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LEBROCALYPSE 2014: How LeBron Made ‘Best Player Alive’ A Brand

Jun 15, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) calls a play during the first quarter against the San Antonio Spurs in game five of the 2014 NBA Finals at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The phrase "LeBron James free agency" continues LeBron's decision to make "Best Player Alive" a brand -- and one that he controls, regardless of others.

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STS Roundtable: NBA Finals

Happy Finals Day!

Today, Saving the Skyhook kicks off our Finals coverage with some very exciting news. We have three new writers joining the team today: Alex McNamee, Neil Noonan and Scott Campsall. Blake and I have been reading their stuff, and we’re pumped to have these guys join the team. You’re going to enjoy what they can do. In the coming days, we’ll be updating the site’s About Us page with their information, but for now, we have a Finals Roundtable for you to pursue while you wait for tonight’s game (9pm ET, ABC).

Give this a read, and please welcome the team to the site!

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Boston Must Rely on Ability to Forget

June 15, 2010 - Los Angeles, CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES - epa02204141 Boston Celtics

Source: Yardbarker.com

It all comes down to this: a monumental Game 7 in Southern California pitting the two sides of the greatest rivalry in the history of professional basketball — and things couldn’t appear worse for the Boston Celtics.

Momentum swings of this magnitude don’t come along very often, but the immediate evaporation of hope between a pivotal Game 5 than the Celtics took and the Lakers’ tactical thrashing of the Green on Tuesday night is absolutely palpable. Lakers fans were biting their lips; now they’re screaming their lungs out. It’s not a great site for Celtics fans.

But before the two teams suit up and take the court Thursday, looking on as Kobe Bryant ruthlessly salivates — looking for the kill and and tasting his fifth championship ring — Boston must come to grips with something: they can still do it. If they don’t have that positive attitude going in, they might as well sit the game out. Starting fresh and forgetting about the past is the only way to even conceive of taking this title. The Celtics forgot in 2008.

They forgot the years of being the laughingstock of the entire league. They forgot the times of inferior personnel, poor game execution, and ineffective coaching. They went in with the sentiment that it’s just another year. They brought on Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and they didn’t miss a beat. They were a powerhouse again, and they won the title.

The Celtics forgot in the 2009 playoffs. Garnett, their rock, couldn’t play. They didn’t dwell on that. They didn’t sulk. They put it behind them and fought with toughness and grit to the very end. They may not have won the championship last year, but they nearly ousted the heavily favored Orlando Magic thanks to great bench play and a focused mind.

The Celtics forgot in 2010. No one expected anything of Boston by midseason. They weren’t playing with heart, passion, or inspiration the squad had become anonymous with. They were washed up. The days of their domination were over. They were nothing. They had no chance. They limped into the playoffs with a mere No. 4 seed. Then they forgot. They didn’t care what they did or didn’t do during the season. They made the corrections when the time was right, getting back to the core principles that made them winners in the first place. They shocked Cleveland. They shocked Orlando. And they were on the way to shocking L.A.

With an over-the-back foul and an awkward step it was all gone. Kendrick Perkins went crashing down to the floor with the weight of Bill Russell, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Larry Bird on his shoulders. It was a demoralizing moment. The key to an unforgiving defense and an unquestioned embracer of defense was gone, writing in pain the locker room. Boston took to heart the absence of their big man, and Kobe took advantage, surgically dismantling the champions in front of his eyes.

Now it’s Game 7, and the Celtics have two choices: fold and go home or put up a fight.

I’m betting they decide to forget.

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For Nash, a chance to cement his legacy

Steve Nash is one of the the finest competitors the NBA has ever seen.

There isn’t much Steve Nash can’t do.

The Phoenix Suns point guard is a wizard with the basketball, eliciting more “ooh”s and “ah”s on a nightly basis than one might expect from a 36-year-old hailing from Canada. Nevertheless, his gift for the game is palpable. And like so few others before him, Nash has managed to seamlessly integrate individual skills with the success of his team in the absence of even slight egotism or entitlement.

His passing ability is immaculate. Nash currently resides in eighth among the list of all-time assist leaders, and one more healthy season could allow him to supplant Gary Payton and Isiah Thomas on that leader board. But the sheer number of dimes doesn’t tell the whole story. His assortment of behind-the-back, no-look, through-the-legs, side-winding, and alley-oop dishes has made him the envy of even the staunchest critics and transformed his Suns team into the best squad in the league to watch for six seasons and counting.

His pick-and-roll game is delightful. It is no less certain that Nash will thread the ball to a diving Amar’e Stoudemire after a well-set pick than it is that Rasheed Wallace will be whistled for a technical foul during the season, but that is what makes Nash’s talent so admirable. Despite the benefit of expectation, any defense will be burned by that play. Nash is so in tune with every move his power forward will make that the pass is simply unstoppable. He is so adept, that he ranks as possibly the greatest executor of this scheme, with the exception of John Stockton, maybe. But that’s not bad company, to be sure.

Nash’s dominance, though, stems not from just his exceptional distribution; instead, it is his collective dynamism and versatility that pave the way for his excellence. A key facet of that protean nature is his deadly yet gorgeous shooting stroke. Most of his long jumpers come off the dribble; give him an open catch-and-shoot look, and it is probably going in. Nash is so good shooting the ball, in fact, that ESPN’s John Hollinger went so far as to rank him the NBA’s best of all-time — above the greats like Reggie Miller, Steve Kerr, and Larry Bird, who were much more renowned for their accuracy.

And that assertion was certainly grounded in stats, as all Hollinger’s analyses are. Nash is a four-time member of the 50-40-90 club (50 percent shooting, 40 percent three-point shooting, 90 percent free-throw shooting) and would have accomplished that feat a fifth time with another tenth of a percentage point on his free-throw average in 2006-2007. The other members of the club? Bird, Miller, Mark Price, Dirk Nowitzki, and Jose Calderon — and the only one of them to achieve it even twice was Bird.

Nash already overcame one barrier in dispatching the Spurs. Is this the year he comes away with a championship?

His free-throw stroke is one of the most admired in the sport. He calmly steps to the line, politely denies the ball from the referee, takes two empty-handed simulated attempts, then drills the actual ones 90 percent of the time.

All that said, passing and shooting do not complete Nash’s offensive game, as his intangible skills are just as pivotal to his success as his ball handling. Nash is so focused on the game that he never misses a beat. He is constantly aware of the position on the floor of each of his four teammates and each of his five defenders. He knows exactly where to put the ball at any given time, when to put the team on his back and control the offense, and how much time is on the clock — that all comes second nature to Nash.

More crucial than all of that, though, is his unremitting desire to win. That is represented well in his willingness to play hurt (with a gushing nose or swollen eye), his willingness to take the last shot, and his overall stoic demeanor on the court.

So where has all this gotten Nash as an individual? He, of course, boasts two league MVP awards, from 2005 and 2006, and fell just short of securing a third straight in falling to his former teammate Nowitzki. He is also hailed as one of the greatest point guards of all time.

Nonetheless, as he and the Suns prepare to square off against the Lakers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals tonight, there is a conspicuous scarlet letter that continues to brand Nash.

He has never won an NBA championship.

In fact, he has amassed the most career playoff games (112) of any NBA player without even making it into the NBA Finals. Amid all the talented players in the league right now, there is no honor more important to a player’s patrimony than the number of titles he secures for himself. As LeBron James and Kobe Bryant continue to wrestle for the crown of league’s best player, the one fault of LeBron than holdouts accentuate is his lingering failure to come away on top when it counts.

When Nash and his crew take the floor Monday night, the hunger for a win will be more evident. Clear underdogs against the juggernaut Lakers, the Suns will have to play flawless basketball to dethrone the defending champs, and Nash will have to play a prominent role.

In a recent interview with Michael Wilbon, Nash downplayed the importance of individual regalia.

“At this stage of my career, the only goals worth chasing are team goals. To win a championship is still the greatest thing to play for and the greatest motivator. So it’s a fantastic situation right now, where this team that wasn’t expected to get here is here and we got a real chance,” he said.

If Nash and the Suns can come out on top, the fruit will be that much sweeter. After all, they are coming off an improbable series sweep over the San Antonio Spurs, who had previously plagued the Suns in the postseason this decade.

Ousting the Lakers, knocking the championship monkey off his back, and finally enshrining himself in the peak tier of NBA greats in the process?

That’s an accomplishment worth being selfish about.

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Magic and Bird: who was more key to his team’s success?

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were two of the NBA's finest in the 1980s.

I know it seems somewhat out of place and random for me to be flipping through the history books on a Tuesday afternoon, but my professor brought up the Lakers-Celtics rivalry (and Magic Johnson in particular) in class today. He discussed why Jerry Buss selected Johnson over Bird in the 1979 draft, underscoring how Magic had the ability to both dominate on an individual basis and also make his teammates better, while commanding more star power than Bird did.

So I said, “But Larry Bird was a bigger key to the Celtics’ success than Magic was to the Lakers’.” He responded, “No, he wasn’t.”

Obviously, I couldn’t get in to an argument with him in the middle of his lecture, so I conceded, but what better argument to make today than the very one that came up by accident. Also, it’s somewhat relevant given the documentary HBO recently released on this storied rivalry. So here I go.

I do admit that Magic certainly was more of a “star” than Bird. He played with more flash, more thrill, and he was much more athletic (but Tim Duncan’s lack of star power didn’t stop the Spurs from drafting him first overall in 1997, did it? And how did that turn out for them?). Nevertheless, the star power isn’t what gets Ws up on the board. That comes from basketball production. So in examining who had the greater impact on his team, let’s look first at the pure statistics.

Magic Johnson: 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 1.9 steals, 3.9 turnovers.

Larry Bird: 24.3 points, 10 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 3.1 turnovers.

Looking at these stats, it’s safe to say that Bird was the better scorer and rebounder. That said, Magic played (for the most part) point guard, where he has to commit just as much to making his teammates better. As you can see, Magic clearly outdistanced Bird in assists — but you don’t expect your scoring small/power forward to be racking up over six a game either (unless he’s LeBron James), so Bird stood out in that category.

Based on the stats alone, the difference between their respective influences is essentially negligible.

Moving on to the hardware, Magic won five NBA championships with the Lakers, while Bird won only three with the Celtics. Each of them won three MVP awards over the course of their careers. Certainly the higher number of rings reflects well on Magic, but we don’t christen Robert Horry (with seven rings) better than LeBron (with zero), do we? So I still consider them to be basically even with the championships taken into consideration.

The real discrepancy emerges, in my opinion, after an examination of each of the player’s supporting casts during their heydays. Larry Bird and the Celtics had Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Tiny Archibald, but Magic sported such figures as James Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes, Michael Cooper, and … Oh, yeah. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. My professor asserted that it wasn’t these players that allowed Magic to shine but that it was the other way around. He made them all the great players they were. While point guards certainly can make their players a lot better, he vastly overstated Magic’s, well, magic. To suggest that Johnson made Kareem the best scorer in the history of basketball is just untrue.

Besides the fact that he came into the league about eight years before Magic during which he played, by far, his best ball, Kareem featured a skill set the success of which was not really dependent on a talented point guard. He was so successful because he mastered the most indefensible shot in basketball — the skyhook.

Furthermore, it’s evident that Magic’s game was affected more by his teammates than theirs were by him. When you’re surrounded by fantastic scorers and finishers, it becomes a hell of a lot easier to pick up assists. Take a look at Steve Nash, one of the greatest point guards this decade. He plays a few seasons for the Mavericks and plays respectable basketball. Then he goes to Phoenix and finds Amar’e Stoudemire, and he goes on to win two consecutive MVP awards and narrowly misses out on a third. That’s not to say Amar’e didn’t benefit from Nash’s arrival, but the effect was reciprocal.

My point is that Larry Bird didn’t have the people around him to improve his game as much as Magic did. Robert Parish was more known for his defense (and, incidentally, his inability to successfully defend Kareem — but no one could do that). McHale was a solid player but not on the level of Kareem or Worthy.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird will be considered some of the NBA’s finest players for decades to come. They were both immensely talented and basked in their fair shares of NBA championship. And Magic was, and still is, the bigger star. But to say that, withdrawing both those players from their franchises, the Celtics are even close to the level of the Lakers during that decade is just a falsehood. Bird was way more instrumental to his team’s success than Magic.

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