Jeff Van Gundy: “You get used to seeing James playing with joy and a smile….it just seemed like he was sapped.”June 14, 2011 – 8:00 am by Michael Bean
Let the reaction from this year’s NBA Finals continue. You have or will be hearing from Charles Barkley, Mark Cuban, Rick Carlisle already. And I’d imagine that the usually media-friendly Chris Bosh will accept an interview request sometime this week or next. In the meantime, let’s continue with the opinions of a man you’ve heard lots of in recent weeks, NBA color commentator for ABC, Jeff Van Gundy. The former New York Knicks coach is widely respected in the sport and media landscape for his honest assessments, self-deprecating humor and insights about the game. So even though he may not go off the handle and say anything that might jeopardize his current job or prospects to be hired once more as a head coach, it’s certainly worth hearing what he has to say about the Miami Heat’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks in this year’s NBA Finals.
Van Gundy joined 790 The Ticket in Miami to talk about what he felt was the most deciding factor in Miami’s loss to Dallas, what explanation he’d give as to why Miami suddenly played so poorly on the defensive end in the final games of the series, whether he believes LeBron is deserving of the avalanche of criticism he’s been facing since the series-ending loss, if he felt like Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was out-classed in the series, why he’d still take Miami’s roster over Dallas’ were the two teams to start a new series all over again, how he found it surprising when he first entered the NBA how the confidence of superstars ebbed and flowed, and along the same lines, why he feels Dallas deserves credit for contributing to what was a clearly less than confident LeBron James in the later stages of the series in particular.
On what was most responsible for Miami’s NBA Finals loss in his estimation:
“Well I thought their greatest strength let them down in the last two games which was their defense. To give up 50 percent shooting when you’re that good defensively, I think is certainly going to perplex the Heat coaching staff going into the summer. Because offensively, you can nitpick who should have done more, but the last two games scoring 95 points and 103, particularly 95 at home, you thought those would have been wins.”
On why he thinks the Heat suddenly played poorly on the defensive end in the final two games:
“Well I give Dallas a lot of credit. Jason Terry, after basically a good fourth quarter in Game 2 — but other than that first three games not really that impactful — the last three games of the series he played off the charts. To tell me they could win two games where Dirk Nowitzki shot really poorly like he did in Game 4 and Game 6, I wouldn’t have believed it; I just wouldn’t have believed that they had enough offense with their other guys to score enough to beat what I thought was a great Miami defense.”
Does LeBron deserve the avalanche of criticism he’s received:
“You know, I think sometimes when you focus your criticism in just one direction, at the easy guy, other guys get let off the hook for what they could have done better as well. So certainly when the best players are going to take the majority of the credit when you win, they have to take the majority of the blame when you lose. I have to say, to me, I can’t give you a reason why he didn’t play well — I know there’s a lot of rumors out there about why he didn’t play well, something was bothering him or whatever. But it’s still puzzling to me. That pull up jumper that he had in the lane where he shot it over the basket and hit the backboard, I mean, I just don’t have an explanation for those type of plays. I haven’t seen him consistently guarded well, or that well, for a long, long time.”
Whether he believes Erick Spoelstra was out-coached in the Finals:
“No, again I think that’s the easy thing to say when you don’t have an explanation for why a guy like James didn’t play well, and Wade had an off night last night. So the easy out when you don’t have an explanation is to point the finger at a coach. And certainly when the other team beats you, you have to look at your self as a coach and say ‘what could I, or should I have done to alter the outcome?’ So I know Erik will go that process with his staff. But when you look at what he had, I think they had a good scheme offensively; I think offensively the last two games they played well enough to win. But when your greatest strength becomes your greatest weakness, you’re going to lose. And they just didn’t guard well enough the last two games. Plus, let’s face it, the three point shot Dallas shot at an incredible rate the last two games. And the Heat missing so many free throws will go unexplained other than sometimes that happens. And I thought their turnovers were deflating. Early in the series they had Dallas playing fast and turning the ball over, but then they started turning the ball over more than Dallas did. I guess you have to give a lot of credit to Dallas too. Sometimes when we get to explaining a loss, we focus on our team and what they did wrong rather than all the things Dallas did right.”
Were the two teams to start the series all over again tonight, which roster would he rather have?
“Miami. And I say that even knowing the great limitations of Miami’s roster because I think you’re always going to take Wade and James when you’re facing….maybe we should give Dirk two stars….but you’ve got two great players and they’ve got one, I’m always going to side with that. I understand the depth; I understand they had more better players, but I would not think that James would play another six games like we saw. I would just play the odds that we would see a great performance by this great player.”
After beginning by saying that athletes of LeBron’s caliber rarely, if ever, lose their confidence, the host then asks if he believes that James demonstrably lost his confidence over the course of the series:
“Well I sort of disagree in this case. Some of the best players I ever coached I thought were not always fragile, but sometimes fragile. When I came into the NBA, it was one of the things that was eye-opening to me — that confidence ebbed and flowed in these great, great players. So I’m not going to say James’ confidence wavered in that series, but it looked like he was playing with a great burden. You get used to seeing James playing with joy and a smile on his face and relishing the competition, and I just felt like this guy — whether it’s the mental fatigue of the constant and consistent scrutiny or whatever — it just seemed like he was sapped a little bit. And I will say this: his jump shot is one that’s one that’s gotten certainly better, but I don’t know if he always trusts it. And I give Dallas a lot of credit. He came out last night and he had three jumpers and a lay up right off the bat. And they never defended him differently. They didn’t react to the jump shots made, they said ‘we’re going to play the odds; if he makes jump shots then we’re losing, but we’re not going to open up his paint game.’ And I give them a lot of credit. He got a post up and he got a spin off and got a lay up, but other than that, there wasn’t much easy in this series for him.”
If he could envision Pat Riley breaking up the Big 3 this offseason and potentially trading away either James, Wade or Bosh:
“Well I would say this: it’s business. Pat Riley’s job is to give them the best possible chance to succeed. And in doing that, when players leave by free agency, the player always says it’s business. When a coach is fired, they say it’s just business, it’s not personal. So if Pat Riley feels he’s got to trade one of those guys to bolster his roster, then they too have to understand it’s just business. And it’s Pat Riley’s business to give them the best chance. And I think they’ll look at every scenario. I do think that they will and can improve, and I think year two will be better. And I don’t know if it will be any less stressful; it will be interesting to me to see how the public reacts to them, and the media reacts to year two of this group of players if they come back intact. Because I think the intensity of the scrutiny will be dialed down a touch, but I’m not sure.”
Listen here to Van Gundy with Dan LeBatard with Stugotz on 790 The Ticket in Miami (interview begins at 1 hour mark)