Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Chillin' like a Villain

Here it is, as much as I've put it off, I'm finally writing a post about Lebron that looks at him in a near-positive light, despite my disgust with his "Decision". However, this isn't about the off-season, this is about his play on the court. So without further waffling...

For some time now, the League has been lacking a real villain. Kobe is popular to the point of receiving MVP chants in a number of road games, and pre-Decision Lebron was so clean and wholesome that it was hard to hate him (though some of us still did!). Ron Artest was a pariah because of the Malice in the Palace, but he wasn't the megawatt star that drew the ire of every team in the League, and besides, the best villains are supervillains aren't they? Vince Carter copped a bit of hate when he crossed the Border to New Jersey, but that was only really in Toronto. The last real supervillain was Reggie Miller. He antagonised opponents, riled up the crowds - in New York in particular - and was damn proud of it too. That is really the essential difference between Reggie, a true villain, and the other names I mentioned here; he embraced the hostility and fed off the haters like a vampire (you know, a real one, that doesn't sparkle, remember those?). You just didn't see that any more, especially with the new technical rules. Until now.

Lebron made all the right noises in the off-season to prepare himself for the villain role, making a list and checking it twice (couldn't help myself haha) of all the people who had "wronged him". But, he then tried too hard to clean up with his image by making a "hard-hitting" commercial aimed at the haters, especially Charles Barkley, whom Lebron implied was fat (gasp!), which came off as desperate. It didn't help matters that when the regular season rolled around, he looked like a kid who'd been spanked for the first time and seemed increasingly frustrated with the closeness of that dreaded .500 mark as the losses stacked up for his new franchise. Then something remarkable happened.

I remember that morning vividly, I got up early to go the gym, and left early too, because it was going to be a momentous day, one way or another. It was the day of the Return (someday we'll all stop using capitals for every Lebron event, but not just yet) and with the Heat in a bit of a slump, a number of punters were tipping the Cavaliers, fuelled by the power of the worst hurt feelings in sports history, to pull an upset. It started off that way, Lebron looked upset that Mo Williams gave him the cold shoulder, and then Hickson threw down a vicious dunk, it seemed that amazing might just happen after all. But then it all started to go horribly wrong. Something snapped in Lebron, and he started hitting simply ridiculous shots. But more than that, he started taunting the Cavaliers bench, hanging around chatting at Daniel Gibson, humiliating him, and daring him to stand up to the schoolyard bully. The rest of the game was brutal, with the Heat easily closing it out for a 118-90 win, Lebron himself finishing with 38 points, 8 assists and 5 rebounds in a mere 30 minutes. Ouch.

Whatever happened in Cleveland that night it had a profound effect on not just Lebron, but the Heat as a whole. They went on a vicious rip, winning 12 straight and were brought down by an extremely tough Dallas outfit. While it helps that Wade was scoring in bunches and shooting damn near 60% from the field, Lebron's adjusted attitude to hostile crowds was another big factor. I'd like to draw your attention to another game during this streak. Heat against Knicks in Madison Square Garden; Lebron returns to the place he snubbed in free agency, and is predictably met by boos. The Knicks had been on a streak of their own, and lost a nail-biting classic to the Celtics a couple of days before. Amare was playing like an MVP and the Knicks fans were more than ready to abandon any love for Lebron in favour of their new saviour; who, surprisingly, was on their team! Like the Cleveland game, it was hyped as a possible upset. Again, it seemed that way at the start. But somehow, Joel Anthony held Amare to 24 points on 11-28 shooting and Lebron once again fed on the boos. Rather than gunning for 40, Lebron opted to punish the Knicks with a 32-10-11 triple-double. The interweb was flooded with exasperated Lebron haters saying "stop booing him, you're only making him stronger!".

Finally, the transformation has occurred, and Lebron is a villain on the basketball court, not just in his commercials. It's not enough to be hated and to embrace it. You have to rise to the occasion, and silence the crowds with daggers, staring them down, taunting the opposition. Lebron is finally doing it, and understands the power of hate. While I still resent Lebron for his off the court antics, I respect his play of late in the face of hostile crowds. Lebron seems comfortable now with his role, he's chillin' like a villain. Just don't make him stronger for the love of God.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Where to now?

First off, I'd like to apologise for that last post. That was weak, I had an idea, but it's hard to expand upon "wouldn't it be great if Rose and Westbrook were 6'6?" without sounding like a twat. I'll leave that stuff to twitter from now on...

But anyways, to the present. I feel like I've reached that point in the season where that mind-numbing off-season need for NBA basketball has been sated, basketball watching shifts down a peg on the priority list and the season starts to blur into watching highlights and tracking Ws and Ls of your favourite, and least favourite (Miami... looking at you) teams. It's almost like a fugue state. When you get to that point, the best thing you can do is take a step back and ask yourself, what storylines are developing that should be followed, and what other questions are there to be answered in this stretch of the season? What can I, as an NBA fan, look for to keep myself focused?

1) Blake Griffin;
This seems obvious, but this man makes every Clippers game must-see television. However, beyond the Dominique Wilkins-like dunks, it will be interesting to watch whether his defense will progress and he can combine with Eric Gordon to lead the team to some more wins instead of just ridiculous numbers.

2) Westbrook and Durant;
Call me crazy, but I feel a momentum shift. In Durant's absence Westbrook has become the closer, lockdown defender and vocal team leader the team expected Durant to be coming off his FIBA MVP performance. However, hampered by injury and expectations, Durant's shot hasn't been falling with the same efficiency and he just doesn't seem the same. However, these kinks will eventually sort out, and the power structure when KD is back at 100% is going to be interesting. Will Russ' more powerful personality give him the role of leader with Durant just a scorer or will KD step up to the challenge and regain control of his team? Whatever happens, it'll be interesting.

3) Chemistry a real issue in LA?
Phil Jackson called this team the most talented he's ever had. I call it a team that just lost four in a row. The Lakers could always be upset on occasion, but it usually didn't budge them from their seat at top in the West. Fourth isn't a pretty place for the defending champs, because home-court advantage has always been very kind to them. I find it hard to believe that the Lakers would have gone back-to-back with four games in Boston; especially game seven. While they have scares every season around this time, four in a row hasn't happened in a long time. The West seems to have stepped up this season, and the Lakers' trip to the Finals doesn't seem as secure as it did last year.

4) Earning their Spurs;
How long can the Spurs keep it up? Barring a few aberrations, new addition Tiago Splitter, a rested Manu and the seemingly ageless Tim Duncan has helped the Spurs off to their hottest start in years to claim the best record in the NBA at this stage. However, as the Hornets found out, all things must come to an end, so how long can they keep it up? Pop seems to have found the recipe for success with this ageing squad but plenty of older teams get out to hot starts and then fizzle out as the grind of the 82 game marathon that is the NBA season wears them down. Look at the Boston Celtics last season; they went .500 after the Christmas break. However, Splitter is young enough to last all season and George Hill showed himself to be a capable starter in Tony Parker's absence last season. After last season, we all thought the young Thunder would challenge the Lakers in the West, but early signs indicate the elderly statesmen of the West in San Antonio could vie for the Western Conference title, if not the NBA championship itself. Seeing this two veteran squads going at it for seven games would be a treat, seeing the victor face off against Boston would be even better.

5) It ain't easy being green;
At least, it wasn't supposed to be. At the end of the regular season, everyone had written off my Celtics as washed up, Barkley even predicted they'd lose to Miami (think about it, this was LAST season) and now people are saying they are the team to beat. A trip to the Finals will do that to you. However, we've seen them jump out to a hot start for the past two seasons before fizzling. Will it happen again? The Celtics have dropped a few questionable games (Cavaliers anyone?) but have more or less silenced their rivals (cough*2-0 against Miami*cough) when it counted. If the Celtics can continue their strong play and nab home-court advantage they'll be in with a shot for a return trip to the Finals, assuming Shaq doesn't blow a gasket. Or Pierce. Or Allen. Or Garnett. I told you it wasn't easy being green.

6) Rose for MVP?
Rose has been scintillating this season, putting up ridiculous numbers and leading his Bulls to a +.500 record largely without the help of Carlos Boozer. He is showing increased confidence in his 3-point shot, including that nasty buzzer beater against the Rockets - did you see the lift he got? - but he now has to adjust to Boozer's presence. If Rose sees a slight dip in scoring and a big increase in assists while leading his Bulls to the top of their division then we might just see the first PG MVP since Nash. If Rose picks up his D and continues to work hard, the Bulls could challenge Miami in the East long after Boston retires into submission.

I was going to gun for ten, but these are the ones I really care about. So what have we learned? Wily vets are fun to track, and so are ridiculous athletes. I hope I've given you all something to consider during the pre-Christmas slump.