A Repeat Fit For A King

Even in a hard fought battle, the Heat and Spurs exhibited what's right with sports. Getty Images/Steve Mitchell

Even in a hard fought battle, the Heat and Spurs exhibited what’s right with sports.
Getty Images/Steve Mitchell

 

When the Miami Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs 95-88 in Game Seven Thursday night, they put themselves in the conversation. The Big Three have now won consecutive NBA titles. Since losing to Dallas on their home court, the Heat have responded like champions. They’ve earned it. After coming back to win in five over the Thunder last year, they rallied from the depths pulling out a classic Game Six in overtime and then completing it by besting the Spurs in an exciting final game.

LeBron James answered the bell again by putting on a dominant display. After carrying his team with 18 points in the fourth quarter and overtime en route to a fourth career Finals triple double (32, 11 and 10), the 28-year old superman tied a Finals Game Seven record with 37 while grabbing 12 rebounds. He was there when the Heat needed him most. The Spurs strategy backfired. James repeatedly knocked down jumpers including five three’s that turned the tide. He also hit a clutch mid-range jumper that put Miami up 92-88 out of a well used timeout by coach Erik Spoelstra. When the chips were down, Spoelstra out-coached the game’s best, Gregg Popovich, who will take the conclusion to Game Six with him as will Manu Ginobili who admitted it was still in his head.

Sports are mental. It can affect the physical. Ginobili’s mistakes came back to haunt San Antonio. Even though he played a better deciding game scoring 18 and dishing out five assists, a bad pass right to James sealed it with 24 seconds left. James calmly knocked down both free throws extending to 94-88. Another difference between winning and losing. When the Spurs had the Heat beaten, they missed two keeping the door ajar. They’ll forever replay that sequence where Chris Bosh grabbed an offensive rebound and kicked out for Ray Allen, whose clutch right corner trey forced OT. The rest is history.

Despite losing in excruciating fashion, the Spurs came to play. They jumped out to an 11-4 lead. But the Heat came back thanks to a big night from Shane Battier. Battier had been quiet all series but in a money situation, he drained six triples for 18 points. His clutch shooting along with Mario Chalmers‘ 14 provided a lift. The Heat got a strong game from Dwyane Wade. At 31 with bad knees, he might not be what he once was. However, Wade’s a gamer. When they needed Game Four, he turned back the clock with 32 points, four assists and six steals- combining with James and Bosh for 84 of their 109 in a 16-point win to even the series at two. Knowing James needed help, Wade delivered a double double (23 and 10) shooting seven for twelve in the first half.

James started slowly but picked it up as he tends to. He saved his best for crunch time. He’d been hesitant to shoot all series. Following a strong finish, he found his groove knocking down a three from the left wing. James has a comfort level from that spot. It’s where he did most of his damage on the perimeter. In another sequence, he asked Allen to give the ball back to him. He set a quick screen and James’ launched and swished. The Heat led by five in the third and seemed on the verge of pulling away. But every time the crowd was ready to explode, the Spurs answered.

Tim Duncan abused foul plagued Chris Bosh inside en route to a team high 24 while grabbing 12 boards. The 37-year old is the greatest power forward to ever play. He wasn’t as dominant as Game Six but had a strong game. On a night where James bottled up Tony Parker (3-12 FG 10 Pts 4 A), the Heat’s attention to detail flustered Danny Green. The new Finals three-point record holder shot a dismal 1 of 12 and made only 1 of 6 three’s. They counted on second-year forward Kawhi Leonard. The 21-year old was brilliant finishing with 19 points and 16 rebounds. So versatile, he was able to guard James and even blow by him at times. He made an acrobatic reverse flip and converted at the line for a three-point play. He also hit his only trey answering Battier’s final one to put the Spurs within three late. Ginobili also hit a three and set up Duncan. San Antonio got a couple of stops and had a golden opportunity to tie it. But a Duncan flip wouldn’t go, eerily reminding of the painful 1995 Knicks memory of Patrick Ewing missing that finger roll against the Pacers. It was such an easy finish. One Duncan has made so many times. Perhaps symbolic.

James then made one more big jumper over Leonard. Then Ginobili panicked with the ball as he had in that fateful Game Six. As good a game as we’ve seen. James made free throws and the Heat put it away for a well deserved repeat. One fit for a King. The best player in the world silenced critics with an awesome display. When the final buzzer rang in South Beach, they didn’t go crazy. Instead, there was a nice scene where Popovich congratulated Spoelstra and then hugged LeBron and Wade, who both paid homage. This was as classy as it gets. The respect shown between competitors, who fought hard. There was no trash talk or technicals. Just great basketball. The kind the NBA could be proud of.

As it turned out, commissioner David Stern’s last year was a fitting conclusion to a great run. It’s easy to knock him but he took over and everything came together. The NBA’s popularity has grown worldwide. Everyone watches. He can be proud of the product. James finally taking the mantle and running with it. Fittingly, legend Bill Russell presented James the award named after the greatest champion the game’s ever seen. All this time later, Russell who went 10 for 10 with the famed Celtics still has the smile of a kid. A man who loved what he saw. Seeing him with LeBron was awesome. The second proving to be more challenging. The cynics remain. I guess they’ll always be there waiting to rain on James’ parade. He answered them perfectly, saying he wasn’t supposed to be here. A kid from Akron, Ohio who grew up on the inner streets made good. Time to celebrate him.

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Parker’s Clutch Shot

LeBron James and Heat teammates can only watch helplessly at the replay of Tony Parker's circus shot that clinched Game One for the Spurs.

LeBron James and Heat teammates can only watch helplessly at the replay of Tony Parker’s circus shot that clinched Game One for the Spurs.
Getty Images/Wilfredo Lee

 

On a night where the best player in the sport posted a triple double, Tony Parker stole the show. The heady All-Star point guard dominated the fourth quarter in San Antonio’s come from behind 92-88 win to steal home court away from Miami in Game One. He scored 12 of his 21 including a remarkable circus shot that banked in as the shot clock expired to put the game away with 5.5 seconds left. Replays showed that he just got it off.

Parker has been doing this high wire act throughout a brilliant career. He’s always been overlooked when it came to the NBA’s elite. There are many great ones in the league but the Spurs floor general truly defines what it means to be a point guard. His 21 and six dimes paced San Antonio. The man is a winner. Part of three NBA titles, he knows what it takes to win.

The Spurs outscored the Heat 23-16 in a dominant fourth. They prevailed in spite of LeBron James’ 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists. For three quarters, King James was masterful distributing, rebounding and scoring. If there’s one knock on him, sometimes he passes up shots for open teammates. The definition of an unselfish superstar puts too much trust in his supporting cast. Tonight, it failed him. They knocked down open shots in the first half, hitting six of eight treys. However, the gang couldn’t shoot straight when it counted. That included a critical three-point miss from perimeter oriented Chris Bosh with Miami down four. James drove the lane and kicked for Bosh, who clanged his fourth miss from downtown. If only he played closer to the rim. The softest part of the Big Three had 13 but only five boards.

Dwyane Wade had moments getting 15 of his 17 the first three quarters before offense dried up. Miami controlled the tempo in the first half but only led by three (52-49) after Gregg Popovich smartly reinserted Duncan with 0.8 seconds left so he could drain a mid-range jumper over Wade. The Heat should’ve been up more. After a shaky start in which the Spurs got out to a 9-2 start, they outplayed San Antonio the rest of the half. Despite leading by as much as nine, they never ran away from an experienced former champ who made enough shots to hang around. That’s what makes them tough. They didn’t shoot a great percentage (41.7 percent). They made one less three (7) than Miami (8). Gary Neal (1-5) chucked away while more formidable Danny Green knocked down four triples.

Kawhi Leonard did a decent job guarding LeBron. The second-year forward out of San Diego State still was able to record a double/double (10 & 10) despite drawing the toughest assignment. He got help when James posted. LeBron was happy to dish the ball with Ray Allen hitting three trifectas and Mario Chalmers notching a pair. The Heat got a solid outing from Norris Cole (5 Pts, 4 A), who hit a trey and got into the lane. Mike Miller even stepped out. Chris Andersen came off the bench for seven. It still didn’t matter because they didn’t execute in crunch time.

I don’t see any blowouts. Unlike most, these teams are tightly matched. The Spurs won’t get out-coached. They don’t give the ball away (4 turnovers) like Indiana and boast a bench. Manu Ginobili scored 11 of his 13 early and Neal added seven with Boris Diaw hitting a reverse. The Heat held the edge 30-22. But it wasn’t enough to offset Parker and old reliable Tim Duncan, who exposed his match-up by recording a double/double (20 & 14) with four assists and three blocks. During a big possession, the Big Fundamental wisely passed up a jumper and drove to draw the foul. He sank a pair. It’s that kind of championship caliber play you come to expect from one of the NBA’s all-time best.

One difference was that San Antonio placed four starters in double digits. The quartet of Parker, Duncan, Green and Leonard combined for 63 of their 92. Conversely, Miami’s Big Three totaled 48. Not enough to win. After scoring 52 in the first half, they only had 36 the rest of the way. Somehow, the Spurs slowed them down enough to draw first blood. Now, Game Two becomes a must win for the Heat. They can’t go down 0-2 with the prospect of the next three in San Antonio. Fittingly, it isn’t until Sunday giving each team plenty of time to recoup. As if they needed more days off.

It was a well played game in which two best teams combined for 12 turnovers. Like Erik Spoelstra concluded, “high octane basketball.” Miami had rebounding edge (46-37), assists (20-16) and shot slightly better (43.6 to 41.7). Neither went to the line much as the refs for a change, didn’t call every little thing. Miami made 12-of-17 free throws while San Antonio hit 15-of-18. Less fouls favors the Spurs. Expect the Heat to be more aggressive in Game Two. They must be.

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King James wills Heat past Knicks

King James goes airborn.

King James goes airborn. Copyright Getty Images

 

The Knicks almost made it three for three against the Heat. Unfortunately, Miami boasts the best player on the planet. Despite trailing by 14 at the half, the Heat came all the way back to beat the Knicks  99-93. LeBron James carried them to victory. King James did it all, scoring 29 while grabbing 11 rebounds and dropping seven dimes. It was his defensive play that lifted the Heat to a six-point win which extended their win streak to 14.

James made two consecutive treys at the beginning of the fourth quarter to tie the game. He also had a couple of steals along with a monster block on Tyson Chandler that swung the momentum. His rejection of Chandler led directly to a strong LeBron finish that extended Miami’s lead to four (91-87). While he hustled down court following a great defensive gem, Chandler wasted time complaining about no foul. That kind of selfish play is part of the Knicks’ problem. Had he gotten back, maybe LBJ doesn’t have an easy jam during crunch time.

Instead, James did what he does best running the floor. A J.R. Smith force from downtown led to another Heat score with James this time setting up Chris Bosh from 17 for 93-87. Too often, JR bombs away from beyond the arc. He misfired on 11-of-14 attempts. At least a couple down the stretch were poor shots that allowed the Heat to run out. Smith posted a double/double (13 and 12) but shot five for 18 from the field with three turnovers.

Carmelo Anthony scored 24 of his game high 32 in a strong first half. He only took one more shot than Smith but went 13-of-14 from the charity stripe. Melo also only took three three’s making one. A noticeable difference from JR’s chuck session. The three can be a weapon when utilized right. When the Knicks move the ball around, it works. Jason Kidd snapped out of a huge slump by knocking down four treys. In his new role off the bench, the future Hall Of Famer contributed 14, 8 and 6. Exactly what Mike Woodson needs from him the rest of the way. If there was one question mark, it was Woodson not playing Amar’e Stoudemire the final seven minutes. Stat added 12 (5-7 FG). He could’ve helped offensively. But Woodson opted to go with more D.

Ray Felton had nine. He came up with a couple of timely buckets that allowed the Knicks to stay within two. It was too much LeBron, Bosh and Dwyane Wade (20, 8, 8). The Heat made the same amount of three’s (8) in nine fewer attempts (20). Shane Battier was a perfect four-for-four from downtown en route to a dozen. It wasn’t Miami’s supporting cast that hurt New York. Only the terrific trio of LeBron, Wade and Bosh, who scored most of his 16 in the final stanza. As long as LeBron stays healthy, it’s hard to see anyone beating them in the East. He is playing at an all-time level shooting over 56 percent from the field and over 40 from three. The most dominant player since MJ.

The positive for the Knicks is they stayed with the Heat. Some better decisions late and they win. The negative is they blew a double digit lead. Once LeBron took over, that was it. His steal of a lazy Smith pass and punctuation jam was poetry in motion. What a player. Look what winning a title did for him. He is scarier than ever.

Many have taken to the airwaves bashing the Knicks. It’s easy to criticize their imperfections. What other team has pushed the Heat? The Knicks remain third in the East a half game behind the Pacers. They’re 35-21 and lead the Nets by three games. If they take care of business, they should finish no lower than either a two or three. Nobody is saying they can win a title this year. Whoever believed that due to the hot start is delusional. How many even thought they’d be in this position? The Atlantic was supposed to be a toss up. It’s still the Knicks’ division to win or lose.

They go on the road for the next two at Cleveland and Detroit. We’ll see how they respond.

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Knicks off and running

It’s been a great start for the Knicks in ’12-13. They’re a perfect 3-0, ranking as the NBA’s lone unbeaten. Most impressive was the home blowout of defending champion Miami in an emotional season opener following Hurricane Sandy. Carmelo Anthony gave a nice speech to New Yorkers at a packed Garden who still found a way to support their team.

Aside from Melo assuming a leadership role under Mike Woodson, the second-year Knick coach has his team playing defense. Anthony’s full out dive into the front row for a loose ball exemplifies how they’re playing. Ray Felton has looked good in his second stint in the Big Apple setting the tempo. Whether it’s distributing or scoring, he looks like he never should’ve left. Not that it was his fault as part of the Melo package from Denver.

While Felton’s done his part, there’s Jason Kidd doing his thing in the twilight of his career. Looks like the age of 40 is only a number for one of the league’s all-time great point guards. What I admire about J Kidd is his acceptance of a different role. Woodson has him playing the two and he hasn’t disappointed, draining clutch three’s while rebounding, finding open teammates and ball hawking. Kidd doesn’t get enough credit for his aggressive D. He was a key factor during the Mavericks’ 2011 NBA title over Miami, helping shutdown LeBron James. A decade since his days in New Jersey carrying the Nets to consecutive Finals Appearances, the man still has it. The best aspect is Woodson is limiting his minutes which should benefit the club long term.

A big reason for that is the heady play of 35-year old veteran Pablo Prigioni. The oldest NBA rookie has provided Woodson with a reliable third guard who can spell Kidd. He combines exceptional ball handling with adept vision, constantly getting into the lane to get teammates good shots. He also plays superb D which is perfect for Woodson’s stingier defensive strategy. In the recent sweep of the 76ers, Prigioni also demonstrated his touch, scoring 11 while dishing out six assists.

Along with underrated offseason addition Ronnie Brewer (previously with the Bulls), these Knicks are very deep. Most fun has been seeing another 40-year old Rasheed Wallace return without missing a beat. Sheed has been a breath of fresh air, dropping timely buckets from downtown while providing solid D in limited action. It’s amazing to see the former Tar Heel comeback after two years and he looks tip top.

Without Iman Shumpert and A’Mare Stoudemire, the Knicks have a different look under Woodson. And you can bet with Tyson Chandler continuing to dominate on the interior and Steve Novak dialing it up that they’ll only improve when Shump and AMare return. Even if that means Stoudemire off the bench, things look bright on Broadway.

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Random Musings

It’s a wonderful June Friday in NYC. The city that never sleeps. Summer is upon us. :) A look at some happenings in sports and whatever else floats around that membrane of ours.

1.The NBA Finals have been excellent. Two closely fought games between the Heat and Thunder with Miami returning the favor last night to hold off a furious OKC charge. Miami was again led by LeBron James, who finished with 30 points including a huge bucket that put them up six late. He also made all 12 of his free throws. A rarity for the three-time league MVP. James did just enough to offset Kevin Durant’s second straight fourth quarter eruption. Durant netted 16 of 32, nearly leading his team back from 17 down.

2.Dwyane Wade (24) and Chris Bosh (double double-16/15) played bigger roles in the win, giving Miami homecourt where they’ll return to South Beach for the first of three in a row Sunday. When the Big Three play like that, it’s almost impossible to beat them. Even if the Thunder made it interesting with Durant’s supporting cast Russell Westbrook and James Harden combining for 49, they’ll need to tighten up the screws in the first half to give themselves a shot. On the road, you’re more likely to get run out of the building. We’ll see what Scott Brooks comes up with.

3.There’s been a lot of talk about whether LeBron fouled Durant. At least the game’s top scorer put it to rest by opting to focus on how he missed the shot and took responsibility. Onto Game Three.

4.This past Monday, Rafael Nadal won his record-breaking seventh French Open at Roland Garros, coming back to take fourth set from world No.1 Novak Djokovic. Djoker had all the momentum the previous day before heavy rain finally forced a suspension of play. He had been down and out, trailing by two sets and a break before finding his game. From 0-2 down in the third set, he came storming back- rolling off eight straight games to get a set and lead by a break. It looked like the career Grand Slam seeker was going to pull it off. Especially with Rafa reacting poorly to the tough conditions. But play was finally halted and the greatest clay court player unseated Bjorn Borg to stand alone at the top in Paris. Who knows what might’ve happened if they completed the match the same day. Guess we’ll have to wait until Wimbledon.

4.On the women’s side, Maria Sharapova quietly went about her business to complete a career slam by straight setting surprise finalist Sara Errani (6-3, 6-2). An amazing accomplishment when you consider all the injuries the lanky Russian has had, including reconstructive shoulder surgery. Yet her she is reclaiming the top spot and achieving something special. Even if the competition wasn’t great due to Serena Williams bowing out with Kim Clijsters skipping the French and other upsets, Sharapova deserves her due. It was once thought that she could never win on the red clay. But she proved she could adjust, even getting the better of rival Victoria Azarenka in a tune up. Full credit to Masha.

5.Kirk Nieuwenheis has become an important piece for the Mets. The rookie outfielder slugged his first two-homer game in another win over the Rays to help his team recover from a three-game sweep in the Bronx by getting the better of the AL’s best pitching club. Not too shabby. While he’s not in the class of phenoms Bryce Harper or Mike Trout, the 24-year old is scrappy and represents what these Amazin’s are all about. A gritty player who can get on base, run and field. He’s what Terry Collins has instilled. A winning attitude, which is why the Mets sit in second behind Washington. Met magic.

6.The Yankees have been on fire lately, winners of six straight with a first place showdown against Harper and those Nats. It should be quite a series with both ballclubs playing well. Pitching has been a theme for the Yanks, who have gotten better outings from Ivan Nova and Phil Hughes to help out C.C. Sabathia and Andy Pettite. It seems to all be coming together with David Robertson back to set up Rafael Soriano. A-Rod is swinging a healthier bat with a huge grand slam to stun the Braves followed by a two-run clincher from Nick Swisher. The Bronx Bombers are back.

7.Congrats to Alex Rodriguez on tying Lou Gehrig for the most career grand salamis (23) in major league history. No matter what you think of him, he’s one of the all-time greats. You have to think he’ll get No.24 one day to be alone at the top.

8.If you ended the season today, Josh Hamilton would win AL MVP going away. Even if Adam Jones has been outstanding for the resurgent O’s. The Hamiltonian is a beast. He ranks second in batting average (.330), first in RBI’s (62) and tied with Adam Dunn for tops in home runs (22). Those are major league rankings. Imagine what he could’ve done for Tampa Bay had he been clean.

9.Kudos to Matt Cain for becoming the first pitcher in Giants history to toss a perfect game, striking out 14. The most ever in a perfecto. Unbelievable. There’s a reason why he’s surpassed Tim Lincecum, who continues to struggle in his walk year. Take out Lincecum’s starts and the Giants could very well lead the Dodgers. Odd. Is something wrong or is the former two-time NL Cy Young not the same? Maybe it’s the pressure. If he puts it together, watch out.

10.This is brought to you by Budweiser. Though Omaha Royals may want to pass here:

Melky Cabrera .363 5 HR 31 RBI 10 SB 91 H 46 R

Jonathan Sanchez 1-2 5.93 ERA 30.1 IP 32 H 24 BB 22 K

11.Go watch the Euro Cup. You won’t be disappointed! Especially if you love soccer. Besides, it’s not Team USA. :P

12.Tiger Woods is one under in Round Two of the US Open, trailing by three. I’ve never been a big Tiger guy but he does make golf compelling. The A-Rod of golf. I’m more of a Phil Mickelson fan. I like Lefty’s emotion.

13.You wake up late for school but you don’t want to go

You tell your Mom please but she still says no

A couple of buddies weren’t able to get this when I texted the first line. You gotta be kidding! :D

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NBA Finals: LeBron, Heat take on Durant, Thunder in Dream Match Up

Tomorrow night, electricity will be in the air at Oklahoma City. Or to be more precise, at Chesapeake Energy Arena when the Thunder take on the Heat in a much anticipated NBA Finals. It pits the two best teams against each other.

The way OKC dispatched of San Antonio in winning four straight to comeback from an 0-2 deficit makes them every bit a battle tested opponent against Miami. In beating the Mavs, Lakers and Spurs, the Thunder took out the Western powers who dominated the last decade, combining for nine NBA titles. Simply stated, the younger Thunder displayed why they’re ready for the big stage with Game One slated for Tuesday with tipoff after 9 EST (6 PST).

Led by closer Kevin Durant, the OKC poses a threat to LeBron James’ third crack at winning a championship. While he has formed a dynamic duo with Dwyane Wade and third trio member Chris Bosh, who was instrumental in helping them close out the Celtics, Durant has his own sidekicks in point guard Russell Westbrook and the NBA’s best Sixth Man James Harden. Arguably the two best players on the planet will go head-to-head along with some of the league’s top stars, which should make this an appealing match-up for fans.

There’s no doubt that ABC should draw great ratings with two of the premier teams who could be at the beginning of a classic rivalry. The Thunder are actually younger, which means it probably won’t be the last time we see them here. Durant, Westbrook and Harden also boast a supporting cast that includes defensive pest Serge Ibaka and vet champion Derek Fisher, who they acquired from the Lakers in a three-team deadline deal. Fish may not be what he once was but still was money in draining a deep corner three that all but finished the Spurs. Toss in the electrifying Harden, who consistently blows by defenders for easy finishes and also has the uncanny ability to step back and knock it down and you have a good challenge for Miami.

In fact, odds makers have made the Thunder an 8-5 favorite despite this being the Heat’s second consecutive trip to the Finals. Last year, they fell in six to Dirk Nowitzki and Dallas, whose experience was the difference. Could the same thing happen in this series for Pat Riley’s hungry group who won’t stop until they get the ring? Much depends on Bosh’s health. He finished strong against Boston, doing them in for 18 including a huge three that put them up four. Bosh will have to play big to offset OKC’s size edge. They’re especially tough on the glass, frequently getting second chances. Plus Ibaka’s presence along with ex-Celtic Kendrick Perkins poses more of a challenge for LeBron and Wade near the basket.

Both teams are capable of shutting down offenses. Each plays tenacious D and are cardinal copies of each other in transition. You’re looking at the best two teams on the fast break. Whoever can limit turnovers and execute in the half court could determine the winner.

Miami also has key cogs Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier, who both find ways to get their points due to how much attention the Big Three draw. Chalmers is most effective in transition but can also knock down the three while Battier is the Heat’s most dangerous player from downtown. The former Duke standout has been superb, especially in helping spark the Heat back in Game Seven versus Boston. His four treys really allowed James, Wade and Bosh to take over.

Miami will also need contributions from Joel Anthony, who’s a good defender. It’s still uncertain if Bosh will start. So, Erik Spoelstra will need one of his bigs to play tough. Mike Miller also can shoot it but has been quiet.

Scott Brooks also will use defensive stopper Thefo Sefolosha off the bench. He’ll get important minutes along with Nick Collison, who’s effective on the offensive glass.

Series Prediction: This is a toss up between two great teams. But the way James is playing makes me think it’s finally his time. He’s sick of all the ridiculous questions. I picked Miami to win it all at the start and am not changing.

HEAT IN SEVEN

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LeBron answers critics

Last night, the pressure was squarely on his shoulders. Facing elimination against the old and older Celtics, LeBron James took it upon himself to carry the Heat to a convincing 98-79 Game Six win at TD Garden- forcing a do-or-die Game Seven that’ll get played tomorrow in Miami.

Nobody comes under more scrutiny than LeBron, who chose the Heat two summers ago on that dopey The Decision. Not exactly the best way to win fans over. It’s no wonder there are so many haters, including myself who thought it lacked class. Putting that aside, this is his second year with Miami. He put together an MVP season, winning the third of his career. It was well deserved. James carried the Heat after partner in crime Dwyane Wade missed action. He catapulted to the top over Kevin Durant and our darkhorse Tony Parker.

Since entering the league, LeBron has been the most covered superstar with everyone waiting for him to win championships. In Cleveland, he once put them on his back in an amazing performance to defeat Detroit. A game in which he scored 25 consecutive points en route to 48. The Cavs were no match for the Spurs, losing in four straight. They never made it back to the Finals, prompting James to “take his talents” to South Beach. A phrase that came off so arrogant, it infuriated fans. Maybe that’s who he is. Aloof. Not realizing how it would be perceived.

Regardless, James went to Miami teaming with Wade and Chris Bosh to form the top trio in basketball. They blitzed through the East last year, ousting the Celtics in five and then overwhelming the Bulls. However, when the chips were down they fell apart against the Mavericks- losing the series in six. One in which LeBron struggled mightily in crunch time. He received heavy criticism for his disappearing act with many wondering what happened to the game’s most dominant player.

Fast forward to now and here are the Heat with all the pressure again. Everybody expects them to win. The Knicks were no match in Round One. They were pushed by Indiana without Bosh before James and Wade took over, taking the last three games for a six-game series win. Boston had just edged the 76ers in a tight seven-game series that figured to give Miami a decided edge. The first two games showed that as they won both to go up 2-0.

But nobody told the Celtics they were done. Instead, the more experienced championship team won the next two games to hold serve. The Heat’s performance in Game Three was miserable. So bad that buddy John Giagnorio couldn’t watch. Monumental. In Game Four, they rallied from 18 down to force overtime, even having a chance to win at the end of regulation. But James passed up on an opportunity. The OT saw both him and Paul Pierce foul out on questionable charges. Both players flopped. It was the Celts who prevailed in a lowscoring 4-2 OT to level the series.

Game Five was supposed to go according to plan. The Heat would use their homecourt to overpower the Celtics. However, Boston had other ideas getting a clutch performance from Rajon Rondo despite not shooting it well. Of his 13 assists, none were better than a tip pass off an interception right to Mikel Pietrus for a huge trey that put them within 79-76. Pietrus also sank another three on his way to 13 off the bench. The dagger came from Paul Pierce, who drained one from downtown over LeBron for a four-point lead in the final minute. The Celts held off the Heat to steal home court, getting a chance to clinch yesterday.

James had 30 points and his usual numbers across the sheet but came under fire for going over seven minutes without a field goal in the fourth quarter. Many claimed it was the same old LeBron. Unable to lift his game when it mattered most. The crazy amount of bashers who had all but written off the three-time MVP made us think he would deliver Thursday. That he did by dominating from start to finish.

James was unstoppable, scoring 45 of his team’s 98 in a statement game. He did it the way his idol Michael Jordan did so many times for Chicago. Scoring in a variety of ways inside and out along with his undeniable transition that turned the Celts into tortoises. This was the kind of game we expected. A performance for the ages. At one point in the first half with his team comfortably in front by 13, LeBron had three less points (24) than Boston (27). He finished the half with 30. The Celts hung around thanks to Rondo.

But if he was going to get it done, James didn’t take off the accelerator. With Wade finally getting going, they turned a nine-point game into a laugher. On an unforgettable night, he went 19-for-26 from the field while adding 15 boards and five assists. He still involved teammates but it was his aggressiveness that won the game. The biggest one of his career. One that left us breathless.

Knock him all you want. But that was a fantastic game from a hungry guy who wants to win an NBA title. He’s been hearing about it for years. Now, the Heat go home Saturday and try to close out the Celtics. Don’t rule them out. They were sent off by supportive Boston fans who chanted, “Let’s Go Celtics,” as basically an appreciation for what they’ve gotten out of an older cast that very well could change if Miami finishes them off. Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen aren’t the same. It’s Rondo’s team. He gives them the best chance along with Pierce, who should be better.

That said, it’s Miami’s series to win or lose. LeBron’s time. A shot at redemption with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden waiting along with the rest of a very strong Thunder team who stunned the Spurs by rallying from 0-2 down- taking the last four to make their first trip to the NBA Finals. All James, Wade and the rest of the Heat have to do is win tomorrow and we get the two best teams in what could amount to a classic match-up.

We’ll see if LeBron and Co. have what it takes.

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Novak and Rafa give memorable show down under

It’s rare that a game can captivate the audience. The best contests are ones played at the highest stakes. Recent Super Bowl memories involving my Giants, who once again will play the Patriots four years later, come to mind. Most notably, last year’s World Series that saw the Cards down to their final out in Game Six only to break Texas hearts in epic fashion. You never know when you’re going to see a game for the ages that won’t ever be forgotten.

I’ve always been a huge tennis fan. Grew up playing it and idolizing Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. A classic 80′s kid who always rooted against Ivan Lendl. To my kid eyes, he was the bad guy who wrecked more U.S. Opens for Connors and McEnroe. Back then, that’s just how it was. Sports were different. More patriotic. Good versus evil. Now, almost all athletes are embraced unless you turn your back on a city like LeBron James, fitting the classic bad guy role to a tee in Miami. The kind of story big media companies like ESPN need for ratings. Milk it for all its worth. All week, we’ll hear about Eli Manning and Tom Brady. Can Brady exact revenge four years later or will Eli etch his name in stone among great quarterbacks by winning a second Super Bowl, joining the likes of Starr, Bradshaw, Montana and Elway to rattle off a few. Only Brady and Ben Roethlisberger are active QBs that’ve won at least two Super Bowls.

While the debate will go all the way up to game time, we’ll devote this space to a new tennis rivalry born following an epic match played between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. In the longest played grand slam final in the Open Era, Djokovic repeated as champion by prevailing in five grueling sets over Nadal, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5, capturing his second consecutive Australian Open (third down under). A match that featured twists and turns along with death defying rallies which even left us breathless lasted a ridiculous five hours and fifty-three minutes. To put that into perspective, most hockey and basketball games take at most two and a half hours. The only thing that compares is an epic NHL playoff game that goes four overtimes, keeping fans up into early hours.

The difference is neither Djokovic or Nadal had an extended period off. Aside from a brief rain delay before they closed the roof at Melbourne Park, the two combatants only used changeovers to replenish energy burnt. Some games take forever to complete due to the ferocity of the points. It’s those that go to multiple deuces and see groundstroke for groundstroke matched along with running fit for a marathon that mesmerize tennis fans. Beside the physical toll it takes, there’s also the mental battle as well which see both players go through peaks and valleys. For two straight sets, the defending champion from Serbia had the No.2 ranked Spaniard on the ropes, pinning him six feet behind the baseline with heavy forehands and backhands struck with such force and precision that it was a miracle Nadal got most back. Having beaten Rafa in six straight finals, Nole had the mental edge. Serve big and go for broke, often to Nadal’s backhand where the errors have come. If not, then a short reply allowed Djoker to pounce as he did with a thumping forehand up the line to clinch an easy third set.

Would Nadal wilt under all the pressure? He’d lost to Djokovic at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open after defeating Roger Federer at the French. Federer did him a huge favor last year, ending Djokovic’s 43-match win streak with a tremendous semifinal triumph to reach the final at Roland Garros. Speaking of Federer, he hasn’t won a slam since the 2010 Australian Open- meaning that either Nadal (2 Frenches, Wimbledon and U.S. Open) or Djokovic (2 Australians, Wimbledon and U.S. Open) have shared the last eight. Rafa beat his top rival in four sets by again outbattling Federer, who blew a set and break lead. Another chink in the armor of the all-time winningest grand slam champion who still holds the record with 16. As Roger hits his 30′s, the question lingers whether he can add one more with Djokovic No.1 in the world while Nadal chases much like he did with Federer. Toss Andy Murray into the mix, who only took Djokovic five sets before falling in another crazy semifinal, and that’s three younger players who all pose a threat to the Maestro.

Sometimes, when you’re back’s against the wall, you let go. Djokovic was able to do that against Federer down match point at their memorable U.S. Open semifinal last Fall. The sound of that return winner crosscourt still can be heard along with a wild eruption from a mostly pro-Federer Arthur Ashe swayed by Novak to lend him support. Federer was never the same in body language and mind, allowing the more determined player to pull off the comeback. It’s what Nole does best. If he’s not overpowering opponents with unbelievable shots off full out sprints, Djoker is causing chaos with the best return in the game, constantly applying pressure. Andre Agassi was the standard when it came to returning with only Connors better. Djokovic might already be better than Andre. He’ll turn 25 later this year and now has gone from one major to five in a year. Amazing how things change. The confidence with which he plays with allows him to believe he can pull out any match no matter the pressure. Even if his legs start to weaken as was the case Sunday night, Nole is able to find that extra gear. 

In the previous six losses, Nadal was unable to push back against Djokovic. He never put him in a vulnerable position. However, his focus was incredible during a tight fourth set where he needed to hold serve every time. While Novak held much easier, Rafa’s games were a struggle but never more so than when he was love-40 with basically three match points for Djokovic. One foul up and it was curtains as ESPN team Chris Fowler, Patrick McEnroe and Brad Gilbert concluded. Instead of giving in, there was Rafa fighting with that warrior’s spirit that makes him such a crowd pleaser. Running down shots and then ripping an inside out forehand just out of Djokovic’s reach to ward off a second break chance, followed by a surprising backhand down the line that wrong footed the defending champ. Nadal saved all four break points by elevating his game. He served bigger and went for his shots. Something that hadn’t happened enough against the man we call Djoker. Only there’s nothing to joke about following one of the greatest seasons in tennis history.

The thing that made you love Rafa’s fight was his spirit, pumping his fists after every big point won, which brought the crowd into it. It would’ve been easier to just cave into Novak’s pressure. Nobody plays a more aggressive and electrifying style. The shots he pulls off border on insanity. If one had caught any of his five set epic against the equally shot making Murray, you would’ve been tired just watching. The angles both men found were jaw dropping. Nadal is the same way, able to run down would be winners and rip that forehand for his own like he again did to Federer at crucial moments. Djokovic kept pounding the ball to each side, forcing Rafa to scramble the entire fourth set only to see them returned with incredible pace. In the tiebreak, Novak had a 5-3 minibreak lead and was two points away from avoiding the climatic final set. But a resilient Rafa wasn’t ready to die, coming back to win the last four points, including a wild miss from Djokovic that was forced due to all the hustle.

When you watch these two play, there really isn’t much that separates them. Both do an awful lot of running to hit the extra shot. But Djokovic is more consistent at continuing to up the ante. Nadal flattened out his backhand more down the stretch but any time he left that slice backhand short, it was punished. Still, there was Rafa in position to finally beat Novak. He finally had gotten into a fifth set. Unchartered territory when they played. When Nadal broke Djokovic for 4-2, the crowd went wild thinking the obvious. It looked like Rafa would finally prevail. And really, it was his match to win or lose at that point. Djokovic had been broken and looked the worse for wear.

Only an amazing thing happened. A miscue from Nadal proved critical. Leading 30-15 in the seventh game with a chance to consolidate the break, Rafa missed a routine backhand wide with Djokovic toast. Nole had hustled to get one more shot over the net for Nadal and sometimes, that kinda yeoman effort pays off. We saw it on a Novak errant overhead moments later. However, it was Nadal who had an open court and missed the backhand down the line. With the crowd not realizing it, the correct call was made. Even if a desperate Rafa challenged. Replays confirmed a rarity. That a linesman got it right with the ball three inches wide. The point allowed Djokovic to breathe. He used the momentum to take the next two points and break back. Something which was a common theme in his win in New York City last September. Nadal never put him away. If he makes that shot, who knows. It really might’ve been a different outcome.

Given new life, Djokovic held easily for four all and then Nadal replied with his own hold for 5-4. But with the pressure squarely on his shoulders, Novak did his part to again level it five apiece. That’s when he turned up the heat one last time to break Rafa for 6-5. No matter how out of it he looks, you can never count out Djokovic. He pulled the same act against Federer. The man has an incredible hunger to win. He wants to prove he’s the best. If ever there was a testament to it, it came that final game. Nadal didn’t quit. Instead, he had a break point to once again get back on serve. But Djokovic saved it and then pointed to his chest and said a prayer which probably was, ‘I can do it. Please let me end this.‘ It was amusing. Nadal then got a bad break on a net cord which killed his cross court backhand from staying in, setting up championship point.

One final time, Djokovic dialed up a big serve up the tee that had a short reply from Nadal, allowing Novak to rip one more forehand winner to finally end one of the greatest matches ever. FIVE HOURS FIFTY THREE MINUTES!

A triumphant Djokovic fell flat on his back before ripping his shirt off and running to his cheering section that included long-term girlfriend Jelena Ristic. Some high fives were exchanged with his coach and team that have helped turn around his career from one hit wonder to best in the world. Pretty cool. Even cooler (well not really) was how exhausted both men were while the ceremony was going on. Each using the net to rest their legs with both on the verge of collapsing before the Australian Open team supplied chairs and large Evian water bottles. It really was bizarre. Still, they weren’t about to miss tennis legend Rod Laver, who presented them with their rewards. For Nadal, a runner’s up crown that he could be proud of while for Djokovic, another large trophy to add to his collection.

Despite being weary, both made nice speeches with each paying the other proper respect for the memorable match they had just played. A new rivalry has been born. Even if it’s been all Djokovic lately, this was the kinda day where there were no losers. Only winners, which would make Gene Hackman’s classic Norman Dale Hoosiers character proud. Maybe we’ll finally get Rafa vs Nole at the French. If only it weren’t so far away. For now, every tennis fan can be proud.

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Celts can’t keep LeBron down forever

Tried as they did, the Boston Celtics couldn’t succeed at keeping Cavalier superstar LeBron James down forever. Despite another poor shooting night, the league’s leading regular season scorer was able to break loose in crunch time to push his team past Doc Rivers’ top seeded Celts last night to take Game Four 88-77 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

The series story had been James’ cool shooting. But when push came to shove, the riveting 23 year-old Akron, Ohio native sprung to life adding more “Witnesses” to his Nike campaign. With the two defensive minded Eastern foes locked in another low scoring battle, LeBron put together a good stretch to lift his team to a second straight victory holding serve on their home court to send the series back to Boston knotted at two apiece.

Unable to locate the range, James finally got untracked off a perfect pick n’ roll using Anderson Varejao’s screen to drain an uncontested triple in front of the Boston bench giving his team a 79-73 lead with over three minutes remaining. Following a tough Paul Pierce make inside, James setup Daniel Gibson for another trey from almost the identical spot. Mike Brown’s Cavs then played outstanding defense forcing the Celts into a miss. On the other end, James finally came off a double screen putting a facial dunk on NBA Defensive Player of The Year Kevin Garnett to make it 84-75.

It was just an awesome finish by one of the game’s very best. LeBron finished with 21 points and 13 assists- both game highs. Yes. Despite only shooting 7-of-20 from the floor, he was the only player who topped 20 speaking to just how physical the game was. It’s made for a very ugly brand of basketball. Neither is particularly good in the halfcourt offensively. Both play excellent D and make it very hard on the other to get good shots.

Does anyone else find it hysterical that these same Celtics had the league’s best record winning 66 games? They are now 0-for-5 on the road in the playoffs. They had to go seven before finally putting away the Hawks and look like they might be headed that same route.

It just seems like none of their Big Three which was swatted aside by TNT’s Magic Johnson want to take the big shot. Who out of Garnett (9 of 15 in 1st qtr), Pierce (three fourth qtr buckets, 13 pts) and Ray Allen (15, 4-of-10 FG, two 3′s) is going to step up and take control? Have to also agree with Magic that Rajon Rondo (7-of-14 FG, 15 pts) shouldn’t be taking more shots than either KG or Allen.

The Cavs have no such problem with the ball always in LeBron’s hands to either take the shot or setup open teammates. He made better decisions down the stretch winding up with four of his 13 assists in a 20-12 quarter which they controlled.

Cleveland got solid contributions from their bench which outscored Boston 36-17. Gibson had his best game of the series hitting a pair of trifectas while notching 14, six boards and four assists in 27-plus. Varejao also played excellent on both ends finishing with 12 points and six rebounds along with splendid D on Garnett. Ex-Bull Joe Smith added eight points and six boards.

Now, the series shifts back to Beantown where the pressure will be all on the Celtics to hold serve. If they don’t, it could be back-to-back comebacks from 0-2 down for LeBron’s Cavs. Last year, they victimized the Pistons to reach the NBA Finals.

How will the Celts respond? Tomorrow night should be fun.

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Celts edge mistake prone LeBron and Cavs in ugly affair

Defense wins championships. Fair enough. But what about being able to score the ball? That’s how ugly Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinal between the Cavs and Celtics was at TD Banknorth Garden last night which saw Kevin Garnett and the home team grit out a 76-72 win to take a 1-0 series lead.

Despite an awful third quarter in which they scored only 12 points (27 combined), the Celts still had enough to get the better of an ice cold LeBron James and the Cavs, outscoring them 23-20 in the determining final quarter. Savvy veteran Sam Cassell came off the bench for 10 of his 13 including a couple of big three’s and two free throws after flopping to the floor while frustrated Cav big man Zydrunas Ilgauskas protested and snuck in a late kick to the face.

The Cleveland center kept his team’s chances of stealing the home court alive by tipping home a James miss to tie the score at 72. On a night where James was stifled by Boston’s swarming defense into an abysmal 2-for-18 night which included an unLebron-like 10 turnovers, Ilgauskas picked up the slack scoring a team high 22 (8-of-18 FG, 6-of-6 FT) and pulling down 12 rebounds.

Even though the Cavs played their own brand of outstanding D completly shutting down Ray Allen (first ever career goose egg, 0-of-4 FG, 0-of-3 3′s, 4 TO) and neutralizing Paul Pierce (4 pts, 2-of-14 FG, 0-of-3 3′s, 6 TO), they were unable to contain Garnett, who scored the last of his game high 28 by overpowering mismatch Joe Smith for an easy lay-in with a shade under 24 seconds left to break a tie game. Here’s a question. What the heck was the undersized Smith doing in there trying to guard KG in the post? Shouldn’t Mike Brown have subbed Ben Wallace back in?

Following a full timeout, LeBron still had a chance to atone for a brutal shooting night. He had made his first field goal for 2-0 and then didn’t make another until a driving reverse lay-up with over five and a half remaining in the game. Now, he got the ball at the top of the key and drove past the Boston double for what looked like an easy tying lay-in. Instead, the ball didn’t go down caroming back out to James Posey with 8.5 seconds left. The key Boston sub sealed the game with two free throws completing an 8-point outing which as usual included a couple from downtown.

It all added up to an ugly Celtic Game One victory which the home crowd still loved. It sure didn’t remind you of two decades ago though when Bird, McHale, Parrish and DJ were all money at the old Boston Garden on that parquet floor. I can still recall that classic Cheers episode where McHale screwed with the bolts in the floor and tripped over it during a game. :lol:

Regardless of how they won with Allen and Pierce having games to forget, the Celtics won’t give this one back. You have to expect them to be better along with LeBron.

I just hope we see better offensive execution in the halfcourt because it was tough on the eyes. 

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