Lebron James Shines In NBA Playoffs

Audie Cornish talks to sportswriter Stefan Fatsis about the NBA playoffs.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. LeBron James staged a primetime basketball clinic last night. He scored 45 points to help his Miami Heat beat the Boston Celtics and avoid elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals of the NBA playoffs. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now, as he does most Fridays. Hi there, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So to start, how good was LeBron's performance last night?

FATSIS: Oh, my God, he was fantastic: 30 of those 45 points in the first half. He added 15 rebounds and five assists by the game's end. Only once before in NBA history has a player hit those numbers in a playoff game, and it was Wilt Chamberlain almost 50 years ago in 1964. His ease and efficiency were just beautiful to watch, soaring a foot above the rim to slam home a rebound, coolly catching the ball, turning, falling back and shooting. He took a lot of high-degree-of-difficulty shots, and he made them look easy.

Whatever LeBron James' flaws - and the main one remains how you perceive his choice to leave his old team in Cleveland - this is a remarkable athlete who on this night showed the full menu of his abilities.

CORNISH: And sportswriters really tied themselves up in knots talking about LeBron and how he chokes in crunch time. I mean, what happens with that?

FATSIS: Yeah. Well, the media have shorter memories than cats or fish. The last thing that happens is the only thing that ever happened, and the only indicator of what's going to happen. As Henry Abbott points out on his "True Hoop" blog on ESPN, this week we had stories about the failure of the Heat's superstar experiment, about the Celtics' unmatched commitment to winning, about LeBron's flawed psyche. LeBron was awesome last night. Does that mean he's going to be awesome tomorrow in the seventh and final game of the series in Miami? It does not. We will find out what happens tomorrow tomorrow.

CORNISH: OK. And punching holes in another narrative. In the Western Conference Finals, you had Thursday night when the Oklahoma City Thunder eliminated the San Antonio Spurs in six games to move on to the NBA Finals. And that wasn't supposed to happen either, was it?

FATSIS: No. Not after the Spurs won games one and two of the series, extending their overall winning streak to an amazing 20 games. Unstoppable was one of the words that was being tossed around, and they did look pretty great with their veterans Tim Duncan, Tony Park and Manu Ginobili. But guess what? Oklahoma City and its more youthful trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden prevailed in the next four games. This was a fantastically entertaining series. I, for one, can't wait to watch the Thunder in the finals.

CORNISH: And another big question was whether fans would tune in to watch a team from Oklahoma City, right? I mean, not exactly the big NBA market.

FATSIS: No. Forty-fourth largest TV market in the country, third smallest in the NBA. Market size is a very common and sometimes accurate way of analyzing sports finals. I'd argue, however, that good players and good stories can trump the name of the city that's on the jersey, and I think that's what we have with Oklahoma City. Durant is 23 years old, three-time NBA-scoring champion. This team is young and energetic. It was assembled very carefully and gradually, and there's something fun and wholesome about watching the NBA succeed in Oklahoma City, unless, of course, you live in Seattle, from where the Thunder were moved four years ago.

CORNISH: Finally, Stefan, I want to talk about what's looking to be a black mark on these playoffs, which is that there's a lot of foul calls and a lot of what people are calling acting on the part of the players.

FATSIS: Yeah. There has been, and there was a particularly egregious instance in game five of the Boston-Miami series when Mario Chalmers of the Heat sort of bumped into Mickael Pietrus of the Celtics, and Pietrus fell down as if he had been hit by a truck. And here's former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy, who's an ESPN analyst, after that happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JEFF VAN GUNDY: That's just a flop.

MIKE BREEN: It's a flop by Pietrus.

GUNDY: It just drives me crazy. We're in the playoffs, game five, tied, and Ray Allen goes to - get an extra point.

BREEN: You've got to control your emotions in even plays like that, but Pietrus...

GUNDY: But he did.

BREEN: ...clearly flops.

GUNDY: But he did control his emotions. Pietrus tricked the referee and should be fined a million dollars tomorrow for it.

FATSIS: I don't know about the million-dollar part, but the NBA does need to re-evaluate its rules on fouls and particularly offensive fouls, which is what happened in that instance. The downside of tightly enforcing rules on contact in basketball is that players look to draw fouls, which sends players to the foul line, which is boring, and slows down a game that at its finest is powerful and balletic. Fines would be good, as Van Gundy suggests, but rethinking the rules is what's really in order.

CORNISH: Stefan, thank you for talking with us.

FATSIS: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can hear more of him on slate.com's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen."

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