LeBron, Kobe Finding Out Basketball Still a Team Game

The games two biggest stars aren't getting a lot of help

After a heartbreaking overtime loss to Orlando that left his Cleveland Cavaliers on the brink of elimination, LeBron James had this to say about the improbable comeback chances.

"We are up for the challenge. I know I am."

The second part of that may be the most telling statement about these NBA Conference Finals — LeBron is ready, but are his teammates? Are they capable?

The two series going on right now were just supposed to be formalities in a lot of fans minds, an appetizer before the main course of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. There’s a lot of Vitaminwater to sell and the company has been over-hyping the matchup. Kobe and LeBron puppets were doing commercials. The NBA’s star–hyping factory was in full operation and ready to go into overdrive.

But when James Naismith invented the game, he put five players on the court at a time. And while a great play by LeBron or Kobe may steal a game, the better TEAM wins a seven game series.The team that plays better defense.The team that executes its game plan. The team that doesn’t fall apart under pressure.

Cleveland has fallen apart under the bright lights. This was a very good defensive team in the regular season that has not been able to adjust to covering a team that can live and die by the three — Orlando shot 44.7 percent from deep in game four. When the game was on the line, Orlando kept getting solid looks at three. Cleveland can’t stop Dwight Howard without committing a bevy of defenders, they are struggling to slow Hedo Turkoglu on the pick and roll. They can’t seem to stop anything, and they can’t seem to adjust their style.

On offense, the Cavaliers won a league best 66 regular season games because they took the pressure off LeBron, the other guys made plays and hit shots. Against Orlando they have returned to their 2006 offense — lots of standing and watching LeBron. Especially in crunch time. In the final six minutes of regulation and overtime of game four, LeBron took 69 percent of the team’s shots, and the shots (and fouls for free throws) that other players got were pretty much created by LeBron. The help from Mo Williams and the big shots by Zydrunas Ilgauskas that were there all regular season long have vanished.

Kobe and his Lakers are in a better spot at 2-2 in their series largely because Kobe is getting a little help — Pau Gasol is playing like a real number two (flawed in some ways, but providing a real second scoring option when the Laker guards can figure out how to make an entry pass). Trevor Ariza is also playing about as well as you can expect him to on both ends of the floor.

But after that — Denver is basically dominating the battle of spots three through eight on the roster. The Nuggets have gotten big games out of JR Smith and Nene and even Linas Kleiza. Phil Jackson has gone to some screwy lineups in an effort to find something, anything that works, to get his players to counter Denver’s energy. He’s begged his team for consistency.

And if he doesn’t get it, the NBA Finals could look like Denver and Orlando. And while David Stern just got a chill up his spine with that thought, it would mean the two best teams are playing.

And that is what basketball should be about.

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