Just when I say LeBron James hasn’t carried his team through adversity quite like Kobe Bryant has throughout the Western Conference playoffs, James goes and drops a triple-double on Orlando to pull Cleveland within 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
I’m still skeptical (but hopeful) of Cleveland winning the next two and advancing to the Finals, where a matchup with Bryant for all the marbles will make great theater. But that figures to be an improbable feat if it’s going to take two more 37-point, 14-rebound, 12-assists performances from James. It becomes an especially difficult task considering Saturday’s Game 6 is in Orlando and the Cavs not only haven’t figured out the Magic but have yet to win in Orlando.
What makes me most pessimistic, though, is how the Cavs played one of their best games of these playoffs and still needed a huge fourth quarter from James to pull away, still only won by 10 at home and still squandered a big lead, this time 22 points.
And for all of James’ dominance in the fourth quarter, many of his 17 points in the final period came on jump shots. If those aren’t falling in Game 6 the Cavs are in big trouble.
Aside from that, Thursday night was the first time that James got some much-needed help from his teammates. Mo Williams poured in 24 points, Big Z scored 16, Delonte West finished with 13 points and Daniel Gibson had 11 off the bench. I doubt all four of those guys have similar performances when their backs are against the wall on the road. I doubt Cleveland goes into Orlando and shoots 50 percent and builds another 20-plus point lead, let alone hang on for victory after blowing it.
James is a special, special talent and leading his team to the NBA Finals after trailing 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals would be his most impressive feat yet. I’m rooting for him. I just don’t see Cleveland getting it done.
A friend of mine who covers the Nuggets text messaged me last night and asked if I thought Denver could beat L.A. in tonight’s Game 6.
My reply: “Definitely. L.A. hasn’t proved to be consistent on the road. Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum haven’t been nearly as effective as they should be. The Nuggets’ role players you would think will play much better at home. And that Pepsi Center crowd seems like it’s been crazy.”
I want to believe the Lakers have learned a lesson from how erratic they played in that Houston series. I want to believe that Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher all will have that killer instinct to close this thing out and get a little extra rest before the Finals. But teams are what they are at this point in the season, and the Lakers have proven that they don’t take care of business when they should.
Everything in me says Denver wins a close one tonight and takes this thing back to L.A. for Game 7.
I expect Chauncey Billups to come out aggressive much like he did in Game 1 of the first round against New Orleans. If he gets going early it could be a long night for L.A.
It might be essential that Billups come out in attack mode with this game providing all the pressure Denver’s fiery roster needs to implode if things start out on the wrong foot. Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, Dahntay Jones and Nene can all lose their cool at any moment and have shown it in this series. Billups is the one calming force that can settle down the Nuggets in this elimination game.
Something tells me the X-factor tonight will be Trevor Ariza. He’ll need to hit the open shots that the Lakers’ system creates for him and play lock down defense on Carmelo Anthony. Jordan Farmar could also be big off the bench if given ample minutes. Denver backup point guard Anthony Carter can’t keep up with Farmar defensively, so if Phil Jackson plays him he could help L.A. match the firepower coming off Denver’s bench.