The Match-Ups of End Game
LeBron vs. Rose, Mamba vs. Durantula.
by Colin Powers
It has become something of a rarity in the professional ranks to see two alphas directly engage one another, especially when they are not perfectly corresponding in size and position. The immense energy demanded of these individuals to carry their team’s efforts on the offensive end frequently and understandably leads to the coach’s decision to compensate for those demands by preserving stamina on the defensive front. Yes, some of these top dogs also earn All-Defensive team honors (LeBron, Kobe, Wade), but that does not mean they are routinely assigned the opposing team’s best player and tasked with contesting every possession. They make plays all the same in the help-side, deliver game-changing steals and blocks, and serve as essential cogs in the functioning of the team defense. Fleeting are the moments, however, when we witness an individual match-up that forces elite upon elite, to the victor go the spoils.
Though great for the fans, that would be a burdensome ask, an exhausting venture, and perhaps even a self-destructive move for the team: It would inevitably sap the offensive contributions of the star player because of energy expended defensively, with the defensive benefits not outweighing the shot the offense would take as a result. Come Playoff time, and come end game, however, the competitive fires stoked in this eat or be eaten environment leaves many of these alphas with no choice but to take on all challengers and empty all they have out on the court. In situations like these, we are treated to match-up of stars ordinarily separated by weight class, height, position, and long-term team strategy. In situations like these, we are fortuitously awarded another window to observe who the real king of the court might be .
Last night, we were graced with two epic mano-e-mano clashes as the 4th quarter and must-win dynamic grew to monolithic proportions. 6-9 LeBron James switched on to the explosive 6-3 PG Derrick Rose, and in the late night, 6-10 Kevin Durant stepped up to check the one player above all others defined by the mythology of clutch: Kobe Bryant. TNT knows drama.
The Bron-Rose match-up brought together two of the top five athletes in the sport in a contest of the quickest-twitching fibers. Rose had torched Cleveland all night (and all series for that matter) indiscriminate of the defender the Cavs sent at him. Combining an increasingly automatic 15-18 foot pull-up jumper off the bounce as well as uncanny feel on that in between floater-push shot, the young man was killin’. Then, about halfway through the 4th, James or Coach Brown decided to add checking one of the quickest guards in the League to LeBron’s already fairly significant job responsibilities.
Alas, there were another eight men on the court who complicated the potential simplicity of having Bron and Rose sort it out between themselves, but we still got to see an intriguing give and take. Derrick, to his credit, recognized he was messing with a whole other kind of animal once LeBron switched onto him. He didn’t play tentatively, but understood (or was forced to understand) that going at LeBron as he had Mo Williams, Delonte West & Co. was not really a feasible option. There is simply no room for error. The power, speed and sheer magnitude of LeBron eradicate even the possibility of getting an easy look. Rose did challenge him a few times; on one occasion, he was able to explode into the lane for what at first looked to be a decent look at the rim. With the freight train trailing closely behind him, however, Rose had to rush his finishing attempt or find himself another subject of a SportsCenter highlight honoring the King’s divine recovery speed and shot-blocking dominance. As is such, he missed the hurried scoop shot. On another occasion, squared off on the right wing, Derrick hit him with his quickest right to left crossover, a move that would create space against the entirety of the human species…except LeBron. Consequently, he was forced into a step-back jumper under duress that harmlessly caromed of the rim.
Now, like I said Derrick for the most part removed any aspect of the ego in this arrangement, trusted his teammates and sought to exploit the mismatches that derived from LeBron guarding him and the subsequent adjustments the rest of the Cavs had to make. Rose delivered timely passes to Noah and Deng, and Luol in particular capitalized on the breathing room available when LeBron roams other pastures. The Bulls eeked it out in the end. Once again, however, LeBron displayed that when he can really devote his concentration to guarding an individual, there are few better in the League at putting the clamps down. He’s just so inhumanly big, strong, and quick that he is able to erase angles an offensive player might think they have while swallowing up and absorbing penetration attempts with his 270-pound frame.
In the night cap, Kevin Durant, a man not yet known for his defensive prowess, switched on to Kobe Bean Bryant for the 4th quarter. Such a move had been advocated by a few outside observers, seeing Durant’s length as a means to offset Kobe’s post production and force him into more difficult looks. On Thursday night, such a postulate proved true. Though I gotta give it up to Kobe for making Durant fall on one ultra-quick behind the back change of direction dribble (after which he threw the ball away, doh!), Durant clearly bothered him. Already fatigued from three quarters of high-energy basketball, Durant’s interior presence transformed Kobe into a jump-shooter, which he no longer had the legs for. There is no routine release or easy shot when a dude with a 7-foot wingspan is closing out on you, and KB24 didn’t seem to have the fitness to make the necessary counter-move last night. Furthermore, on the other end of the court, when Kobe was switched on to Mr. Durant, the height difference was too much and KD found clean looks out of the post within ten feet, a welcome relief from the constantly abrasive tactics of Queenbridge’s finest, Ron Artest.
Two great games and two fascinating match-ups. I suspect Cleveland will take care of business in game four, but I am not nearly as confident regarding L.A. Up to this point, OKC has played sloppily, excitedly, and below their ability. Despite that they remain only one game from leveling the series (and easily could have stolen one in LA). That doesn’t bode well for Hollywood. They should advance eventually by their advantage in talent, size, and guile, but though LA is definitively the better team, there is something clearly missing right now.
Lamar Odom, where are you?