NBA Playoffs Shootaround: The King’s Speech
So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is here to help you keep track of it all. You’ll find takes on moments you might’ve missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever.
(All GIFs by @HeyBelinda)
Chris Ryan: Here’s LeBron’s “clear eyes, full hearts, pass me the ball or I will eat your dreams” speech that had everyone buzzing last night. What do you think he’s saying here? In my mind, it’s a mix of Alec Baldwin’s “I am God” speech from Malice, a Maori war chant, Samuel L. Jackson’s “You think water’s fast? You should see ice!” speech from Deep Blue Sea, Drew Brees’s pregame barking, profanity, threats to finally collect on loans that he has doled out, utter disbelief that Lance Stephenson wears And1s, and sincere questions about the intestinal fortitude of everyone in front of him. LeBron looks like a linebacker, and now I guess he talks like Ray Lewis.
The Cleveland Show
Andrew Sharp: Just add it to the list.
LeBron’s third quarter last night goes right next to his 48 points against the Pistons in 2007, almost everything he did against the Magic in the 2009 Eastern finals, everything he did to the Bulls in 2011, Game 6 in Boston, his Finals masterpiece, and probably 20 or 25 other murderous works of art I’m forgetting. It’s been a gift and a curse for Bron ever since that ’07 Pistons series. The more he’s given us what we wanted, the more often we’ve demanded it.
But we’re getting it. In Game 3, he went into the post and bullied the Pacers from the inside out with the post game we’d always wanted from him. In Game 5, after a lifeless first half that had a lot of us wondering if maybe the Pacers were really going to pull this off, LeBron came out and destroyed EVERYTHING.
LeBron scored or assisted on 24 points in 3Q. Pacers only scored 13 as a team.
— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) May 31, 2013
Everything we ever wanted from LeBron is happening here. It’s been happening since Game 6 in Boston last year, or the Pacers series beforehand. He could always do this stuff, but with each passing year, he can control it a little more. Turn it on when his team needs it, and be unstoppable in the biggest moments possible. This Heat team’s more vulnerable than anyone would’ve imagined a few months ago, and that was made clear again Thursday night. But this could be a blessing for us. Because if Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh keep struggling, it means LeBron has to turn it on more than ever. And he can. He’s harnessed all his powers, and every challenge from the Bulls or Pacers or Spurs is one more opportunity for him to unleash hell.
For the past week, we’ve been enjoying this series for all it’s worth and gawking at how well both teams have played. But Game 5 was about LeBron, and taking the time to ignore everyone else on the floor and properly lose our minds for 12 minutes in the third quarter. It was also a good reminder before the NBA Finals.
It may not matter how much help the Heat give him. When LeBron goes nuclear, there’s no better show in sports. And nobody’s beating him.
Eventually, You Are What You Are
Robert Mays: Forever, as Chris Cornell has helped us learn, is big. There’s a reason that Robert Horry’s name resonates, and it’s because we assign a level of importance to this time of year that would be impossible to avoid. These are the playoffs, and what happens here is what we remember.
The risk that comes with that line of thinking is that we start to view the playoffs as something inherently different from the regular season. Horry matters because he hit more than one big shot in a big moment, but for his career, his playoff 3-point percentage (35.9) isn’t notably different from his regular-season mark (34.1). He averaged less than one point more per game in the playoffs; his field goal percentage differed by one-hundredth of one percentage point. For all we want to say about clutch and rising to the moment and all that, in the end, Robert Horry was the basketball player Robert Horry always was.
This brings us to non–Paul George members of the Pacers’ backcourt. As a trio last night, George Hill, D.J. Augustin, and Lance Stephenson were 2-for-13 and scored five points. Augustin looked hapless in replacing the foul-stricken Hill, and Stephenson committed the twofold offense of fouling out and daring to anger LeBron James. Indiana’s depth was the main question about the Pacers coming into this series, and last night, that question returned to the forefront. Augustin and Stephenson turned into who they are, and unfortunately for Indiana, they did it just as LeBron turned into who he is.
Stephenson is better on both ends than he was last night, but he’s also worse than Game 4’s 20 points and 60 percent shooting. For the season, he’s an averagely efficient scorer who tends to be erratic, and for the postseason, he’s actually been worse. In the playoffs, there’s a tendency to assign traits that aren’t actually there based on glimpses that don’t actually matter. Stephenson is undoubtedly talented. But he was also born in 1990. Game 6 against the Knicks and Game 4 against Miami are more the products of his personal ping-ponging than any sort of growth. They don’t make nights like tonight any less likely; in fact, they probably lend to them. One day, Stephenson and Augustin may be rock-solid contributors to a championship-caliber team, but right now, they are who they are, and for the Pacers that means a series-long wedding to the unknown.
Sharp: Oh no, oh no, oh no.
Did we jinx Lance? I think we jinxed Lance.
Worst-case scenario: Stephenson never plays well again, Game 4 was the peak of his career, and a few years from now we can look back at that time I wrote 1,800 words about Lance Stephenson during the middle of the Eastern Conference finals for some reason. Best-case scenario: Game 5 was just a rope-a-dope from Stephenson, setting the stage for the ultimate comeback Saturday night when he emerges from the shadows in 2007 Rucker Park mode and single-handedly forces a Game 7. BORRRRRRRRN READY.
Ready for something, always. We don’t know what. That’s part of the fun.
Not Like a Bosh
The Butterfly Effect
Brett Koremenos: When Lance Stephenson fouled LeBron James less than a minute into the first quarter to stop a fast break, I thought to myself, Wow. That could end up leading to big problems. In a regular-season game, a foul like that probably wouldn’t have caused me to even raise an eyebrow. Players take fouls like that all the time and the conventional wisdom says they should. A non-shooting foul is far better than a layup, right?
When it comes to the Pacers’ starters, the answer to that question becomes a bit less cut-and-dried. The team is five players deep and Stephenson spends most of his time on defense trying to stay in front of James or Dwyane Wade. Any foul trouble not only makes staying on the floor more difficult, but it also means Indiana is that much closer to relying on the limited Sam Young and the overmatched D.J. Augustin. With that in mind, it becomes a question of whether or not those two points from James (along with the resulting energy boost from a dunk) are worth a foul.
Stephenson was whistled for a second foul just more than two minutes later, and he ended up watching helplessly as Miami basically ignored Young’s existence on offense for the rest of the first quarter, as well as a decent chunk of the second. It wasn’t exactly the best way for a 22-year-old short on playoff experience to find his rhythm early on in the biggest game of his career. The Pacers become a much tougher team to beat when Stephenson plays well, so it didn’t help their cause much either.
There are about a million reasons that could go into Stephenson’s poor performance, but you have to wonder what would have happened had he just let James dunk.
What Could Have Been
Patricia Lee: It was an absolute shame last night that the referees stopped Chris Andersen from engaging in a full-fledged fight with Tyler Hansbrough. So many good things could have happened! Players could’ve been ejected, and there would’ve been hours of YouTube fun to follow. Unfortunately, none of that happened. Boo on everyone.
In an alternate universe, though, the fight would’ve happened, and I’m here to hash out the four scenarios that could’ve occurred.
1. Andersen Beats Up Hansbrough
This is by far the most likely result. Do a quick search on YouTube for “Tyler Hansbrough punch” and you’ll find a long list of Hansbrough getting hit (purposefully or not) by … Will Bynum, Gerald Henderson, and Udonis Haslem. He always recovers really quickly. Huge props to him for still being able to walk (with ’tude!) even with a bloody nose and a sucker punch to the gut. Though Psycho T might be a warrior for braving those shots, the fact that he got beat up in the first place is likely an indicator that against Birdman he’d suffer a similar fate. Even if you don’t believe in Andersen’s street cred with his tattoos and Mohawk, just know that when you search “Chris Andersen punch,” you don’t get results about him bleeding. YouTube knows all.
2. Hansbrough Moral Victory
Just to be clear, this is the definition of a moral victory (per the most trustworthy dictionary on Earth):
A victory that occurs when a person, team, or army loses a confrontation yet achieves some other moral gain.
So in this scenario, Hansbrough would clearly lose (for reasons, see entry no. 1), though he would gain something, maybe like “I fought against Birdman and I am still alive” or “Yeah, I didn’t get a bloody nose!” or “Finally, I’m relevant in the NBA. My parents will be so proud.” Those are all valid moral victories, and though they aren’t quite as sweet as actually pummeling Andersen, they’re not bad.
3. Shane Battier KOs Hansbrough
Shane Battier: the jockosphere, the guy everyone wants to be the 2.0 version of, the intellectual. But c’mon, just think about it. There’s no way a man this calm and content can be like this all the time! Especially not in this alternate universe. Battier sees the Andersen-Hansbrough fight going down and watches from afar, slowly feeling that hatred of Carolina Blue rise within his stomach. Even if he graduated more than a decade ago, he still remembers Hansbrough’s tough-guy look with the trophy and runs up, decks him, and leaves Psycho T knocked out cold. Crazy scenario, but I don’t think there will be anything too ridiculous in the Hansbrough universe.
4. Ben Hansbrough Joins in
Seeing his older brother getting knocked around like a sack of potatoes, Ben Hansbrough comes to the rescue, remembering how that one time, Tyler came through for him. He rushes off the bench, avoiding David West and Roy Hibbert’s warning looks, and proceeds to signal to Andersen “COME AT ME BRO.” So Birdman does. Of course.
Guess what happens?
Ben falls, Tyler falls, they all fall down. Birdman wins.
Disclaimer: The writer is a Duke grad who has a deep-seated hatred of Carolina and Psycho T.
Time to Test Some New Material
Spoelstra is now 5-for-5 in starting press conferences by saying “that’s playoff competition at its best.”
— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) May 31, 2013
Danny Chau: I’m not sure whether Erik Spoelstra’s postgame press conference routine has reached self-parody yet. There is no coach in the league more dedicated to using the same buzzwords night after night. Last year it was all about “staying the course”; this year it’s all about “playing to our identity.” His opening monologues are largely identical, and he often crams all of those catchphrases in the first sentence just so you know what the Miami Heat are all about. It’s been such a recurring habit that I’m nearly positive he’s self-aware. Still, every night, I open up the live stream waiting for a confirming wink at the camera.
That sincerity has come from both sides. Last night, Frank Vogel couldn’t help but smile when the questions about LeBron’s remarkable third quarter came flooding in. Vogel couldn’t help but heap praise upon his opponent, calling the Heat “one of the best teams this league has ever seen.” He was loose and comfortable, even in a pivotal Game 5 in which five players received technical fouls. It’s a slight when someone is considered “just happy to be there,” but that’s a quality that’s unlikely to shed from either Vogel or Spoelstra anytime soon. They’re basketball nerds in their late 30s and early 40s only a victory or two away from the NBA Finals. They were once dungeon masters, Vogel as the head video coordinator for Rick Pitino in Boston, and Spoelstra for Miami. But the wear and tear hasn’t left them glum and jaded like, say, their Western Conference finals counterparts, Gregg Popovich and Lionel Hollins, and that’s probably for the better. They are legitimate coaches commanding two of the best teams in the NBA, but sitting at the podium, we get small glimpses of their inner fans.
This series has been the best and most important so far. None of us can shut up about how special it has been. It’s really cool watching the coaches show just how special it’s been for them, too.
CourtVision: Udonis Haslem
The Old Miami
Zach Lowe: If you want to be an NBA champion, you have to be prepared to slog through some games, or even entire series, on terms that aren’t entirely your own. When the competition reaches its peak level, even the very best team won’t be able to dictate the terms of engagement every night — especially if that team’s second-best player (once upon a time, anyway) is a shell of himself.
The Heat did not play offense in Game 5 like they played it for most of this season, and they did not go about playing it with the lineups they envisioned leaning upon when they built this team. And yet they still put up nearly 107 points per 100 possessions, elite-level production, against the league’s best defense — a defense that has eliminated Miami’s 3-point game and kept the Heat off the foul line last night.
The poster child for this crisis adaptation is Shane Battier. He has made two shots in this series. Two. He’s a role player, but his importance to this team is much larger than his role. He’s the wing player who has “sacked up,” as Roy Hibbert would say, and agreed to almost exclusively guard bully power forwards in the last days of his career. That has allowed Miami to build around small lineups, unleashing a terrifying 3-point attack that blitzed the league.
Battier played eight minutes last night, and less than two in the second half. Miami relied in that decisive half on two sorts of lineups they didn’t use all that much, in relative terms, before this series: lineups with two traditional big men, and smaller lineups that did not include Battier, units that force LeBron to defend a big man.
The bigger lineups had the run of the third quarter, when LeBron went crazy, reminding everyone (including himself) of his Cleveland days. But the Heat in that quarter didn’t look like those Cavaliers as much as they looked like … the Heat, from 2010-11 and especially last season, before Chris Bosh’s abdominal injury pushed Erik Spoelstra to Battier-centric small lineups.
Miami in that quarter went back to its “old Miami” sets as comfortably as a man plopping down on a well-used couch and finding his ass imprint still there. The Heat ran those old “corner” plays, where they enter the ball to LeBron or Dwyane Wade (just LeBron last night) at one elbow, station a big man at the opposite elbow and a shooter in each corner, and have that big man join the one leftover player in setting a monster double screen for one of those corner shooters. LeBron in those sets scanned his options: pass to that corner shooter as he curled off that double screen? Pitch the ball to that player in the corner, and sprint over to set a screen in a devastating quick-hitting pick-and-roll? Just drive and score?
He made the right call every time. And on one beauty, Udonis Haslem — UDONIS FREAKING HASLEM, everyone! — was the big man at the other elbow and began creeping over to the corner as LeBron held the ball, as if he were going to set the usual double screen down there. And as his man, Hibbert, slid down toward the corner, expecting the typical fare, Haslem suddenly changed directions, darted back over to LeBron, and set a screen for the world’s best player that caught Indiana flat-footed. LeBron splashed his easiest jumper of the game.
It was a midrange 2 — a shot Miami has tried to excise, to the degree possible, from its arsenal. But they needed some of those tonight, with Wade and Bosh doing very little, and against a very, very good Indiana team. The NBA playoffs: adapt or die.