CHICAGO – It looks like the NBA is going to finish its 2015-16 season the way it should and the way few expected it might.
It looks like it’s going to be about history and legacy and the fabled finish that we never really considered. It’s not here yet, and things always can change dramatically day to day in the NBA playoffs.
But this all could be building to LeBron vs. Steph, the winningest team of all time against the greatest player of the era, the chance, even if they don’t exactly match up against one another, for us to see who is the real MVP, who is the best.
Here come the Cavs, and we really hadn’t given it much thought.
Sure, the Cleveland Cavaliers won the Eastern Conference regular season. But just a game ahead of the limited Toronto Raptors. The Cavs changed coaches midway for no apparent reason and then LeBron embarked on a mysterious series of social media comments that had LeBronologists speculating about everything from his dissatisfaction with his teammates to could he decide to leave yet again.
But down the home stretch of the playoffs in the conference finals — and, OK, LeBron and the Cavs are in the Leastern Conference — it’s LeBron and the Cavs, who have been the stars of the NBA playoffs.
And perhaps instead of the buildup to the Western Conference finals and an NBA Finals letdown — we’ve already had the disappointment of no Golden State/San Antonio matchup of what would be the teams with the best records meeting in the playoffs — the delicious possibility is taking shape of seeing if LeBron really is the best and whether the Warriors can finish off the best ever.
Oh, what an NBA Finals that would be!
Consider going into this past weekend as the second week of the conference finals opens, the Cavs with the Big Three of the playoffs — the only team with three players in the top 20 in playoff scoring — lead in margin of victory. OK, OK, yes, Eastern Conference. But, remember, the Bulls who missed the playoffs in the East would have been sixth in the West this season. And the Clippers were no factor with injuries. The West turned out not to be all that with even Curry missing much of the first two rounds.
The Cavs, meanwhile, have been dominating the statistics in blowing through the first 10 games. They’re second in points and fourth in points allowed with their new smaller, drive-and-kick, shooting game. They’re third in overall shooting and first — take that, Warriors — in 3-point shooting. They’re second in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio.
With even players eliminated in the first round like James Harden, Kemba Walker, Dirk Nowitzki, Isaiah Thomas and Paul George listed among the top 20 scorers, the Cavs still put three players in the top 20, LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
Suddenly, Love is a factor, no longer just standing in the corner waiting for an occasional pass and shot. LeBron, finally abandoning his back in and hold game with Irving and Love healthy for this year’s playoffs, is shooting less and passing more. Now opponents can’t load up on James and try to wear him down, however much good that did before.
The Cavs have pretty much abandoned their bigger, more plodding game with Timofey Mozgov for a small-ball version with Love at center at times and James at power forward. It’s a version of the Warriors so-called “death lineup,” though without the defensive component given the limitations of Love and Irving on defense.
Still, the Cavs have Iman Shumpert for that, and J.R. Smith has helped and been modest in his role.
The Big Three has dominated. It’s been what the Cavs perhaps envisioned, if never quite realized.
Irving has the ball dominant role for himself for a while when James goes out, and has settled into a solid off-the-ball role with James. Love has stretched the floor, but been more involved. Thus, also opening the floor as such has created more space for James to operate.
And that’s really who he is.
James is so talented he could be the dominant scorer like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. It’s like David Robinson having to be Hakeem Olajuwon. But Robinson should have been Bill Russell. He just didn’t have the teammates around to allow him to do so.
Similarly, James is really a super-charged Scottie Pippen or Magic Johnson type with scoring.
James isn’t a great shooter. And never has wanted to score first. He had to. Now he gets to play, conveniently as he ages gracefully, the role that goes where he takes his talents, of facilitator.
There’s no one who can get into the lane with his power. Now he has shooters spaced and Irving to slash when necessary, or fire away with his long range shots.
The Cavs added shooter Channing Frye to that arsenal, and now the bench doesn’t have to start as it did in last year’s playoffs.
We judge in sports by what happened. It’s sore loser stuff if you don’t. No excuses and all that.
The Warriors have lived on those slights of getting by shorthanded teams last year.
The Bulls in 2012 had the best team and best record; but Derrick Rose was hurt in the first game of the playoffs and they were eliminated by an eighth seed. It’s not that they should have won. They didn’t. Similarly with LeBron and the Lilliputians in last year’s Finals.
If you lose, you’re a loser.
Now, it looks like LeBron is on the way to getting a shot at the team and the player who have been credited with supposedly revolutionizing the game. In LeBron’s time.
Oh, what an NBA Finals this could be.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”