which he was the main cog. The title run for Miami in 2006 was all his as I recall and it was quite a performance. Last year, he was the Scottie Pippen figure for Lebron James but he was still formidable.

For his career, Wade has averaged 24 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds. He also is a sharp ball defender and has gotten nearly 2 steals a game as well. His teams contend and compete. His playoff averages are nearly the same as his career averages.

How many All Star teams? 9  He was scoring champion for the NBA in 2009 and in 2006 was NBA Finals MVP.

So who is a competitor?

Jerry West.  Surely. He has only one NBA title but we give him a bit of a break because of Bill Russell and the Celtics. No one got anything during those years. West averaged 27 points per game and nearly 7 assists and 6 rebounds.  He was Finals MVP in 1969 and made the All Star team 14 times.  He led the league in assists one year and was also a sharp defender picking up nearly 3 steals per game.

Anyone else?

How about George Gervin?

Gervin has no NBA titles which hurts him a little in this argument but he did play during a very competitive era. Gervin averaged 25 points per game, 5 rebounds, 2 assists. He appeared in 12 All Star games (ABA and NBA). He was MVP of the NBA All Star game in 1980. His playoff numbers are slightly better than his regular season numbers. I can attest to his prowess during big games as he battled my Washington Bullets for years. Gervin can’t be ignored.

There are a few others to consider.  What about Clyde Drexler? He has a title. Earl “the Pearl” Monroe is also a possible. Earl did win a title. He was on a fabulous team though and his role was slightly diminished from his more statistical heavy days when he played for the Washington Bullets.

When I mentioned this debate other names were called out. Allen Iverson. Joe Dumars. I can’t put them on my list. Dumars surely is quite a baller but not a #3. Iverson is a paradox. Are we arguing statistics?

There are others surely out there but it is a tribute to Dwayne Wade that he has risen quickly up the list of NBA greats. Mark Jackson is not blowing smoke when he puts him at #3. I am not totally sure I agree but I hardly can say it is not worthy of consideration.