Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

I Guess Change is Good for Any of Us

There are all kinds of change, but the most lasting and legitimate kind of change comes over time. It comes from things like experience, trial and error, practice, habit, development and often criticism. For all the excitement of this year’s playoffs, two changes stand out:

The first change has been gradual, subtle but frequently targeted for criticism. LeBron James is an easy target and always will be in the same way that MJ was ripped before he won titles and the way Kobe has been attacked before and after winning titles. Losing, the Decision, the Global Icon, the commercials, quitting accusations, rumors of uncoachability, ridiculous free agent demands and mountains of attacks and assaults in print and spoken word—it’s all been thrown at LeBron and no matter what happens in the next few weeks, it will continue to pour down on him. In the process of amassing hate from all corners of the basketball-watching and consuming public, LeBron went through the growing pains apparently required of NBA stars: incremental playoff progress followed by inevitable defeat by the league’s senior gatekeepers. In Cleveland, Bron lost to a veteran Pistons squad, Tim Duncan’s Spurs in a 4-0 Finals sweep, the KG-led Celtics (twice), and somehow to a hot-shooting Orlando Magic squad. After all those playoff losses and criticisms, he’s finally getting after it with the kind of intensity we’ve always associated with Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. In the fourth quarter on Tuesday night, with the game on the line, he put the clamps on Derrick Rose. LeBron was the best player on both sides of the court and was rewarded for his efforts with a 3-1 series lead.

A few years ago LeBron commented, “I don’t think I have an instinct like Kobe, where I just want to kill everybody.” Homicide aside, we saw the comments and took note. Kobe busied himself with back-to-back titles and three straight finals appearances while LeBron continued to get bounced out of the Eastern Conference playoffs. It’d be beyond naiveté to ignore the southern migration and the Wade/Bosh upgrades. Bron is surrounded by the best #2 and 3 options in the league. With those two stars flanking him, he’s managed to improve his overall game. He’s been named to all-defensive teams in the past, but we haven’t seen anything like the lockdown job he put on Rose last night or the dive-for-the-ball intensity he showed in the late fourth. Maybe it’s the support of Wade and Bosh or maybe it’s the relief they provide, but this LeBron is different. He’s playing with an energy usually reserved for the lesser-talented players of the world and he somehow has an endless supply of it. His post-play and post-game celebrations are indicative of someone who’s giving a damn—whether his outburst are aimed at critics, opponents or history doesn’t matter much. Focus and commitment are questions of his northern past.

The other change born of these playoffs: the stoic evolution of Dirk Nowitzki—a few weeks shy of 33 years old. The Larry Bird comparisons are inaccurate, but Dirk’s likely been the MVP of these playoffs. He’s playing chess to the defenders’ checkers. He’s cancelling out the best defenders on every team and doing it with a style that’s foreign to the NBA game in more ways than just being a German import. He’s always been an efficient scorer and in his career the Mavs are 6-1 in playoff games where he scores over 40 points. Like LeBron, Dirk’s has his own basketball bouncing skeletons in the closet. It’s taken a long four years to cleanse himself of the stain laid on him by Stephen Jackson and the Warriors in the 2007 opening round playoff upset, but he’s returned to MVP form and then had the audacity to surpass it with something that appears to be a casual effort which isn’t to say he’s not trying, but that everything is somehow easier. Like James, any questions of Dirk’s toughness or heart have been silenced by his virtuosic performance in these playoffs.  

With LeBron and Dirk, there’s been nothing disingenuous about their change. There’s no re-definition or worshiping false idols. They still carry the parts and pieces we’ve questioned over the years, but they’ve layered on so much more that we have to squint to see the old traces and even then, our eyesight’s still not strong enough.

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