Remember that indelible image of Magic Johnson, in his final postseason, grabbing a rebound against Portland near the end of game and immediately tossing the ball in the air so that the final two or three seconds ticked away? Of course you do, because it’s a B-level moment/image in the NBA’s history. For Magic, I’d place it right under his junior-junior skyhook game-winner and his rookie year when, after Kareem hits a game-winner to open the season, Magic hugs Kareem so hard and for so long, he almost chokes him out.
That moment always held a special importance in how I perceive winners. Aside from it being – to my knowledge – the genius genesis of heaving the ball in the air to run out the clock (Tony Allen pulled this move at the very end of Memphis’ closeout win in Oklahoma City a few weeks ago), I remembered it as a classic “whatever it takes” play from a legend.
Here’s how I remembered things: It was the final moment of Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. Drexler was on the line. Blazers were down. Drexler (like Drex’) missed the tying freebie, then Magic turned into Moses Malone, shoved mammoth Kevin Duckworth AND diesel Jerome Kersey outta the way, snatched the board and did what inspired Dick Enberg’s memorable, “Talk about the brilliance of Magic Johnson!”
That’s not exactly what happened. Here’s what happened.
So, yeah, that’s not exactly what happened. First, it was Game 6 (!), not 7; the rebound did not come off of a missed free throw; and Magic didn’t wrestle with two Portland meatheads – he boxed-out Drex’, who was running the wrong way, of course. (I did, however, remember Magic’s late-game genius-heave exactly how it happened.)
The thing was, that 1991 Lakers squad was a finesse squad – dare we say “soft.” Their bigs – rookie Vlade Divac, Sam Perkins, A.C. Green, old Mychal Thompson – weren’t big on the boards. Portland, meanwhile, came at you with Duckworth, Kersey, grown-man Buck Williams; lanky cats like Clifford Robinson; rebounding guards, like Drex’ – they were a handful.
Throughout that series, my Pops kept stressing how Magic had to hit the boards. He was a broken record. ( Hit the boards, Mag’! Get the board, Mag! Come on now, Magic, get in that paint!) Portland and the boards was a problem. In both of the Lakers losses leading up to Game 6, the Blazers were straight merkin’ L.A. on the boards. It all came to a head in Game 5, when Portland out-rebounded L.A., 52-33. Here’s the kicker, though: 28 offensive rebounds. Twenty-eight!!! That is getting manhandled on a debased level.
By this point in Magic’s career, he had put on his grown man weight. He was probably closer to 230 pounds than the listed 215. As far as Pops was concerned, if Perkins and Vlade and’nem were going to let the Blazers continuously bully-foot them, then, at 6´9/230, it was incumbent upon Magic to wade into the trenches and grab those boards himself.
Do whatever it takes.
That mantra so was impressed upon me throughout those 1991 Playoffs – and especially in that series – that, over time, it obviously warped my memory of the stakes of the game and Magic’s feat. From that point on, that’s been my expectation of the greatest players to ever do it. Do whatever it takes. Sometimes that means a perimeter player putting on his hard hat and helping his thin squad meet the challenge in the trenches.
LeBron came into the league hyped as a new version of Magic. He was Magic, but Michael, too. No player 6´8 and up, other than Magic, ever came close to LeBron’s mix of ball-handling, court vision and versatility. But, especially early in ’Bron’s career, he took the Jordan route. The Cavs moved him off the ball; gone was the notion that he’d play point and in came the very real possibilities of scoring titles.
But, then, before you knew it, this dude – with Magic’s versatility and the ability to drop 35, like Jordan – was as big as Karl Malone. Crazy thing is that, somehow, he stayed as agile as Scottie Pippen. A freak show, I tell ya.
LeBron’s size – in today’s wack era of small ball, dude is often one of the two biggest players on the court – has always been something like a secret weapon he could pull out AFTER he already used his big gun. Miami’s greatest advantage over a lot of teams is when they play LeBron at the 4, since he’s got the mass and strength to jostle with the big boys and the big boys have no chance to guard him on the other end.
Coming out of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Miami found itself heading back home with its title defense in jeopardy. The Pacers – big and tough at every position – had Deebo’d the Heat. The rebounding margin, 49-30, was telling – especially when you consider that Indiana’s frontcourt out-rebounded Miami’s 32-11. All series long, Roy Hibbert had been doing Chris Bosh like the T-Rex did the raptor at the end of Jurassic Park. (I recognize that, given the glut of Bosh memes on the web, you might think I’m clownin’…but that’s real-talk.)
Heading into Game 5, my personal charge for LeBron (as a hoops fan and someone that is super interested in how today’s legends will stack up against their predecessors) was for him to Do whatever it takes.
Do whatever it takes , to me, meant morphing into a 1993 Charles Barkley. Instead, we got a 2008 Kobe. Or, when you think about it, a “2012-Game 6-ECS” LeBron. LeBron put on his game face, chastised his teammates, and started wheeling on lames. They couldn’t stop him. He just outscored the Pacers – quite literally, in the third quarter.
I wouldn’t think of knocking his “one for the ages” performance, but I wondered if it might not be whatever it takes when that behemoth Pacers squad headed back to Conseco. It wasn’t. It was like the basketball version of that jail skit off of Cuban Linx II. In Game 7, the Heat flipped on a dormant switch that we forgot worked, at all. Shockingly, the won the rebound war 43-36. But the problems persist.
LeBron even remarked about it when he sat down with the TNT crew after the game.
“We don’t have a Zach Randolph, we don’t have Dwight Howard, we don’t have a guy that can go out and get you 13, 14 rebounds each and every night – where you can just bank it,” he said.
He said it was about doing it as a collective – except, he can no longer count on his cohorts to show. TSL’s DJ Dunson has gone so as to say that Miami is down to a Big One.
Next up is the Spurs, with all their trees inside and a dude like Tony Parker that, sometimes, seems like he downright refuses to score outside of the paint. Few teams collectively protect the rim, score in the paint and rebound as well as the Spurs do on a consistent basis. Meanwhile, that Miami interior looks butter soft too often and that’s an issue.
Barkley played the best basketball of his career between the 1992 Summer Olympics and his trip to the 1993 NBA Finals. That version of Barkley was a revelation with the havoc he wreaked. He’d bully you in the post. He’d dot your eye from three. And, geez, when he pulled down a board and headed the other way – freight-train style – it was like some kind of apocalyptic force of nature (earlier in these playoffs, after one of LeBron’s coast-to-coasts, I tweeted that LeBron might have taken Barkley’s title as “greatest coast-to-coast freight train of all-time”…reaction was split). And no squad with Barkley was letting the opponent punk them on the boards.
Barkley was just an all-around, physical force – you felt him everywhere. AND he was dropping 40 on heads. AND the Suns, when they wanted to, could run their offense through him. LeBron has to be Barkley, only better. And that’s not an unfair expectation because, well, LeBron’s better than Barkley.
By now, most sports fans have seen the footage of LeBron screamin’ on his teammates at halftime of that pivotal Game 5. If not, here it is:
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Based on lip-reading and sheer speculation, I gather he said something very close to, “THEY THINK WE B*****S!! WE NEED TO GO OUT HERE AND FIGHT THESE M***********S!! STOP ACTIN LIKE B*****S!!”
’Bron then promptly went out and assassinated the Pacers on his own. But there were definitely times during the fourth quarter, when David West was his assignment, where LeBron wasn’t necessarily trying to avoid contact, but trying to avoid physicality. Barkley was hitting stepback 20-footers and looking for fights in the paint. That’s who Barkley was at his core, a bar room brawler. That’s not LeBron. So what, though? Put on your Timbs, homeboy. Get your Barkley on. The Spurs aren’t the 1990 Pistons, but they aren’t the 2007 Suns, either. Do whatever it takes.