There’s been a spirited argument over the last several years over who is the best player in the NBA. There is the Kobe Bryant camp, which points to his skill, will and five championships. And there is the LeBron James camp, which points to his freakish athleticism and all-around game.
For a couple of years, the argument went back and forth during the regular season, then was settled in the postseason, where Bryant was winning or advancing to championships while James was stymied in trying to get to that level.
Things changed a little bit last season, when Bryant started to look old and a bit broken down as the Lakers were swept out of the playoffs and James and the Miami Heat steamrolled into the NBA Finals, where a title appeared to be a fait accompli. Then James did his fourth quarter disappearing act, costing the Heat a title and giving the Bryant camp a final batch of ammunition.
This season, James and the Heat got off to a frightening start, while Bryant – nursing a painful wrist injury – and the Lakers muddled their way through their first 10 games. And the argument again appeared unnecessary.
Until the last two days.
On Tuesday, James again vanished in the fourth quarter at Golden State, where Miami wasted a 17-point lead and lost in overtime. Meanwhile, Bryant was lighting up Phoenix for 48 points and assuming the NBA scoring lead.
On Wednesday night, Miami managed one basket in the final 12-plus minutes of another OT loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, while Bryant dropped 40 in an overtime win at Utah.
James had a different role in Miami’s losses. After vanishing in Golden State, he attempted to impose his will in Los Angeles, which was commendable. And it would have been even more effective had he made his free throws.
Leave it to the Sun-Sentinel’s Ira Winderman to address the matter plainly: “Two sets of numbers left the Heat with their first losing streak of the season, in the wake of Tuesday’s overtime loss against Golden State Warriors: 9 of 17 and 20 of 34. The first set was James’ shooting from the foul line. The second set was the Heat’s overall showing on free throws. Synthesize an NBA game however you choose, but sometimes it comes down to the simplest, most rudimentary of plays. This was one of those games. It wasn’t just the misses, it was when they came, namely James missing two free throws in the final 14.7 seconds of regulation after Clippers guard Chauncey Billups had made three consecutive free throws when fouled on a 3-point shot by James with 27.3 seconds to play in regulation. “I didn’t make enough,” James said. “It’s kind of a rhythm and it trickles down to everyone.” This wasn’t the shame of Tuesday night, when the Heat blew a 17-point third-quarter lead to a Warriors team lacking star guard Stephen Curry. And this wasn’t James disappearing in the fourth quarter, as he did a night earlier. This was James demanding the ball late, making the correct, aggressive plays, only to miss his free throws.”
However, at the fulcrum of both losses by the Heat was LeBron, who in one fashion or another, for lack of a better phrase, was not getting it done. And at the fulcrum of both wins by the Lakers was Bryant, the only player to score 40 points in a game this season. And now he has done it twice. On consecutive nights. At 33 years old. With a bad wrist.
And Bryant told Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register that his wrist is actually healing: “Bryant has done enough in these first 12 regular-season games jammed into just 18 days to be legitimately excited about the playoffs again. With the Lakers committing to Mike Brown’s defense, Andrew Bynum making various big plays and Pau Gasol having put last spring behind him, Bryant doesn’t have to bottle his promise any longer. Bryant was right when he warned everyone in training camp, “You’ll see,” in suggesting a spring had returned to his step after an innovative blood-spinning procedure for his balky right knee. He’s confident enough that late Wednesday night he called himself “only 33″ as he laughed about being written off as the old man we’d never see dominate again. “It’s interesting to me,” Bryant said. “I’ve been in the league 16 years, but I’m only 33. So people like to count the miles and stuff like that, but they don’t factor in the intelligence and the preparation and the talent of my training staff.” Longtime friend Derek Fisher said after the 48-point game that it’s not yet possible to gauge just how potent Bryant remains: “If it wasn’t for the wrist, I think you’d have seen much more of it.”
Lovers and haters, rejoice. The best player in the NBA is a worthwhile argument once again, with legitimate talking points on both sides. And for those of you looking for some resolution, you won’t have to wait long. The Lakers visit the Heat a week from today.
Of course, there are more than a few folks in Dallas who would politely point to a two-week stretch of last June in making their argument for inserting a third player into the argument. And Dirk Nowitzki did nothing to stem their stance Wednesday in Boston.
In the final seconds, Nowitzki had a tiebreaking, driving three-point play on which he went around Kevin Garnett, took a huge hit from Brandon Bass and somehow maintained his balance to make the shot. Watch the highlights above; the shot makes Nowitzki’s similar drive vs. San Antonio in the 2006 playoffs look like child’s play.
The 90-85 win was an eventful one, with Mavs coach Rick Carlisle getting tossed in the third quarter when he ran from his bench into the frontcourt to protest Garnett obviously holding Nowitzki. Carlisle was so far out on the court, he intially looked like a fan who had slipped past security.
After Ray Allen shot the techs, Dallas went on 21-6 run for 63-53 lead. And Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News wrote that Carlisle’s actions may have had a longer-lasting effect:”Carlisle knew he earned the automatic ejection. “It’s just my opinion, but I don’t think Kevin Garnett should be allowed to bear-hug Dirk when he’s trying to come off screens,” Carlisle said. “I thought that was something that should be allowed and I’m pretty vigilant about my feeling about that. It cost me a few thousand dollars, but you got to make your point. It was a foul that should have been called and that’s the way it is.” There is no way to know for sure, but it could have made a difference at the end of the game, when the referees called a foul on Brandon Bass as Nowitzki went to the rim strong in the final seconds. The three-point play ended up winning the game.”
In the fourth quarter, Celtics coach Doc Rivers tried his own version of “work the referees,” taking a tech right after Rajon Rondo was hit with one while sitting on the bench as Boston battled its way back into an 85-85 tie in the final minute. Then Nowitzki solved Garnett and Rondo threw an awful inbounds pass at the feet of an open Ray Allen.
While the Boston Globe made a point of crediting Garnett’s overall defense – conveniently overlooking his blatant arm-locking and the fact that he looked stuck in mud on the decisive play – Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald had what we feel is a more realistic view of what transpired in the Gaaah-den: “Such efforts tend to get devalued when Jason Terry drives and the Green Sea parts for him, and when Dirk Nowitzki begins his move to the hoop at the State House and still is able to get to the paint on the way to the winning three-point play. “Somebody has to step up and either block it or take a charge on Dirk,” coach Doc Rivers said. “He drove from close to the 3-point line and got all the way to the basket.” The Mavericks, playing without Jason Kidd, mind you, were coming off a game the previous night at Detroit. The Celts were coming off four days of rest and remedial bucketry. So what does it mean for a team when your coach calls you out for a lack of toughness and you respond by getting outscored 17-0 in second-chance points and 44-30 on points in the paint? Your answers may vary, but none of them can be good. “You can’t win,” Rivers said of the second-chance siesta. If, as Rivers suggested a few days ago, you are what your record says, then the Celtics are a below-.500 team. And it could well get worse.”
Yes, it’s early. But Boston is 4-5 and in third place in the Atlantic Division behind Philadelphia and New York, two teams whose verbal challenges to the supremacy of the Celtics were being laughed off less than a month ago. No one in The Hub is laughing now.
The Sixers were finally solved by the Knicks, who had a somewhat frantic fourth quarter but held on for an 85-79 win. The MSG telecast – minus the excellent Mike Breen, who was in Boston working for ESPN – had an inordinate amount of gushing, given that the Knicks had the comforts of home and the two best players on the court, while the Sixers were playing their third game in three nights and clearly looked gassed in the second half.
That wasn’t lost on Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News: “After defeating the Sixers at the Garden Wednesday night, the Knicks ought to send a thank-you note to the NBA schedule-maker. There’s nothing like getting to host a red-hot team that was playing its third straight game in three nights. And that’s what helped the Knicks at the Garden, probably more than anything else, when their high-powered offense went MIA in the final 9:02 and they still managed to end the Sixers’ six-game winning streak.”
Carmelo Anthony scored 27 points, even though he missed his last six shots, many of them selfish 1-on-1 forays that helped the Sixers cut a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to four. As he often does, Anthony also got caught up in some hoops hubris in the third quarter with Andre Iguodala.
After Iguodala went around him for a thunderous dunk, Anthony used the next three trips to make things personal, ignoring all of his teammates to prove a point to Iguodala. The more I watch Anthony, the more I wonder about whether winning a championship is truly his priority.
But instead of combing the web, I will defer to my 14-year-old son, who had this prescient observation.
“You know what Melo has now? The same team he had in Denver four years ago,” he said. “Another star riding shotgun (Allen Iverson), a center who has to clean up all of their defensive mistakes (Marcus Camby) and a first-round playoff exit.”
Not bad, kiddo.
- MVP Derrick Rose sat out with turf toe but Chicago beat woeful Washington to join Oklahoma City as the only teams to complete the back-to-back-to-back sweep, which probably explains why they are at the top of Mark Heisler’s Power Rankings. Veteran journeyman Mike James was signed to take Rose’s spot on the roster. John Lucas III took Rose’s spot on the court and displayed a complete comprehension of his role, scoring 25 points while taking 28 (!) shots.
- The Thunder kept rolling with 95-85 win at New Orleans, which has yet to score 100 points. OKC is 10-2 overall, 5-1 both at home and on the road. Although the Thunder have looked very, very good, they have to find a fourth scorer at some point. Maybe that is a different player each game, but Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are carrying too much of the load right now.
- The Magic handed the Blazers their first home loss, draining 16 of 27 from the arc and holding on after building a 23-point lead for their first win over a quality opponent. Portland may have provided fodder for future foes of Orlando by putting Dwight Howard in high pick-and-rolls where he had to honor LaMarcus Aldridge’s range game.
- The Pacers beat the Hawks as Danny Granger finally snapped out of it with 24 points. My column later today will address Granger, teammate David West and eight other former All-Stars around the league who need to step up their games.
- The Kings got their first road win of the season, beating Toronto as DeMarcus Cousins collected 21 points and a career-high 19 boards. Can you imagine if this kid ever got his head on straight?