TCC Discuss the NBA Finals, Lebron James, Russell Westbrook, the Dream Team and much more with Magic Johnson.
Thanks to our friends at ESPN, TCC had a chance to speak with NBA hall of famer and now TV analyst Earvin Magic Johnson. The number one topic on the Agenda was the NBA Finals, since I had published this post on Sunday which disagreed with Magic’s view on Russell Westbrook I thought that would be the best place to start.
Q. You were very critical of Russell Westbrook during Game 2 of the Finals. He had a very strong Game 4, scoring 43 points, but the Thunder still lost the game. Do you think they can win Game 5 tonight with Russell playing that style of game, and if they do manage to get a win, who do you see as the favorite in Game 6 and Game 7 played in Oklahoma?
MAGIC JOHNSON:Russell has to play that way because right now ‑‑ he has to go back to trying to score 30 to 40 points because James Harden has struggled in the whole series since the first game. Ibaka, who had a strong series against San Antonio has not scored a lot of points. So the role players who had played so well against the Lakers, Dallas and San Antonio have not shown up. And give Miami a lot of credit; they’ve kept the Thunder role players in check, and that’s why they’re in control of the series.
Russell was unbelievable. He was off the charts with his Game 4 performance. He’s got to come back with that same energy, that same mindset of scoring, as well as still getting his teammates involved. I judged him wrong. He has to play that way. He’s not a traditional point guard, so I was wrong when I judged him as one.
He was spectacular in Game 4, and let’s see if he can come back with that same type of performance. I’m sure he’s hoping that he doesn’t have to because that means that James Harden will have found his game and can give not only him some help but give Kevin Durant some help, as well.
Q. So if OKC manage to win tonight, who would then be the favorite?
MAGIC JOHNSON: Okay, if OKC wins tonight and goes back to Oklahoma, with that amazing crowd, the best crowd probably in the NBA, I wouldn’t say that they would be the favorite, but I think momentum will switch to them, the Thunder. But you know, it will be an amazing series. Things could change real quickly. Momentum can change real fast, so it’s up to Miami to close the deal because I feel if they don’t, they’re going to be in a dogfight and it could go either way.
Q. Where would you rank these Playoffs, not The Finals for LeBron, but these Playoffs historically at least since Jordan? James’ 30 points, 10 points, five assists for the entire duration of the Playoffs.
MAGIC JOHNSON: I would say top 10 performances of all time in terms of the Playoffs. He’s been dominant on I would say both ends of the court, and he’s controlled the series with the ball in his hands. He’s been in full control of what happens on the court, whether it’s scoring, whether it’s assists, ability, and then he’s taken the challenge to guard Kevin Durant. But also he’s rebounded. Now he just has to close the deal, and I think then the performance maybe will move up from there.
Q. In what way is LeBron James a better player these Finals compared to last year?
MAGIC JOHNSON: LeBron James is better because he’s smarter. He added to his game a post‑up game, which has made him guardable, and also made him, even when you double‑team him, and we saw this in Game 4, he was able to make all his teammates better by taking the double‑team and kicking it out for easy jump shots or three‑point shots, and we saw that with Norris Cole when he came off the bench. LeBron set him up. He got Chalmers going with some easy jump shots, as well. And LeBron now is the most unstoppable force we have in the NBA.
He’s playing ‑‑ because before my biggest knock on LeBron was he was just playing off his God‑gifted talent. He was just the best athlete. But he didn’t play with his head to match that. Now he’s playing with his talent and with his head, and wow, watch out. This guy is going to set the league on fire for a long time.
I know there was an earlier question about how dominant has his performance been. We look to see this from LeBron for years and years to come.
I think he still has room for improvement because he’s still a young man. He’s only going to get better and better and better, and thank God that he’s in the NBA, in America, and that we get a chance to see him every day, and then thank God he’s going to play in the Olympics and that the world gets a chance to see this unbelievable dominant player on the biggest stage perform at the highest level.
And I think Kevin Durant has brought a lot of that out of him, as well. So give Kevin a lot of praise for making LeBron even better, because a lot of times your rival or the guy that you go up against will bring the best out of you. And Larry Bird definitely did that for me, Michael Jordan definitely did that for me. Every time I went up against them they brought the best out of me. And vice-versa, LeBron has brought out the best in Kevin Durant.
LeBron James, now let’s see if he can close the deal, because the only thing that’s missing is a championship, so let’s see if he can close the deal.
Q. What do you think the significance would be of finally winning and having that moment, whether it comes tonight or the next couple games? What changes how we see LeBron with that ring versus the last couple years him struggling to get it?
MAGIC JOHNSON: Yeah, I think everything changes. We saw that with Michael. We saw the emotion came out when Michael got his first one. He cried and he finally did it. And I think it’s going to ‑‑ the same thing will happen for LeBron. He’ll be emotional. He can now feel that, you know what, I am the best player in the world because I’ve won a ring. The ring says so, not the media, not that the marketing says so, but my game actually says so.
And we’re judged by championships, and so I think LeBron will be ‑‑ will be bigger around the world with a championship. I think all the nay-sayers go away, and I think it’s only going to make him better, too. Michael got better after his first championship, and so I think the same thing happens for LeBron.
His popularity will grow, and with that, the NBA benefits from that, as well. I think that if he can get this first one, watch out. It’s going to be LeBron mania like we’ve never seen before.
Q. I think a lot of people when the Heat got put together would have liked to have seen a LeBron‑Kobe sort of thing develop, and obviously that hasn’t happened. What do you think the Lakers need to do to get back to this stage?
MAGIC JOHNSON: If they’re going to get back to the NBA Finals stage, to me they’ve got to get more athletic and become a faster team, because Oklahoma City is going to be dominant for the next ‑‑ if they can keep the guys together – for the next five years or more – they’re going to be back on this stage I think next season and many more to come.
When I look at OKC, when you look at the Heat, the Heat are not going anywhere. I think Miami is only going to get better from this experience, and then I think the Bulls -if Derrick Rose can come back strong- are young, and they’re probably the greatest defensive team in basketball along with the Heat. So you’ve got all these young teams who are not going anywhere, and we know that San Antonio will be back strong and Dallas – Mark Cuban is not going to stand there and just not do anything.
And then the Clippers, who I think are going to be knocking on the door. They’re young; they’re athletic, and led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
The Lakers have competition, and the best team in the west is Oklahoma City, and they’re not going anywhere. If the Lakers are going to get back to The Finals they’re going to have to look to get better, get faster, get quicker, so let’s see if that happens.
Q. Speaking about Dallas, what do you think they need to do? Do they need to bring in a guy like Deron Williams to put him next to Dirk to be competitive in the next years, or is it enough what they’ve got right now?
MAGIC JOHNSON: Well, definitely not enough what they have right now. They have to make changes again.
When you lose, you have to look at who’s the best now. The Thunder are the best in the West, and they’re going again in the next few years. Everybody now must chase the Thunder.
Now, what used to happen, everybody used to chase the Lakers, and that went on for the last, what, 20, 15 years or so. But that’s not the case anymore. Everybody has to chase the Thunder now. They are the best team in the West. And Dallas is going to have to make changes to keep up with this team. Dallas has the same issues the Lakers have, they’re not fast enough or athletic enough to keep up with the Thunder, so they have to make changes based on that.
If you’re asking would Deron Williams make a difference, no question, he’s an all‑star point guard. Any team would love to have Deron Williams. I’m sure Mark Cuban, and with Deron being from Dallas, I’m sure Mark Cuban is going to make a great run at him, and Deron will have choices. I’m sure that the new Brooklyn Nets are not going to lay down and just let Mark have him, either. We’ll see what happens.
Mark Cuban is a winner, and he’s going to be active in the free agent market, I’m sure.
Q. The time between the end of the Finals and the start of the Olympic tournament is very short, especially after such brutal shortened season. Do you think that will give the U.S. some problems with Kevin Durant and LeBron James playing in The Finals? And do you think they have a problem without a good offensive center, because they only have Tyson Chandler due to injuries?
MAGIC JOHNSON: No, I think that ‑‑ none of the international teams really have a dominant center, and I don’t think you really need one, because most of the time they play zone on us anyway, on the Olympic team, the U.S. Olympic team. I think the Olympic team that we send over has to have great shooters and great penetrators.
You’re going to see that, so that means that the guard play has got to be good. We’ve got to have enough shooters to make sure that we can knock down open threes because a lot of times that’s what they give us.
So no, not having a center is actually a positive thing for this Olympic team.
Q. And the U.S. having problems without any rest?
MAGIC JOHNSON: I don’t think it’ll be a problem. When you look up, this thing is going to end tonight, Sunday, or Tuesday. So let’s say it ends Tuesday, and then we have to remember there’s a lot of time for them to rest their bodies because Coach K is smart enough to know he doesn’t have to push those type of guys as hard, Kevin Durant or LeBron James. But he can push the other guys who went out early who are going to be on the team and make sure that they’re in shape because LeBron and Kevin Durant are already going to be in shape.
Q. It is 20 years since the Dream Team went to the Olympics. First of all, how big of an impact do you think that had globally? And do you think the game has moved on in a way that you thought it would from then?
MAGIC JOHNSON: Yeah, the game definitely grew because of the Dream Team. The Dream Team had such a big global impact on the game of basketball, and it allowed kids around the world to dream that they can play in the NBA one day and that the game, grew in popularity and it grew in terms of our own personal brands, in terms of all the individuals who played on the Dream Team. I mean, Michael Jordan became even bigger; myself; Larry Bird, on and on and on. Our brands grew worldwide because of the exposure of the Dream Team.
And I also think, in every individual country the game grew because of the Dream Team, and that’s why I think the influx of International players came right after that. Those International players have meant a lot to the NBA and its fans, and because of those players -‑ Ginobili coming from Argentina – or you can take any of the other players. The game of basketball became more popular in those countries because of that.
Q. How did it feel to play on that team? Did you feel invincible? Is that the greatest team of all time?
MAGIC JOHNSON: Oh, yes. By far it was the best team ever.
Q. A year ago the league was in a lockdown with a very unclear future. Now the ratings have record numbers, the future looks bright. What does it say about the league?
MAGIC JOHNSON: The future is outstanding for the NBA. I mean, we have so many unbelievable young superstars ‑‑ you just mentioned the two, LeBron James, Kevin Durant. Then we can also mention Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook and James Harden. We have five or six superstars in The Finals. I didn’t even say Dwight Howard, I didn’t say Derrick Rose, I didn’t say Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, I didn’t say we’ve still got the man, and he’s still got the thrown from winning five championships, that’s Kobe Bryant. He may be old, but he’s still playing at a high, high level, and he is still a proven winner and a proven closer.
And then I didn’t say Deron Williams. We’ve got Carmelo. I mean, we have so many incredible superstars, young superstars in our league.
And then I think ‑‑ I’m not just going to go through the superstars. I’m so happy that New York is back being relevant because we need New York to be relevant. We have Rondo in Boston, and he’s going to be a superstar for some time, and believe me, the Celtics will be back.
I’m happy that the Bulls ‑‑ I’m talking about the teams now, we need teams relevant, not just superstars, we need teams. The Bulls are back. Los Angeles has got two teams. This is what makes the NBA strong.
Now we’re getting rivalries that we need, and so now the league will just take off from here and thrive even more so. And then we’ve got a great leader in David Stern, and I think that’s the key. He understands how to market and how to grow the game, and so the league is healthy, it’s in great shape, and it has incredible media partners, ESPN and ABC is great, and TNT has done their thing, as well.
Q. Finally, What is Magic Johnson’s prediction for tonight?
MAGIC JOHNSON: My prediction is it’s going to be another unbelievable game and another close one, because these two teams are evenly matched, and the difference has been one play here and one play there. The Thunder has not been able to make the play to swing the game and the momentum to them in the fourth quarter, and Miami has made both the offensive play and the defensive play to win the last three games. They’re evenly matched, so this thing can go either way.
TCC would like to thank Magic Johnson and ESPN for this opportunity.