Does Celtics coach Brad Stevens have an answer for LeBron James?

Does Celtics coach Brad Stevens have an answer for LeBron James?

There are significant differences between college hoops and the pros. The game and shot clocks are not the same. Nor are the number of fouls that take you over the limit. Other rules vary, as well, but I said ‘significant’.  Topping that list is the fact that NBA players are paid much more than NCAA athletes, and not under the table.

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Making the NBA is also a rite of passage into manhood. Pro coaches may occasionally refer to a rookie as a ‘good kid’ but the player will work hard to shed that image. All but the most impressive NCAA players are kids. The elite are ‘young men’. The NBA is all about being a man.

Talk is building that the T-Wolves might hire Becky Hammon as coach.

Yes, I see you there, Becky Hammon. You know I don’t mean it that way. What I’m saying is that NBA stars are more independent and therefore resistant to coaching than student-athletes. In the college ranks, players don’t stick around too long. Coaches are the stars. In the pros, it’s the opposite. Virtually every franchise is associated with a player.

People will refer to Golden State as Steph Curry’s team, not Steve Kerr’s. The Cavs are LeBron James’ squad. Many fans need a second before identifying Tyronn Lue as the coach. Even the greatest coach in the game’s history [Sorry, Mr Auerbach] took a back seat in Chicago and Los Angeles. The Bulls were Michael Jordan’s team. People argued over whether the Lakers belonged to Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal before the Big Aristotle settled the debate by leaving for Miami. No one questioned Phil Jackson’s genius in either city but he wasn’t the face of the franchise like John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski are at Kentucky and Duke respectively.

If we’re honest, the alpha male mentality among NBA stars is why even the best college coaches struggle in the league. Yes, I’m looking at you, Calipari.

John Calipari will tell you it's tough for NCAA coaches to make the transition to the NBA

There are some coaches who can adapt. Billy Donovan is doing an excellent job in Oklahoma City. A coach without NCAA credentials might have blinked when Kevin Durant ditched the Thunder for the Warriors. Not the former Florida Gators boss. He’s used to players leaving after one or two years.

The other coach proving it’s not a question of either/or enjoyed more lasting relationships with his players. Brad Stevens didn’t have a procession filled with NBA sure-things like Joakim Noah, Al Horford, David Lee, Corey Brewer, Chandler Parsons, and Mike Miller, among others, parading in and out of the Butler locker room, collecting huge signing bonuses rather than diplomas. There was Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack, and that’s it. Two men don’t a parade make. Nevertheless, Stevens coached his mid-major side to a pair of NCAA Finals.

Now he’s in charge of the most storied team in NBA history, the Boston Celtics. He has them in the playoffs, one game from an Eastern Conference matchup with the Cavaliers. He’s led them this far without his most talented player, the point guard who forced a trade away from the Quicken Loans Arena to escape LeBron’s immense shadow. Kyrie Irving broke his kneecap in 2015. Three years later, on April 8th, the Celtics were forced to shelve Irving for the season after an infection developed around the tiny screws still in his patella, requiring surgery. Without his primary star, Stevens has had to pull his team together.

To add injury to injury, the coach has lost the player who might best help him unite the squad. Former Butler small forward Gordon Hayward dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia six minutes into the season opener against the Cavaliers. He has been gone the entire season. If the Celtics put the Philadelphia 76ers away tonight, they’ll come up against the Cavs again, but it won’t be full circle. Stevens can still call on Billy Donovan’s former UF big man, Al Horford, however, to keep the six degrees of separation in play.

When Brad Stevens draws up a play during a Celtics timeout, it tends to work.

What separates Stevens from many NBA coaches is his tactical acumen and man-management skills.

He has shaped the Celtics into a balanced team in which there is no alpha male. The detail-minded coach spent equal time with reserves at the end of the bench as he did with Irving, Hayward, and Horford when all three were healthy. When two of them went down, players such as Terry Rozier stepped right in and thrived, knowing exactly what Stevens desired because trust and understanding had already been established.

In-game, Stevens is renowned across the league for running diverse and varied plays following timeouts. The Celts can come at you and defend you in different sets and situations.

A Cleveland/Boston series offers a unique matchup: Stevens v LeBron, Mind v Matter. Can the game’s most cunning strategist find a way to stop its most determined will? James has adapted to adversity himself. The Cavs failed to provide another running mate to replace the traded Irving. Isaiah Thomas didn’t fit. Dwyane Wade’s knees weren’t up to the task. Nearly half the roster turned over at the trade line. The man on a mission to reach his eighth straight NBA Finals had no choice but to go all Thanos on the Eastern Conference.

LeBron has carried the Cavs through the Eastern Conference’s first two rounds. The Clevelanders needed seven games to sneak past the Pacers in the first round but the L-Train wasn’t going to run out of steam before reaching the Finals. He raised his game and the rest of the team’s with it to sweep the number-one-seeded Toronto Raptors, allowing for a few days’ rest. Maybe more if the Sixers make a series of their clash with Boston.

We’ve seen the Cavs and Warriors go at it for three seasons running now. We know what to expect. That isn’t the case with a potential Cleveland/Boston matchup. Can Stevens keep LeBron off-balance for an entire best-of-seven series? The fact he came up short in his two NCAA title games suggests maybe not, but there will be tremendous entertainment value in watching him try.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

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Has LeBron found a way to step out from Michael’s shadow?

Has LeBron found a way to step out from Michael’s shadow?

Whether or not we teach it in schools, whether or not we claim otherwise, Americans believe in evolution. Our nature demands that whatever comes next prove itself better than what came before. If it does, we worship it. When it doesn’t, we show it no mercy. Get the Best NBA Playoff Point Spread Picks.

That is LeBron James’ curse. This generation’s greatest player has felt the pressure throughout his career to surpass the greatest of the last, the greatest of all time. He has pushed back against that pressure every step of the way. Nothing he has done has been enough.

Le Bron has been to seven straight NBA Finals. He still could make it eight. Michael Jordan only went to six finals in his career but won them all. King James has won titles with two teams. His Airness retired then came back to win a second set of three consecutive NBA titles with the Bulls. For every individual record LBJ has set, MJ still holds another.

When James and the Cavaliers stunned the 73-9 Golden State Warriors to win the 2016 NBA title, preventing Steph Curry and Co from closing the deal to eclipse the 1995-96 Bulls team that went 72-10, all he accomplished was to confirm Jordan’s greatness. It seems he cannot win. Or can he?

The 2017/18 Cavs are arguably James’ worst team since his Finals run began. It was so old and slow that Cleveland GM Koby Altman blew it up. At the trade deadline, Altman dealt away Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, and a first-round pick. George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr, and Jordan Clarkson came to the Quicken Loans Arena. The end result? Cleveland was younger, faster, more sound defensively, but much less dangerous with the ball. Of Jordan’s six NBA title-winning teams, this Cleveland side is most like the first.

There were three players on that Bulls squad who averaged double-digit points per game: Jordan (31.5), Scottie Pippen (17.8), and Horace Grant (12.8). The season-ending Cavs roster has three comparable players in LeBron (27.5), Kevin Love (17.6), and Jordan Clarkson (12.6).  Rodney Hood and Jeff Green’s matching 10.8 ppg averages compensate for the 4-point difference between Jordan and James. Bill Cartwright, John Paxson and BJ Armstrong were the other primetime players in that Chicago squad. They provided 9.8, 8.7, and 8.8 ppg respectively.

The similarity ends there, however. Phil Jackson had a short bench and came at opponents in one way, through Jordan and the triangle offense. Tyrone Lue uses his bench players more liberally, adopting different strategies according to the opponent. In Game 1 against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday, for instance, Kevin Love had a poor shooting night, going 3-13, scoring just seven points but grabbing 13 rebounds. Kyle Korver and Jeff Smith picked up the offensive slack, with help off the bench from Jeff Green and Tristan Thompson.

Kyle Korver doesn't rate as LeBron James' Scottie Pippen.

The other difference, the one that will help LeBron make his case in the GOAT debate, is that he is the only future Hall-of-Famer on this team. Kevin Love is essentially LBJ’s Horace Grant. James has no Pippen. If he can carry this team to the Finals, he will have to win it on his own, which is something Jordan never had to do.

Of course, we’re a long way from the Finals but the Cavs stunned the Raptors in Game 1, stealing a one-point victory on the road in overtime. LeBron and Co found a way to get it done, just as they did against Indiana. They’ve beaten Toronto on the way to the Finals in the past two seasons, as well. Will the Game 1 victory mess with the Raptors’ heads? If the Cavaliers can hang with the Eastern Conference number one seed in tonight’s early game — seriously who starts a game at 6 pm? — it might clear the road to a third meeting with Golden State.

The Warriors may have too many weapons for the new defensive-oriented Cavs. Proving he can carry a team to glory on his own may not happen for the King. Expect him to give it a good run, however, and maybe bet the under with Cleveland until they match up with Golden State.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.