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Isaiah and LeBron

Ten years ago, LeBron James and Isaiah Thomas squaring off would have seemed impossible. Now, a berth in the NBA Finals could come down to Cleveland’s undisputed king and the would-be giant killer in Boston.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

On May 10, 2002, the Pistons were losing Game 3 of the Eastern semifinals by four points with three seconds to play. Inexplicably, Kenny Anderson fouled Chucky Atkins on a 3-point attempt as Boston’s crowd wondered if Kenny was shaving points. (It’s still unclear.) Atkins sank the first two free throws, then intentionally missed the third so Detroit could snare the rebound. That play never works, right? It worked. Before we could blink, Jerry Stackhouse was banking in an improbable game-winning 3.

I was there with my father and still remember every Celtics fan shrieking in horror. Nooooooooooooooooo. But wait! Stackhouse released it after the buzzer! CELTICS WIN! The fans celebrated the same way Sully Sullenberger’s passengers celebrated as they floated on the Hudson. We just wanted to get the hell out of there.

The final score? Boston 66, Detroit 64.

I repeat: Boston 66, Detroit 64.

You can’t find video of Stackhouse’s shot on the internet. Even YouTube doesn’t want it. To this day, it’s the lowest-scoring playoff game of the shot clock era.

Fifteen years later, the Celtics outlasted Washington in Game 2 of the Eastern semis — in overtime, in Boston — in what quickly became known as the Isaiah Game. The Little Guy dropped 53 points for the NBA’s highest playoff total in 14 years, only 11 fewer than Detroit’s entire team in The World’s Ugliest Playoff Game. Final score: Boston 129, Washington 119.

We know the NBA has changed dramatically over the past 15 years — and especially the past five — but when comparing that Game 3 of 2002 to this Game 2 of 2017 it almost seems like we’re looking at two different sports.

’02 Det: 24–69 FG, 14–21 FT, 2–20 3FG, 13/19 AST/TO, 73.9 off. rating
’17 Wiz: 46–99 FG, 17–22 FT, 10–34 3FG, 28/17 AST/TO, 112.3 off. rating
’02 Bos: 27–78 FG, 10–12 FT, 2–19 3FG, 13/16 AST/TO, 76.2 off. rating
’17 Bos: 45–88 FG, 26–34 FT, 13–36 3FG, 26/16 AST/TO, 121.7 off. rating

Pace and space, 3s, slash-and-kicks, high screens, foul shots, more 3s. That’s basketball in 2017. Years of trial and error nudged us here: an advanced metrics revolution, better playmaking, superior long-range shooting, big men drifting farther away from the paint, a collective realization that spacing could trump size and a league that wanted this to happen. Would you rather have 129–119 or 66–64?

Nobody loves it more than the Warriors, who almost swapped Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes for Kevin Love in 2014 before reconsidering. One title, two Finals appearances, one 73-win season, two Steph MVPs, and one unexpected Kevin Durant signing later, the league’s newest superteam remains undefeated in the postseason, pounding Portland and Utah by 16.5 points per game. We might remember them as the first all-time team that threw away the center position. It’s in play.

If you want to break your basketball-loving brain, imagine the ’17 Warriors defending Kareem on the ’85 Lakers or Shaq on the ’01 Lakers. What happens?

Then again, imagine the Warriors spreading out the ’85/’01 Lakers, pulling Shaq or Kareem away from the hoop and torching them. (And if Kareem was off the floor? Come on over, Magic, you’re next.) Imagine them doing the same to Parish and Walton, forcing the ’86 Celts to ride Ainge, DJ, Wedman, Bird, and McHale for entire fourth quarters. Imagine them torturing Kukoc, Longley, and Wennington in high screens, with MJ, Pippen, and Rodman finally saying "Screw it" and trying to defend all five Warriors at once.

For 30 years, I believed the ’86 Celtics were the greatest ever. They were the only team that shrunk the half court like they were the ’85 Oilers on a power play, cramming everyone closer and closer to the net/rim. McHale posting up with Bird spreading the floor on that same side? That’s the most unstoppable two-man routine of that generation. You couldn’t defend it.

Bird’s contagious passing spawned one of the better fast breaks in basketball history, too. Check this out. It looks like a completely different sport.

Others believed the ’87 Lakers owned the no. 1 spot, blessed with a just-as-potent half-court offense, a transcendent passer, the most unstoppable low-post player ever and a deadly transition game. For the Celtics and Lakers, every offensive decision hinged on one question: "What’s the easiest 2-point basket we can get?"

Thirty years later, that question evolved to this: "What’s the easiest 3-point basket we can get?"

’86 Celtics: 114.1 PPG, 50.8% FG, 29.1 APG, 138 3s
’87 Lakers: 117.8 PPG, 51.6% FG, 29.6 APG, 164 3s
’17 Warriors: 115.9 PPG, 49.5% FG, 30.4 APG, 982 3s

Same results, different strategy. Just watch what happens on fast breaks. Thirty years ago, Magic’s teammates sprinted down the floor hoping (a) he would find them for an easy layup or dunk, and (b) they’d end up in a YouTube clip with Last of the Mohicans music. FILL THE LANE! I WILL FIND YOU!

The 2017 Warriors look for 3s on breaks and thrive whenever the game becomes chaotic. You forgot to mark a shooter? You forgot to stay near Steph for that extra split second? You didn’t see that sneaky midcourt pick coming? Boom … here’s another 3. Instead of Showtime, the Warriors created Help!!!!Time. And their equally superb half-court offense features spectacular shooting, precise spacing, unusual unselfishness and the mere threat of 3s (which opens the floor for everything else). Twelve months from now, after Durant is fully acclimated, they will produce the most unstoppable offense we’ve ever seen. I really believe that.

But if these Warriors battled the ’86 Celts or ’87 Lakers? Neither side would have any real chance of stopping the other. It’s apples against oranges.

And if Bird’s Celts or Magic’s Lakers played today, in 2017, here’s what would happen: McHale and Worthy stretch their range to 24 feet like Kevin Love did; DJ, Ainge, and Scott give up 20-footers for 24-footers; Bird and Magic throw up even bigger numbers with all that extra space — I can’t even imagine how many 3s ’86 Bird takes in 2017, by the way — and perimeter shooters like Michael Cooper and Scott Wedman throw freaking parties. Everyone embraces the math and adjusts accordingly. I hate to admit it since it demolishes my BACK IN MY DAY corner, but basketball is simply better now. There’s more going on. And it’s opened the door for more impact players.

Until recently, superstars could be shoehorned into one of six categories: playmaking guard (Magic, Oscar, Isiah, Cousy); perimeter scorer (Jordan, Kobe, West); playmaking forward (Bird, Havlicek, Erving, Barry, Dirk); physical power forward (Duncan, Barkley, Malone, Baylor, Pettit, KG); dominant center (Kareem, Shaq, Wilt, Moses, Hakeem); and Bill Russell (Bill Russell). We obeyed those five positions, revered Russell and pigeonholed every incoming prospect accordingly.

But 2017’s superstars belong only to the "creates offense through playmaking and spacing" category. This season, Harden threw up Nash-on-steroids numbers before flaming out like Colonel Jessup. Westbrook pulled an Oscar. Kawhi morphed into Pippen and MJ’s love child. Anthony Davis and Karl Towns played for lottery teams but kept inspiring fans to use the word "historic." Devin Booker became the youngest dude to drop 60 or 70. Nikola Jokic brought back memories of a Young Sabonis, who nobody in America actually saw because he was basketball’s Bigfoot of the 1980s. Steph and KD grabbed the Most Dangerous Teammate belts from … well, from Russ and KD, but whatever. A freaky Greek guy became our best under-25 bet to win the MVP. LeBron improbably peaked … again.

Of course, nothing tops a 5-foot-7½ dude averaging almost 30 a game and becoming the most popular Celtic since Bird. Since the 1991–92 season, 76 different players made an All-NBA first team or second team. The breakdown looks like this:

Top-five picks: 43
Later in lottery: 13
First round, non-lottery: 14
Second round/undrafted: 6

From that last group: Mark Price (drafted 25th), Marc Gasol (48th), DeAndre Jordan (35th), and Draymond Green (35th) made it with the first teams they played for; Gilbert Arenas (30th) made it on his second team; and undrafted Ben Wallace made it on his third team. Assuming Thomas makes the second team (a safe bet), then Wallace, Thomas, Draymond, and World B. Free (1979 second-team All-NBA) would be our most improbable top-10 players since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976. Of those four, only Thomas carried a contender offensively.

News flash: You’re not supposed to find franchise offensive players on the scrap heap. This doesn’t happen.

Thomas’s 2016–17 season ranked among the most explosive/efficient/preposterous seasons in the history of his position. For evidence, just click on this, this and this; his production/efficiency/usage blend compares to Jordan, Bird, Malone, and any other Advanced Metrics Hall of Famer. As recently as five years ago, it never could have happened. Too many bigger players clogged the paint instead of extending their range, and too many coaches hadn’t embraced math or spacing. Even if Thomas isn’t more skilled or explosive than Archibald or Iverson, it’s a little like comparing the best televisions from 1973 and 2001 to a 70-inch HD flat screen now. He’s a better, more efficient version of them. Evolution always wins.

And because the sport swung his way, the Celtics have a puncher’s chance of making the Finals with a franchise player who …

A. Was picked 60th in the 2011 draft

B. Was squandered by two other NBA teams

C. Was stolen before 2015’s trade deadline for an expiring contract and a late first-rounder

D. Earns $6.75 million per year (he’s the NBA’s 149th-highest-paid player)

E. Plays at the same height as Angelina Jolie and Tom Cruise. No lie. I stood next to him in February when we recorded our podcast. He’s not taller than 5-foot-8. (If I had to bet my life on it, I’d say 5-foot-7½.) Assuming that’s true, only nine NBA players have ever been shorter than Thomas. Like, in 71 years.

Tommy Heinsohn happily dubbed him "The Little Guy" and told The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor that, of every Celtic he’s seen in his 82 years, only three made Tommy say, "How’d he do that?" The list? Russell, Bird … and the Little Guy. But Isaiah never enjoyed a defining game until last week, on the heels of his sister’s tragic death and two straight days of painful dental surgery, when he saved Boston’s most entertaining home playoff victory since 2010’s Cleveland series (Rondo’s 29/13/18 in Game 4), the 2008 Finals (Game 1, a.k.a. the Wheelchair Game), and maybe even 2002’s Nets series (the 26-point comeback in Game 3).

That 53-point game was the triumphant extension of a five-month joyride that started in December — a prolonged hot streak that snowballed into the King of the Fourth gimmick, and eventually, started resembling David Ortiz’s improbable leap in 2004 and 2005. (I know, I need to take a breath.) Seeing Thomas thrive in Round 2, in front of a national TNT audience, made us feel like diehard fans of a college rock band watching them make their first appearance on SNL. And again, this version of Isaiah couldn’t have happened 15 years ago. I watch these Isaiah shows (and that’s what they are sometimes: shows) and think to myself, "We made it … WE FUCKING SAVED BASKETBALL."

Remember the gawd-awful 2004 Olympics and two years of Pistons-Pacers playoff rock fights?

Remember how laborious the 2005 Finals were (save for the Horry Game)?

Remember when the NBA clumsily tinkered with hand-check rules and zone defenses, seeming more desperate than Chris Christie these past few years?

Remember Wade barreling to the line over and over again in the 2006 Finals as Mark Cuban turned maroon?

Remember that dreadful 2007 Finals mismatch between the Spurs and LeBron’s D-League team? That 2007 season sucked so much that I actually voted for "The Fans" for MVP. Who was more valuable than us? We endured six months of absolute crap and kept coming back, right?

Ten years later, NBA fans have been complaining that Round 2’s games weren’t close enough. Our collective bar rose THAT high. We know LeBron is making the Finals for the seventh straight time, and we know the Warriors will be waiting in Ali’s Manila trunks. A trilogy! What’s better than that? We’re also headed for a future in which every season it’ll become easier for teams to stumble into a franchise guy. Curry, Giannis, Thomas, Booker, Kawhi, Butler, George, Jokic … these were NOT top-five lottery picks.

Can you create at a high level for yourself and four properly spaced guys? In 2017, that alone makes you a superstar. The Celtics certainly have one. And he’s 5-foot-7½.

And then … there’s LeBron.

Remember when we complained that LeBron should post up more? How he wasn’t overpowering smaller defenders or using his quickness to embarrass bigger ones? In 2017, we complain that nobody can stop LeBron downhill when he’s surrounded by quality shooters.

If you think LeBron didn’t learn on the fly from Mike D’Antoni unleashing James Harden this season, you’re crazy. This is LeBron.

He’s a basketball genius crossed with a basketball monster crossed with the freaking Terminator. LeBron studied the new and improved Rockets, then told D’Antoni, I need your clothes, your boots, your motorcycle, and your 1–4 spread offense. It’s unstoppable. Throw your best defender at him and he waves over a screener, gets the switch he wants, and torches the new guy. Double him and he finds an open shooter. Shade defenders toward the paint and he finds a teammate open by 1/100th of a foot. Stay home on the shooters and he scores himself. How do you stop the queen of the chessboard when he’s working with a bigger board?

We watched LeBron plant those seeds during Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, with the Warriors leading by four and 5:30 to play. Poor Steve Kerr couldn’t find a fifth crunch-time guy. He lost Andrew Bogut in Game 5. He couldn’t play Leandro Barbosa or Shaun Livingston because of Cleveland’s offensive rebounding advantage. And the moment had become too big for Harrison Barnes, whose scrotum had receded within his body. Begrudgingly, Kerr opted for rebounding and picked Festus Ezeli.


Terminator LeBron processed his robot algorithm and waited for Tristan Thompson’s screen …

Found the switch he wanted …

And up-faked the living shit out of Ezeli for three free throws.

Golden State 87, Cleveland 86. After Curry whipped a behind-the-back pass out of bounds (yikes), LeBron called for the same Thompson screen, only Draymond fought through it and stayed with him. Terminator LeBron called it again, drawing Ezeli with the shot clock ticking down. Only this time, he knew Ezeli would be too spooked to fall for an up-fake …

Which meant Terminator LeBron could shoot right over him.

Swish. Cleveland 89, Golden State 87.

Was that a fork-in-the-road moment for the future of hoops? In 2017, every elite offense hopes to create an everlasting Ezeli Dilemma. We’re spreading the floor for our best guy, and we’ll keep setting him screens until he lands the matchup he likes. GOOD LUCK. Every remaining playoff team features a playmaker who thrives in this scenario; Golden State and Cleveland have been blessed with two. (Well, they signed the second ones. And probably tampered with them during the previous season. But you get the point.)

For LeBron, basketball’s evolution goes beyond a simple tail-end-of-his-prime advantage. As I wrote more than once in the 2009–2014 range, LeBron’s finest game always felt like Magic blended with Jordan, but with a little Mailman and Dr. J and Bird sprinkled in. In 2017? It’s been whittled down to Magic crossed with Bird (in Karl Malone’s body). The sport finally shifted his way.

When I wrote my NBA book, I picked Magic over Bird as the fourth-best player ever because of Magic’s uncanny ability to keep reinventing himself, something Bird’s broken-down body wouldn’t allow him to do. There was Michigan State Magic, Young Gangly Freakazoid Magic, Point Guard Magic, and finally, MVP Magic (the one who grabbed the car keys from Kareem). His HIV diagnosis derailed Magic 5.0 — and whatever would have unfolded in his extended post-prime — although we caught a belated glimpse during his underrated 1996 comeback as a slower, bulkier point forward (peaking in Game 2 of the Rockets series).

Meanwhile, we’re on our fifth version of LeBron and his prime is still rolling. He may never finish his prime. He might just become Bruce Springsteen. He might keep ripping off three-hour shows until he’s 70 and veins are flying out of his forehead. A quick recap:

LeBron 1.0 (pre-Cavs): The high school prodigy who drove a Hummer, had ESPN televising his games, and made a precocious internet community wonder, "Wait, are we SURE that guy isn’t 25?"

LeBron 2.0 (2003–08): The golden child of the frustrating post-MJ Era, or as we know it now, hero ball. GET OUT OF MY WAY! I GOT THIS! This was glorified pickup basketball for nearly a decade; LeBron and Kobe were the best at it. (Shout-out to the 48 Special and the Pierce-LeBron duel.) But LeBron wasn’t LEBRON yet.

LeBron 3.0 (2008–11): Won two straight MVPs, matured into our most dominant two-way player since Jordan … only the Cavs saddled him with such a dreadful supporting cast that he took his talents to South Beach. Wait, what? Over the next 12 months, LeBron became a wrestling heel, hit rock bottom in the 2011 Finals and made us wonder if he was flaming out like one of the Coreys. That’s when …

LeBron 4.0 (2011–16): Terminator LeBron kicked in. He figured out how to thrive as a small-ball "4," won two more MVPs and three Finals MVPs, added a scary post-up game in 2012, improved his efficiency (56.5% FG, .640 TS, 31.6 PER) and 3-point shooting (40.6 percent!) in 2013, jumped back to Cleveland in the summer of 2014, then used his learned Miami knowledge to pull Cleveland to two straight Finals (and the 2016 title).

LeBron 5.0 (2016-???): The Ezeli Dilemma + better shooters + Terminator LeBron = queen of the bigger chessboard.

And if we remembered anything during the 2017 playoffs, it’s this …

LeBron James was already the league’s best player. That’s why the MVP Award didn’t really matter; when the basketball-playing aliens challenge us for the future of mankind, he’s still our first phone call. But a fully rested LeBron cruising around with a completely filled gas tank? And playing THIS style of basketball? With THESE teammates? It’s more devastating than anything we ever witnessed from him. Anytime LeBron doesn’t throw up 35–9–9 in a fairly close 2017 playoff game, it almost feels like an aberration.

For most basketball fans, LeBron’s résumé of seven straight Finals (if it happens), nine straight first-team All-NBA nods, 11 straight top-five MVP finishes, four MVPs, we-need-to-make-him-pee-in-a-cup-soon durability, and a 27–7–7 every night still wasn’t enough to grab the GOAT horns from MJ. What we really wanted? True greatness. We wanted those six straight points over Ezeli. We wanted The Block.

It still wasn’t enough. We wanted one more level. Incredibly, it could be happening for LeBron James, and only because the sport veered his way. He hasn’t lost an Eastern playoff series since 2010. Twenty straight. Before that, the Celtics beat him twice. They might be getting another chance next week. When Durant turned Boston down last summer, a devastated organization wondered how it would ever leapfrog LeBron. The Celtics believed they could find a franchise guy with their two Brooklyn picks — either through the draft or through a trade.

They were wrong. They had him the whole time. LeBron against the Little Guy? The perfect superstar battling the imperfect one? It’s the kind of thing that makes sense only in 2017.