It speaks volumes of LeBron James’ performance and personality that the Golden State Warriors publicly hold him in such high esteem. Steve Kerr and company have lavished the four-time MVP with praise over the past 10 days, and treated James like the all-encompassing force he is en route a to an overtime victory in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, too.
The Warriors may be content watching The King get his points, but understand that’s simply the lesser of two evils. What they can’t do is let LeBron be the scorer and playmaker he’s been throughout his entire career. He’s too cerebral a floor general and talented a passer for Golden State to take the ball out of his hands without allowing the Cleveland Cavaliers’ ancillary players to make a bigger impact than they should.
That’s why James took 38 shots to get his 44 points on Thursday night – the Warriors made him. And while that ranks as one of the least efficient 40-point games in Finals history, it was also another made shot or three away from not only giving the Cavaliers a win at Oracle Arena, but going down in the pantheon of all-time great performances, too.
Golden State deserves credit for making life hard on James, and James deserves credit for nearly leading his team to victory anyway. Gray area exists. Basketball is rarely black and white. You wouldn’t know it given the majority’s reaction to LeBron’s play in Game 1, though, a reality that Jerry West can’t quite comprehend – and never has.
The Warriors consultant and Los Angeles Lakers legend bemoaned the media’s coverage of James on a radio appearance with Bleacher Report on Sunday morning.
It’s safe to say West’s opinion here extends further than the reception to James’ performance on Thursday. He’s talking about how the two-time champion has been covered for years, ever since he became such a popular villain following the original Decision in 2010.
Frankly, The Logo’s take is one with which we agree. No one in league history has faced more undue criticism than James, perhaps the most talented player ever whose biggest black mark is one of perceived arrogance. That so many fans despise LeBron is the league’s most confounding defining trait, and one Gregg Popovich can’t wrap his head around, either.
But that’s a larger discussion for another time. This is the Finals, after all, and if depleted Cleveland has any chance to beat Golden State, it will need James to make a consistent impact befitting his reputation as the world’s best player. And he even did so in Game 1!
That’s not a popular sentiment. For all those analysts and armchair coaches who wished James had attempted fewer difficult shots and found teammates, we ask these questions: To whom do you suggest he passed the ball? And considering the Warriors’ defensive strategy of refusing to commit full help to to James, what did you expect them to do with it?
Golden State didn’t defend LeBron like the vast majority of teams have over the past few seasons. Instead of aggressively doubling at every touch in the post, Kerr had each of his help defenders shade James’ direction while not losing sight of their primary assignment. The result was a wall of secondary defense behind a talented individual defender that often looked like this (courtesy of Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney):
And you want the game’s greatest player to pass the ball?
There are ways for the Cavaliers to run more fluid offensive sets that work to get other pieces involved. But against this Warriors defense, and with Kyrie Irving missing, it goes without saying that an even bigger scoring burden will fall on James’ broad shoulders throughout the remainder of these NBA Finals. And if he’s making jumpers, Cleveland even has a great chance to steal a game or two.
But if he’s not, it doesn’t mean James isn’t playing the style of basketball that gives his undermanned team the best chance to win. West seems to get it, and we hope the rest of the basketball world comes to that realization, too.
Game 2 tips off at 8:00 EST.
[Via Ethan Skolnick]