LeBron, Cavs Need to Channel Hakeem Olajuwon


When the smoke had cleared from Oracle Arena on Thursday night, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers had lost to the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. But that wasn’t the worst news yet. Kyrie Irving, James’ trusty right hand man and fellow All-Star had suffered a season-ending knee injury that would require surgery and keep him out of the 2015 NBA Finals. With Kevin Love already out for the season, LeBron is left with role players as his supporting cast who need to step into the big shoes of their injured superstars.

But in the face of such devastating losses to key teammates, LeBron and the Cavs have an example to look up to. It’s a team that won the championship with a single superstar and a supporting cast that refused to lose—the 1993-94 Houston Rockets of Hakeem Olajuwon.

Image courtesy of Houston Chronicle

The Rockets were led by the all-world talents of Olajuwon who was having one of his finest seasons ever, averaging 28.9 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.7 spg, and 4.0 bpg in the playoffs. In the Finals, they faced a hungry and feisty New York Knicks team that featured another Hall of Fame center in Patrick Ewing flanked by one of his best supporting cast ever including All-Star guard John Starks.

Olajuwon was also ably supported by steady but not spectacular players in Vernon Maxwell, Kenny Smith, Mario Elie, Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, and Otis Thorpe. Not exactly household names, other than Horry, who was then a lanky second-year forward, and Kenny Smith, who is more well-known for his broadcasting career with TNT than as a player.

Interestingly, James learned how to play in the post from Olajuwon during the summer of the Miami Heat’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals. If he and the Cavs want to win their first championship, then LeBron may need to play more like Olajuwon than ever. This Cavs team (what’s left of it after the injuries) is currently built like those same Rockets. With LeBron as the lone superstar, he has to play at his highest level both offensively and defensively just as Hakeem did during the 1994 NBA Finals.

Image courtesy of NBA.com

Olajuwon limited Ewing to just 35% shooting and outscored him by eight points a game. LeBron will not be facing Stephen Curry one-on-one, but he has to stop the combination of Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green from scoring whenever he’s faced with any of them. His defense has to be phenomenal from here on. He can’t have another game where he has no steal and no block like in Game 1. Olajuwon played like a man possessed on defense in nearly every possession during those Finals, and James has to play defense like he’s never done before.

As a team, the Cavs must control the tempo of every game and keep the score as low as possible. The Warriors thrive off an open court game and Cleveland cannot afford to play that way. Not only do they not have the personnel to play that game at the moment but it would play into the hands of the run-and-gun Warriors who will feast on that kind of tempo.

His defense has to be phenomenal from here on. He can’t have another game where he has no steal and no block like in Game 1.

On offense, James needs to play an inside-out game similar to Game 1 while getting his teammates more involved; something that he wasn’t able to do much in the game. He has shooters in J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova, James Jones, and Mike Miller to make it work. Whenever he can take his man one-on-one, he needs to take advantage of that. But then, he also has to mix it up with a few jumpers and turnaround jump shots to keep the Warriors from packing the paint.

Jun 4, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) handles the ball against Golden State Warriors guard Andre Iguodala (9) during the fourth quarter in game one of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Iguodala may be a great defender but LeBron cannot let him stop him. He has to find a way to play effectively and efficiently regardless of the defender thrown at him by Steve Kerr. As amazing as he was in Game 1, James had difficulty with Iguodala, only making 2 of his 12 shots against him. The rest of his teammates have to get to open spots, not just on threes but also on 20-foot jumpers and cuts to the basket.

The Rockets won 4-3 against the Knicks though they did it the hard way, going down 2-3 before winning the final two games at home. Olajuwon was magnificent in that series as he won his personal battle against Ewing, averaging 26.9 ppg on 50% shooting with 9.1 rpg, 3.6 apg, 3.9 bpg, and 1.6 spg.

These next games will determine the kind of player LeBron James truly is and the kind of team that the Cleveland Cavaliers truly are.

For the Cavs to win this series, LeBron has to average 30 ppg, 10 rpg, 8 apg, 2 spg, and 1 bpg. Why not more scoring? Because the scoring has to come from other sources. If the Cavs have at least four other players consistently scoring in double-digits, especially J.R. Smith, then the Cavs can win over the heavily-favored Warriors. More than any time in these playoffs, the Cavs need to play team basketball by playing according to their strengths through the phenomenal talents of LeBron James.

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There’s no telling what game plan Coach David Blatt has for his team heading into Game 2. But if he looks back at recent history, some 21 years ago, a team much like the one he has now captured its first title through one very special player, and the grit and determination of several role players. That team didn’t know when to quit even when they were outmatched by a seemingly superior team.

These next games will determine the kind of player LeBron James truly is and the kind of team that the Cleveland Cavaliers truly are. If they’re anything like the 1993-94 Houston Rockets, then the Golden State Warriors better brace themselves for a battle because the Cleveland Cavaliers are going to shock the world.

Next: NBA Finals Odds Without Kyrie