MIAMI, FL - MAY 15: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat controls the ball during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs against the Indiana Pacers at AmericanAirlines Arena on May 15, 2012 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
This weekend reminded us how good LeBron James is, how much better Kevin Durant has gotten, and that Father Time can sneak up on even Kobe Bryant. That and more in this week's Monday Morning Jones.
Needless to say, the biggest winner of the weekend was the Belmont Stakes. Biggest losers? The poor headline writers who'll be stuck finding a unique spin on "I'll Have Another" that won't be in five other publications. Good luck with that. On to the rest of the weekend that was ...
A reminder of why LeBron James is the league's best player. Don't want LeBron with the ball in his hand on the last possession? Neither do I. But in those other dozens of possessions -- which, contrary to popular belief, count the same -- there isn't anyone close to James. It's something we forget until games like these, when you remember there isn't anyone on Earth who can affect a basketball game in so many ways without sacrificing other parts of his game. Bron put up 40 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists, two steals, two blocks, kept Miami in the game until Dwyane Wade decided to punch the clock, and he did this almost in spite of his teammates. That is, until Wade erased every other bad memory of the weekend and Udonis Haslem found his midrange stroke in the fourth quarter. With Miami left with no credible inside threats in Chris Bosh's absence, Bron even had to be the bully down low on occasion. There was only one player who could pull off that performance. The problem is, without Bosh, he and Wade might have to be this good two more times, which might be too much to ask of anyone.
Never thought I'd talk so much about Roy Hibbert in my life. In last week's Monday Morning Jones, I wrote about Hibbert's significance in the Heat-Pacers series. On Thursday, I totally forgot about that on television, and subsequently was made a fool of when Hibbert dominated the Heat in Game 3. Game 4 looked awfully similar...until it didn't. He was slowed by foul trouble in the second half, the byproduct of James and Wade's aggressiveness with the ball, but Hibbert made one shot in the paint after the first quarter. Just like that Indiana's greatest advantage, the one for which the Heat have no answer, became a non-factor. So, you see, I kinda knew what I was talking about. Yup.
The young man is ready. For months, I've gotten hell for not declaring Kevin Durant a superstar (and, if you didn't know, people are as protective of him as they are Adele). It was less a slight than it was about my refusal to just call anyone who can fill it up a "superstar." While he was good in the first two games against the Lakers, the way Metta World Peace was able to disrupt his game away from the ball reminded me of why I had my reservations about just how good he's become. That said, Saturday night was the fifth time this postseason the Thunder took a game in the fourth quarter from an accomplished, veteran team. When the rubber met the road, Durant was there, totally prepared for the moment. He's been damn near unguardable for years. Late in games -- like Games 2 and 4 -- when guys like World Peace can't manhandle him to keep him from the ball, he's unstoppable. In Game 4, when he took the challenge of guarding Kobe Bryant down the stretch, he looked totally like a man capable of leading a team to a championship right now. As the sun sets on Kobe, morning is here for Durant. And he's ready for the day.
Oh, and the other guy... I still don't see the Thunder beating the Spurs in the West. Before the postseason started, their problems with turnovers -- most in the NBA -- seemed to be their greatest weakness. Many skeptical of the Thunder would point to Westbrook, the point guard of the team with the least assists in the league. Well, Westbrook's not putting up John Stockton assist numbers, but know how many times he's turned the ball over against the Lakers? Three. In four games. And OKC's needed every one of his 25 points per game. Like Durant, Westbrook is almost impossible to guard. Unlike KD, it's harder to stop Russ from getting the ball. He's been much-maligned since last postseason, but Westbrook has been the Thunder's best player this series.
Kobe Bryant hasn't been good enough. Yes, Kobe has five rings. But while he was winning those rings, I don't recall gravity having such an effect on his game. The Thunder have blocked his jump shots and tossed his layups. His attempts to go to the rim requires more jukes and fakes than trying to move to "Planet Rock." And while he hit all his free throws in Game 3, he hasn't been able to carry the Lakers like he had before. For four games, Bryant has looked like what he is at this point in his career -- a volume scorer. And when volume scoring comes without the late-game heroics that strike up championship nostalgia, it must be called out for what it is. He's shooting 39 percent this series, and he's only made one three-pointer. Kobe took 10 shots in the fourth quarter while Andrew Bynum took four in the second half. We're past the point where Kobe going DIY can be assumed to be a good idea, let alone the best one. He's still the best shooting guard in the league. He's a warrior nonpareil. His legacy is bulletproof, but it won't do anything to help him win the sixth championship he so covets. Can a team ride Bryant game after game and expect to win a championship? After 16 seasons, with summers of postseasons and international play, that no longer seems to be the case.
I'm not defending Pau Gasol, but... Does Gasol need to be more assertive? Of course. He's needed to be more assertive every season of his professional career, including when he was The Man in Memphis ... and attempted 15 field goals per game. He's not Andrew Bynum, whose comfortable taking shots, no matter how Kobe feels about it. So after being ignored for most of the second half, almost entirely at the end of the fourth quarter, it's not shocking he froze when given a wide open look. We all know who's supposed to shoot late for the Lakers and who's not. "Who" is just one man, the one who turned the fourth quarter into another game where the line between being vain and fiercely competitive was blurred. That said, Gasol is the most skilled big man in the NBA. No team should dare front Bynum with such a devastating option on the other side. He did not do his part Saturday night, but that awful pass to Kevin Durant simply speaks to symptoms of a multi-faceted disease.
The Curse of Donald Sterling continues. Earlier this season, I wrote about the conflict caused by the Basketball Reasons Fairy putting Chris Paul under Donald Sterling's pillow. Given that, it made me to chuckle to think, in the end, being Donald Sterling's Clippers ultimately did them in. After receiving Paul and Chauncey Billups out of thin air, Billups was lost to a season-ending injury, an outcome Clippers fans have seen far too often. Then, Sterling's trademark thriftiness left Vinny Del Negro on the bench. His next adjustment this postseason will be his first. The Spurs are definitely great, but there's no reason a team with Paul and Blake Griffin, surrounded by capable talent, to have been steamrolled as they were by San Antonio. What's worse is that it was predictable, only because of the obvious mismatch between Del Negro and Gregg Popovich. After all that commotion six months ago, the Clippers turned out to be who we thought they were.
Is John Tortorella the most interesting person left in the NHL Playoffs? That seems odd to say, considering the Western finals feature an upstart eight-seed and the East has a great local rivalry. But Tortorella's inability to go two games without doing something to make himself the center of media attention can't be ignored. First, it was what he didn't say after Game 1 -- anything -- and now it's a shot against the Devils we haven't seen since people complained about the neutral zone trap. The worst part for the NHL? It'll take a lot more than that to command eyeballs before the Stanley Cup Finals.
Since Justin Verlander almost threw another no-hitter... It's way too early for much extrapolation. Anyway, Verlander has a WHIP of .802. In the last 100 years, only Walter Johnson and Pedro Martinez have done better for a full season. The Big Train and the most electrifying pitcher of the last 30 years. That's Verlander's company. And unlike with Pedro, I feel confident Verlander wasn't using a performance enhancer. What do I think Pedro may have been using? Activator. Hey, you saw how those pitches were dancing.
What's that smell on the infield? This is what you missed if you weren't on the infield for the Preakness. I guarantee at least one person who was on this stage has no idea who won the race. And if he knew, he forgot.