What are your guesses for LeBron’s total tonight? I have at least in the 40s.
— Sean Highkin (@shighkinNBA) February 12, 2013
We’ve reached a kind of apotheosis moment with LeBron James, and that it’s happening isn’t what should really shock NBA fans. What’s most interesting about the rise of the LeBron (the Decision et al. notwithstanding) is that James has become the best player on the planet while there is already an active best player on the planet.
What am I talking about? The NBA is built on superstars, but it’s also a league that has proven to succeed at its highest level when there is one single player who stands out above the rest. A player who can represent the league to everybody. A player who can be the unchallenged best of the best.
There are a few major downsides to the one-above-all method of super-super stardom: because that one player’s excellence is not to be challenged, some great players are relegated to spending their lives in the shadows; because that one player can never be moved back down the ladder of greatness, he either has to win all the time at all costs, step away from the game before he may be ready, or drag his team down with him as his body and skills start to head south; and because the transfer of power HAS to be generational, there is often a skill vacuum and period of overall confusion after the older ubermensch has retired and before the new guy is ready for the spot-light.
And that’s why the Era of LeBron is so fascinating. Kobe Bryant is still arguably the most popular basketball player on the planet. He’s probably the second-most recognizable basketball player on Earth (second only to Michael Jordan who is basically a synonym for the NBA). But for at least a few seasons, depending on how you break it down, he hasn’t been the best player in the NBA. You could argue, even, that right now, Kobe Bryant (who despite how terrible his team is playing is having an absolutely phenomenal season) is behind both LeBron James and Kevin Durant as far as best player in the league is concerned.
Kobe’s narrative is much stronger in 2012-13 than LeBron’s (the Heat have, almost without incident, jumped out to the best record in the East and the only story they’ve carried with them this season is why aren’t they winning every game), and that’s keeping him relevant. But LeBron’s supremacy has reached a point where it is unchallenged. It has happened while Kobe is still relevant. (The Lakers are three and a half games out of the LAST spot in the Western Conference playoff race and in a total tailspin or kind of a tailspin depending on the day of the week, and ESPN still dedicated an entire segment to talking about how nobody wants to see LA in the first round of the Playoffs and journos in the City of Angles have basically said the Lakers are a lock to make the post season. Don’t be confused by Dwight Howard or Steve Nash, that’s all Kobe Bryant.)
And that makes the end of the Era of Kobe and the beginning of the Era of LeBron maybe the first ever conflict-less transfer of power in the history of the NBA.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Heat Starting 5: PG Mario Chalmers, SG Dwyane, SF LeBron James, PF Udonis Haslem, C Chris Bosh
For years, starting when I was about 21, I played on a city league basketball team. In case you don’t know, Portland is a basketball town. It’s not Seattle, mind you, but there are plenty of great ballers of all ages living in the Rose City. I’m not an amazing basketball player. I spent nearly as many hours playing basketball in college as I did doing homework and reading (I did lots of both in case you were wondering), but even at the absolute top of my game, I would put myself second-tier at best with regards to city league players. I played with a bunch of guys who were about the same.
Every so often we’d win games. Most nights, we’d run up against a group of dudes with a little more polish than we had and a little more actual basketball skill. Those nights, we’d hang around for the first 15 or 20 minutes (20 if we were super lucky and making jump shots, more like five if we weren’t), and then end up losing by 40. On paper, that’s how the match-up between the Miami Heat and the Blazers should play out.
So we should all be pretty damn shocked that Portland beat Miami the last two times these teams played, and we should not expect a similar result Tuesday evening when the Heat host the Blazers and try not to get swept.
Can Portland beat Miami again? Sure. They did it once, they can do it again. Will the Blazers win Tuesday? Very unlikely. LeBron James is on a historic streak of scoring and efficiency. That in and of itself should be enough to convince you that Portland’s chances Tuesday night are far from great. Add to that that I’d be willing to bet every member of the Heat thought they should have beaten the Blazers in Portland, and based on motivation alone, this game should be a blowout in favor of Miami.
What can the Blazers do to get a much-needed win against a far superior opponent? Try to keep the scoring low, try to keep LeBron off the free-throw line, and make their shots.
Portland, as they have been much of the last 10 seasons, is a jump shooting team. When the shots aren’t falling, they can’t beat anybody. Conversely, when the J’s go down, they’re in every game. If the Blazers want to have a chance on Tuesday, they need to make jumpers. And by they, I don’t just mean LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Damian Lilllard, I mean every single Blazer who steps on the floor in Miami needs to hit their jumpers.
Apart from hitting shots, Portland needs to play some defense. And by defense, that means keeping everybody on the Heat not named LeBron or Dwyane from going off. It also means limiting the number of free points allowed. James will get to the rim at will against Portland. Wade probably will too. Letting those guys get two points instead of three each time they attack might be able to keep the Blazers in Tuesday’s game.
What to Watch For
- Will Damian Lillard be able to recover from his performance in Orlando. Lillard had an awful game against the Magic. Everybody has bad games, even super talented rookies like Damian. The key to a rookie’s development is how well he recovers from the stumbles and hurdles that he inevitably encounters during his first professional season. That Dame has to have a bounce-back game against probably the best team in the NBA is just bad timing. The serendipitous thing about the timing though, if Portland wants to beat the Heat, they’re going to need to get a ton of scoring from Lillard.
- Can the Blazers get a big game from somebody unexpected. If Portland really wants to have a chance to beat Miami, they’re going to need to get some big performances from the end of the bench. That means somebody unexpected stepping up. I doubt it will be Meyers Leonard, although he’s basically the only true center on either roster, but Victor Claver has been played better as of late, and Joel Freeland had a nice run against the Magic. Luke Babbitt also might be able to have an impact on Tuesday’s game. Babbitt has the ability to score in bunches (his shots are worth more after all since they should all be from three-point range), and scoring a lot in a hurry is important as we all know. Sasha Pavlovic and Ronnie Price are back, so head coach Terry Stotts will have plenty of guys to throw out there.
- Will Portland be able to keep it close. Miami had a big lead in Portland that got away from them. If the Blazers can keep the Heat within arm’s length, anything is possible.