1. Kobe's Got Rings, But LeBron's Mettle Shows
MIAMI -- Let's get this out of the way right at the start: Kobe Bryant has five championship rings and LeBron James has none. Bryant's been a more clutch and effective player in his seven Finals than James has been in his two.
For some, that is the end of the conversation. There seems to be general agreement among NBA fans that these two are to be judged by that standard. And by that standard, there is no comparison at this point in time.
But if anyone wants to take a look at what's happened when Bryant and James have actually played against each other, there's another truth that has emerged. James has outplayed Bryant for years now in their head-to-head matchups. There was another rather one-sided chapter added Thursday night when the Miami Heat beat the Los Angeles Lakers, 98-87.
With the Cleveland Cavs and now the Heat, James has beaten Bryant head-to-head five consecutive times. Over the past five years, it has been seven wins in nine games. Beyond the victories, James has generally dominated the matchups, as he's averaged more points, rebounds, and assists and shot a significantly better percentage.
This is where the yelling usually begins with the words "regular season," "meaningless" and "rings" wrapped around various expletives and admonishments.
Bryant has countless fans who seem to be defensive about anyone applying a scratch to his legacy, while James has developed into a popular postseason scapegoat. It makes this topic quite dicey to have a rational discussion about, and perhaps this will not turn out any differently.
However, the regular season between these two is all we have. Combined they have played in the past five Finals but, much to the chagrin of the NBA and Nike, never against each other. That matchup, as intriguing as it would be, may never happen. That just leaves games like Thursday night, and even those are fleeting.
James' teams and Bryant's teams have played against each other 17 times now, and in several of those games, early in James' career, Bryant left early with ankle injuries. Unless there is a playoff matchup, there's not going to be 17 more meetings. There may not be 10.
What's left between these two Most Valuable Players and future Hall of Famers is a whole lot of what happened in this latest matchup -- James played better and his team won. What it proves can be debated, but the hard results and mounting data cannot be; James has been better.
"I've been in this league long enough, I don't need to prove anything to Kobe," James said. "And he doesn't, of course, need to prove anything to me."
Bryant indeed doesn't have to prove anything to anyone. James, meanwhile, is dealing with a period in his career in which he's under pressure to prove a great deal. But one thing he has proven, something the numbers and the results leave little to quibble with, is that he can beat Bryant and do it regularly.
Thursday, James had 31 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, four steals and three blocks. Bryant had 24 points, 14 of them in the fourth quarter, with five rebounds and seven assists. It has been playing out this way for years now.
Bryant, in what has become a trend when facing James, shot the ball poorly. The first time he played James in a Heat uniform, on Christmas Day last season, Bryant shot 6-of-16 in a blowout loss that frustrated him so much that he followed it up with a fiery news conference in which he challenged his teammates verbally. James had a triple-double.
When he saw James again two months later, Bryant was just 8-of-21 shooting and the Heat won again with James almost registering another triple-double. This time Bryant was so incensed that he sent a message with his actions, stomping back out to the court for a private shooting session.
Thursday was another subpar effort from Bryant; he was just 3-of-12 shooting going into the fourth quarter, when the game was already decided. He finished strongly, but it was too late, and James had gotten him yet again.
"They were the aggressors," Bryant said, more staid this time around. "They played much harder than we did."
You can almost pinpoint exactly when this started. During a Sunday afternoon game in Los Angeles in January of 2008, another in what is now a long line of national television matchups between the two, James and Bryant guarded each other for the entire fourth quarter of a hotly contested game.
The Lakers were two weeks from trading for Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum was injured. James was playing for a Cavs team that was still very much limited beyond him. It was a classic one-on-one battle down the stretch with James, who finished with 41 points and nine rebounds, scoring several huge baskets over and around Bryant, who had 33 points and 12 rebounds, while also forcing him into several misses.
Since that game, James has played with a certain confidence against Bryant that has come through in the results. He's averaged 28 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in the meetings since, though personnel upgrades on their respective teams have prevented fans from getting that sort of man-on-man drama.
With Dwyane Wade out Thursday with an ankle injury, there were a handful of possessions in each half that Bryant and James spent guarding each other.
But they were too quick and unsatisfactory, sort of how this era's two most talented players' games against each other have gone. That might be how history will have to leave it.
2. Which Star Brings The Most Thunder?
ESPN The Magazine
Question: Who is the Oklahoma City Thunder's best player, Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook?
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: Ric, you know I respect your basketball knowledge, and that's precisely why I couldn't believe my ears last week when you went on "SportsCenter" and said that Russell Westbrook is better than Kevin Durant!
Westbrook is a very good player, a perennial All-Star talent, but there is no way on God's green earth that he is better than Durant.
Please explain yourself.
Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazine: My selection of Westbrook over Durant is pretty simple: He is better in more areas of the game than KD is. There's no question Durant is one of the league's premier scorers and shooters -- and, as you know, there's a difference between the two -- and Westbrook certainly doesn't compare to Durant as a shooter and is not quite on his level as a scorer.
But in almost every other aspect of the game, Westbrook is more of a force than Durant. He's certainly a better defender and, at their respective positions, a better rebounder. Is Durant so much better as a shooter/scorer that it compensates for Westbrook's superiority in those other areas? My argument is that he is not. Westbrook certainly has earned that extension he got today.
3. Daily Dime Live Rewind
Relive and note all the chatter, memes and Photoshops of Thursday's Daily Dime Live.
4. Extreme Behavior
LeBron James, Heat: He was sick, all right. Fills the box score to the tune of 31 points, eight boards, eight assists, four steals and three blocks as his Heat were in charge the whole way in a 98-87 win over Kobe's Lakers.
Devin Harris, Jazz: Remember the uproar when Harris was dealt in 2008 to the Nets for first-ballot HOFer Jason Kidd? Harris' hideous air-ball 3-point attempt with less than 20 seconds to play sealed Utah's loss to Dallas. Harris missed all seven shots, netting one point on the night. Kidd had 11 dimes.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"We might want to go back to some of the things that we were doing a few weeks ago in terms of me being on some spots on the floor and things where I'm most comfortable."
-- Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who had a four-game stretch of scoring at least 40 points earlier this month followed by a two-game total of 38 since.
TWEET OF THE NIGHT
Eddy Curry on his first bucket: "I was joking with LeBron that I was going to dunk it but I didn't want to get fouled. Would've air balled the FT."— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) January 19, 2012
5. Where's The Rest Of Him?
6. NBA Video Channel
7. Value Of Stopping Power
CHICAGO -- In his quixotic quest for defensive perfection, Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is sure of one thing: "You never have it figured out, there's always a lot of room for improvement."
With little practice time thanks to a condensed schedule, the vaunted Bulls defense has shown some slippage the past two games, especially without Derrick Rose, who missed the past two games with a toe injury.
The Bulls beat the Suns handily Tuesday but gave up 97 points, a day after giving up 102 to Memphis in a loss.
Still, the Bulls are the stingiest team in the league, giving up only 85.8 points per game. They are first in rebounding differential at 6.6 (45.5/38.9), tied for second in points per shot (1.07), third in blocks (94) and eighth in field goal percentage allowed (42.8), but they've also been a little lucky. Opponents are hitting only 69.9 percent of their free throws, the second-lowest number in the league.
The Bulls are 5-1 this season when they score fewer than 90 points, 15-5 in the past two seasons, which augurs well for a season in which tired legs will make for plenty of low-scoring games.
"We're good at times," point guard C.J. Watson said. "We haven't been as good as we want to be this year."
I call that kind of thinking the Tao of Thibs. Watson laughs when I suggest the Bulls have been brainwashed by their coach.
8. Emergency Booster Rocket
The Rockets outscored the Hornets 7-0 over the final two minutes of overtime to post a 90-88 victory at Houston. The Rockets, who were outscored 19-7 in the fourth quarter (including 12-2 over the final two minutes), became the first team since 2007 to win in overtime after scoring fewer than 10 points in the final period. The Hornets were the last team to do that, with a victory over the Seattle SuperSonics.