Want more basketball in your inbox? Sign up for Marc Stein’s weekly N.B.A. newsletter here.
This has never been the month that basketball players were meant to peak.
October is for baseball glory, and there can only be one Mr. October. By swatting three home runs on three swings in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Reggie Jackson cemented one of the most fitting, enduring nicknames in all of sports.
In 2020, of course, little proceeds as we expected. LeBron James is chasing one more win for his fourth N.B.A. championship at Walt Disney World at the same time Jackson’s beloved Yankees are scuffling with the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Divisional Series at a neutral site in San Diego.
The schedule glut across so many sports has posed an unexpected quandary for Mr. October, since Jackson is also an unabashed LeBron James fan.
“I enjoy watching him as much as I do the baseball,” Jackson said. “The basketball is winding down, so if they’re both on at the same time, I’m going to be flipping back to baseball, because I’m going to be on the basketball. You need to see this guy.”
I had a feeling that was the case when I saw Jackson gushing on Twitter after the 38-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist masterpiece that James uncorked in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals to close out the Denver Nuggets.
So I called him over the weekend to confirm that Jackson would be tracking James closely, even amid the fleshiest baseball postseason ever — with 16 of Major League Baseball’s 30 teams invited after a pandemic-abbreviated regular season spanning just 60 games instead of 162.
Mr. October, at 74 now, is a lifelong basketball fan who has been watching the game long enough to cite Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving as some of his favorites before he got to Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and, eventually, Kobe Bryant. Jackson knows as well as anyone that James, to some, will never have a case to rival Jordan in the ever-contentious G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) debate. But he surmised that this doesn’t bother James as much as many of us think.
“Once in a while you get a detractor, but the comparisons for LeBron are at the highest level,” Jackson said. “He’s one of the Mount Rushmore guys.
“Is he the greatest? I would say it doesn’t really matter. When you’re in the last paragraph, you’re pretty damn good.”
Miami’s Jimmy Butler was so good in Game 3, outplaying James in the game of his life, that it prompted James to label Tuesday’s Game 4 as a must-win game to his teammates in a pregame text. Although the Lakers delivered, now they must guard against another letdown, with Bam Adebayo (neck) back in Miami’s lineup from injury and Goran Dragic (foot) potentially returning for Friday’s Game 5.
The big-picture view, mind you, has looked as inviting for James for much of this series as he has ever had it at playoff time. In his nine previous trips to the N.B.A. finals, James often arrived with the decidedly weaker team (2007, 2017 and 2018). Or the team, like Miami in Games 2 and 3, missing its second- and third-best player: Cleveland, remember, had no Kevin Love and lost Kyrie Irving in Game 1 of the 2015 finals.
Maybe this season’s landscape is James’s compensation for past inequities. James is flanked by Anthony Davis, who even Dwyane Wade said last week was the best sidekick James has ever had. The league, as Golden State’s Draymond Green described it in our last newsletter, is “wide open” for James, Davis and their modest supporting cast to seize with the Warriors out of contention in 2020 after five consecutive trips to the N.B.A. finals. Even the abrupt halt of the N.B.A. season nearly seven months ago has not seemed to affect him. James initially feared that the hiatus would set him back physically; he lamented in late March that his body was in shock because the season’s suspension took him out of his usual playoff rhythm just as he was “rounding third base.”
If the Lakers blow it from here, up 3-1 and after seizing the first 2-0 finals lead of James’s career, count on the opprobrium directed at James to be louder and harsher than ever. If the Lakers finish the Heat off as widely expected, James will become the first player to win finals most valuable player honors with a third team.
The Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo was an overwhelmingly deserving choice to win the regular-season M.V.P. trophy, but James’s on- and off-court deliverance, from last summer to the championship series, has been unmatched. Davis wouldn’t have forced a trade from New Orleans to the Lakers if James wasn’t already there. Frank Vogel couldn’t have coached through his first season in L.A. so free of drama, after the collapse of the team’s negotiations with Tyronn Lue, without such support from James.
Year 1 in Hollywood was disastrous for James — and he certainly wasn’t blameless as the Lakers capitulated to a franchise-worst sixth successive season without a playoff berth in 2018-19. But he has been a beacon of reliability in leading the Lakers to the brink of the club’s 17th championship.
A planned meeting with James when he was still in high school was scuttled by a scheduling conflict, but Jackson met him in the bowels of Oracle Arena in 2016 on the night of James’s biggest triumph. Jackson made numerous trips to the Warriors’ former arena in Oakland, Calif., that season and had a close-range view of James’s chasedown rejection of an Andre Iguodala layup in Game 7 of the N.B.A. finals. The block helped the Cleveland Cavaliers complete a historic comeback from a 3-1 series deficit and clinch the city’s first major championship in 52 years.
“I walked up to him, shook his hand and asked him, ‘Do you know me?’ ” Jackson said. “He said: ‘I know who you are. You’re Mr. October.’ “
One more win in October 2020 and James, probably for the only time in his life, will have an inkling of how Jackson’s crown feels.
The Scoop @TheSteinLine
This newsletter is OUR newsletter. So please weigh in with what you’d like to see here. To get your hoops-loving friends and family involved, please forward this email to them so they can jump in the conversation. If you’re not a subscriber, you can sign up here.
You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.
(Responses may be condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)
Q: What impact will Doc Rivers’ latest playoff debacle have on his reputation as a top coach? — David Machlowitz (Westfield, N.J.)
Stein: Rivers was unemployed for three days after he was ousted by the Los Angeles Clippers on Sept. 28. There’s your answer. The Philadelphia 76ers had essentially decided to hire Mike D’Antoni and pivoted to Rivers as soon as he was available.
Rivers’s playoff record is undeniably spotty since winning a championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008 and taking a 3-2 lead over the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2010 N.B.A. finals before the Celtics lost in seven games. He ranks as the only coach to have lost three separate series after his teams took a 3-1 lead.
None of that, though, changes that Rivers is as respected by players as it gets in the coaching business — and I think we made it clear last month how much a coach’s ability to inspire buy-in matters. Rivers, remember, was sought out by Chris Paul, the president of the players’ union, to speak to the players as they decided whether to continue playing after the Milwaukee Bucks walked out of an Aug. 26 game to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
It’s true that Rivers could not get the current group of Clippers players to come together like he did with the Celtics, and that is a failing that can’t be overlooked. He helped the Kevin Garnett-era Celtics build championship chemistry. Rivers’s Clippers teams never did, whether they orbited around Paul and Blake Griffin or Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. But the swiftness with which Philadelphia moved to hire him, after all that, should tell you how much respect Rivers still commands.
History will remember him as one of the enduring voices of the N.B.A. bubble for speaking out against systemic racism and social injustices, and his arrival in Philadelphia brings instant credibility to a franchise that badly needs it.
The bigger question here is why Rivers was in such a rush to take this job. He could have taken a year off to recharge — playing golf, doing television and collecting the two years and roughly $20 million still left on his Clippers contract. He has instead chosen to take on a Sixers team replete with ill-fitting pieces and virtually no financial flexibility to fix the roster.
I don’t see Philadelphia and these Sixers as fertile ground to show the Clippers how wrong they were. This looks like Rivers’s toughest job yet.
Q: I compare Pat Riley to Alex Ferguson. Is there anyone else in basketball who has adapted and changed with their sport over so many years like Riley? The sports are obviously different, and I am no Manchester United fan, but my admiration for Sir Alex and his success in soccer overcomes my usual allegiances. — Bill Ireland
Stein: While passing along the usual thanks for a fresh question that makes me consider where the N.B.A. and soccer intersect, I also have to politely reject the premise.
The N.B.A.’s answer to Fergie, as I wrote in January 2019, is San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. It’s not just the uncommon longevity that Popovich, who just completed his 24th season as the Spurs’ head coach, shares with Ferguson, who managed United for 27 seasons. It’s the way that both men became synonymous with their clubs, which is typically the domain of fabled players rather than coaches — at least in professional sports.
I’m not sure Riley’s story has a parallel in world soccer or any other sport. He won four championships with the glamorous Showtime Lakers. He became the Knicks’ most successful coach not named Red Holzman by going away from the run-and-gun game and embracing physicality. Then he stunningly walked away when the Knicks refused to grant him control over personnel matters.
In Miami, after securing personnel power and an ownership stake, Riley helped build multiple superteams that won championships. There was the group starring Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, with a number of edgy, hungry veterans forming a rugged supporting cast around them, and then the Heatles of James, Wade and Chris Bosh.
And now, in 2020, Riley has returned to the N.B.A. finals with his first-ever gritty group of overachievers. The Heat certainly won’t admit it, but they didn’t expect to make this sort of playoff run until after the 2021 off-season, when they will have the chance to pursue another free agent on Jimmy Butler’s level.
All those Riley incarnations, on top of all the success across so many decades, are why I put him in his own category.
Q: How will home and away statistics from these playoffs be viewed in a historical context? — @kjartansson4 from Twitter
Stein: A “home” team and an “away” team are listed for every game in the bubble. Statistics from those games will be recorded as usual.
The word “viewed,” however, is more subjective.
Will some people question, for example, whether the Denver Nuggets could have overcome a 3-1 deficit in each of the first two rounds of the Western Conference playoffs if travel had been required this postseason? Will some historians say that the Miami Heat reached the N.B.A. finals as the East’s No. 5 seed because the playoffs were contested at a neutral site? Of course.
The Lakers’ Frank Vogel, with one more victory, would become the seventh active N.B.A. head coach to have won at least one championship. The others: Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, Golden State’s Steve Kerr, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, Philadelphia’s Doc Rivers, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Toronto’s Nick Nurse. The group would grow to eight if Tyronn Lue, an assistant coach this season on Rivers’s staff with the Los Angeles Clippers, lands a head coaching job.
Bam Adebayo’s seven games with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in these playoffs are second in Miami history for a single postseason. LeBron James had 10 such games during the 2011-12 playoffs, according to Stathead. Adebayo, though, has scarcely played in these finals, missing the past two games after straining his neck in the Lakers’ Game 1 rout.
This is the first N.B.A. finals in which both teams failed to make the playoffs the previous season. The Lakers and the Heat finished 10th in their conferences in 2018-19.
The league office disclosed last week that it has credentialed 92 player guests, across both teams, to watch N.B.A. finals games in seats adjacent to the court at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
Monday marked the 90th day on the N.B.A.’s Walt Disney World campus for the Lakers and the Heat.