King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Duncan vs. Nash, LeBron vs. Vince: Superstars alone don't win NBA titles. But you'd better have one.


Salon Staff
May 9, 2007 8:00PM (UTC)

Here's something that almost never happens: Tuesday night, Magic Johnson and I did the same thing.

I don't know what Magic Johnson does with his time most of the time, but I have a feeling it would be pretty cool for me if that happened more often.

Anyway, here's what he did that I did: He watched the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the New Jersey Nets 102-92 to take a 2-0 lead in their NBA playoff series, then he watched the Phoenix Suns beat the San Antonio Spurs 101-81 to even that series at 1-1, and he thought about Dirk Nowitzki.

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I know, Magic. Me too. Nowitzki's been at the fishing hole for almost a week and I can't stop obsessing over the great tragic figure of the NBA.

Tragic in the dramaturgical sense, that is. Dirk's fine, as far as I know. He just has that fascinating, fatal -- in the context of basketball -- flaw. He cannot and will not and never will be a superstar who can carry a team to a championship, even though he has all the tools to do it. At least from that fuzzy chin down he does.

Johnson was in his customary playoff spot Tuesday as the fourth wheel on the best three-man weave in basketball, the TNT studio show with Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley. They'd just showed a clip of Cleveland coach Mike Brown's postgame comments, in which he talked about LeBron James.

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"With five minutes to go in the game, I ran a play for somebody else and he missed the shot, and [James] turned to me, he said he wanted the ball," Brown said.

"He wanted the ball because he was going to win it for us. I said, 'OK.' I went in the huddle and I called one play. One play. And that one play was going to LeBron every single time. I told our guys whether it was vs. man or vs. zone, he's getting the ball. And he made the necessary plays to get us over the hump. He was the man tonight."

Coming out of the clip, Johnson said, "LeBron was just tremendous. That's what we want from Dirk. You saw what coach said: Hey, LeBron came back to the huddle and said, 'I want the ball. I'm going to take this game over, and I'm going to will us to victory.' You saw Steve Nash say, 'Hey, this is an important part of the game, eight minutes to go to the half, we were struggling.' Steve Nash took that game into his own hands, dominated the play, and made them have a seven-point lead going into halftime."

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"I get so frustrated with Dirk that he doesn't say, 'Give me the ball, get out the way, I'm about to take this game over,'" Johnson continued. "But we saw two superstars do that tonight and that's why their teams won."

That's not the whole reason why. The Suns played shut-down defense, limiting Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Phoenix started Kurt Thomas in an attempt to slow down Tim Duncan, and on the surface it didn't work. Duncan went off for 29 points on 12-of-20 shooting, but the Suns didn't double-team him. That allowed other defenders to stay on their man, most notably Shawn Marion on Parker, who had torched the Suns for 32 in Game 1 but was limited to 13 in Game 2.

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Thomas' solo work also kept Amare Stoudemire from wearing himself out trying to guard or help on Duncan, and he was the offensive leader as Phoenix put the game away in the second half. Thomas even contributed an efficient 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting.

The Cavs leaned much more heavily on James, who had 36 points, 12 assists and three blocks. He was, to coin a phrase, the man.

But the key to the game was an astonishing 19-3 advantage in offensive rebounds. Those 19 boards were pulled down exclusively by gentlemen not named LeBron. New Jersey also had 16 turnovers to Cleveland's eight. The Nets outshot the Cavaliers 52-45 percent, but it didn't come close to mattering because the Cavs took 20 more shots.

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You don't need LeBron James to win a game if you can get 20 more shots than the other team. It always helps to have LeBron James, of course -- you can't get this kind of analysis just anywhere -- but 20 extra shots is almost like getting to play with a second ball.

That's the thing. You don't need that superstar to win every game if you're doing other things right, like outrebounding the other team by orders of magnitude or shutting down their stars defensively. But especially against good teams, which is all that's left once you get past the first round of the playoffs, you're going to have nights when you're not doing enough things right. Or nights when the other team's doing everything right.

That's when you need someone who's able -- and willing -- to say, "Give me the ball, get out the way, I'm about to take this game over." Almost all of the teams still alive have at least one guy like that.

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The Suns have Nash but also Stoudemire and, to a lesser extent, Marion and even Leandro Barbosa, whose speed can be a devastating wild card on a given night. The Spurs have Duncan, but also Parker and Ginobili. The Cavs have James. The Nets have Jason Kidd and Vince Carter and, failing those, Richard Jefferson.

The Golden State Warriors have Baron Davis and also Stephen Jackson. The guy who best fits the description for the Detroit Pistons is Chauncey Billups, but what makes them so dangerous is they have an entire roster of guys like that. If it's not Billups' night, try Rip Hamilton, or Tayshaun Prince, or Rasheed Wallace. Catch him on the right night and you might even still get a game like that, or part of one, from Chris Webber.

I think the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz are the most lacking in this area among the surviving teams. Ben Gordon of the Bulls can take over a game, but I don't think he can be counted on to do it with any regularity against a playoff team with money in the pot. I'd say the same about Carlos Boozer of the Jazz. Neither one is quite that player. Deron Williams of Utah might be someday, but I don't think so, and anyway not yet.

I think the starless Jazz will beat the Warriors, but the NBA is a stars game, and, as Magic said, the stars have to act like stars when it counts.

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And the rest of us, me, Magic, the Mavericks, everybody, have to just accept it when they don't. Johnson's comments about Nowitzki probably provided a little insight about why superstars, including Magic, tend to make lousy coaches.

You can't get frustrated at Dirk Nowitzki refusing to say, "I want the ball. I'm going to take this game over, and I'm going to will us to victory." You just have to accept that and adjust. He's 28 years old. He is who he is and he's not going to change. Who he is is a great player, but not the player Magic and I and you and the Mavericks want him to be.

The smart play for the Mavericks would be to go get that guy if they can. Otherwise, you find yourself obsessing over your frustration year after year.

As much as I don't really care if the Mavericks ever win the championship and as much as I like doing the same thing on a Tuesday night as the great Magic Johnson, who wants to obsess over that every year?

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Besides me, I mean.

Magic, you and I have to put Dirk Nowitzki behind us. The Warriors and Jazz are playing Wednesday night -- for the right to lose to Duncan and the Spurs or Nash and the Suns. Should be good.

Previous column: The fight that didn't save boxing

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