Kenny Smith: NBA Finals, LeBron-Magic Johnson comparisons - Sports Illustrated

Kenny Smith: ‘If Magic Had LeBron’s Athleticism, He’d Still Be Playing Today’

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Kenny Smith is an integral part of TNT’s Inside The NBA, and a key part of his success is his willingness to speak his mind. A two-time NBA champion, Smith is perfect in his role next to Charles Barkley, but he also adds a phenomenal perspective of the game.

A major talking point following the Miami Heat’s Game 3 win against the Los Angeles Lakers has been Jimmy Butler’s dominance. Though Smith was impressed with Butler’s outstanding performance, he found the difference in Game 3 was the Heat’s ability to keep the Lakers contained on the perimeter. As the series moves to Game 4 on Tuesday, Smith believes that Miami possesses all the pieces necessary to even the series.

Smith spoke with Sports Illustrated about Anthony Davis’s struggles in Game 3, the difference between LeBron James and Magic Johnson, and the Heat’s chances of winning the series.

Justin Barrasso: Regardless of the era, Jimmy Butler’s Game 3 performance—with 40 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds, and 14-of-20 shooting—belongs on a short list of greatest single-game nights in NBA Finals history. Butler certainly gave Miami new life with the Game 3 victory, but can he replicate that performance in Game 4?

Kenny Smith: I don’t know if he has to do it himself with Bam Adebayo coming back. To me, it’s more about what they’re doing defensively. For Miami, it’s important to keep the Los Angeles Lakers on the perimeter. Some days, that’s going to work magnificently, and it will bite them when L.A. makes shots. Jimmy Butler was great offensively, and they’ve been very good offensively all postseason, even without those extraordinary performances. But to be in games, it’s all about that perimeter defense.

Barrasso: Obviously, turnovers were a massive issue for the Lakers, but Anthony Davis finished Game 3 at a -26 for his plus/minus ratio. Was it just one bad game, or have the Heat found a better way to contain Davis?

Smith: Miami has found a better way to contain Anthony Davis. Foul trouble played a role in some of it, but he’s had games throughout the season where he didn’t dominate. That’s key. When he’s able to get into multiple ways of scoring, scoring inside, scoring outside, he handles the basketball, then the Heat are in a lot of trouble. The Lakers are a different team when Davis is in a great offensive rhythm. But throughout his career, that’s not always his acumen.

Barrasso: There are plenty of examples of one team stealing a game in the Finals. I know these Lakers aren’t the ’98 Bulls, but even with a healthy Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic, do the Heat have enough pieces to beat L.A.?

Smith: I think so. I never thought of this as a series where the Heat couldn’t compete. Now they don’t have a team with two guys or three guys that are the media darlings of the world or guys that have been great players for over a decade like LeBron. They remind me a lot of the Detroit Pistons team that beat the Lakers, who had Shaq and Kobe and Karl Malone and Gary Payton. That Pistons team was full of a bunch of really good basketball players, and that’s what the Heat have. For me, it’s all about keeping the Lakers on the perimeter. If you do that, you’ll be in the game with three minutes to go. If they’re scoring inside, you’ll be down 10 with three minutes to go.

Barrasso: LeBron James, whose ability to split a pick-and-roll defense and hit the open man is unmatched, just passed John Stockton and now only trails Magic Johnson for most assists in playoff history. What does James need to do to ensure a championship for L.A.? And though his game has pieces of Oscar Robinson, Larry Bird, Magic, and Kobe Bryant, who is the best historical comparison for LeBron?

Smith: The comparison would be Magic, but LeBron is more athletic, so that separates him and differentiates his style. If Magic had LeBron’s athleticism, he’d still be playing today. That’s the fundamental difference. We’ve never seen someone this athletic hold onto his athleticism for this many years, and he’s still the best athlete on the floor at his age even though he’s surrounded by players that are around 22 years old. The passing, the scoring, we’ve seen that, but we haven’t seen that coupled with such athleticism for this long. That’s LeBron.

And what does LeBron need to do for the Lakers to win? He needs his teammates to hit shots. Frank Vogel understands that, too. The Lakers have to put confidence back into KCP, Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma, Caruso, Rondo—they have to be able to consistently hit open shots. Miami is saying they can’t consistently do that if they zone up and double-team in the right areas.

The Lakers need to put extreme confidence in those players. Coaches can’t always put confidence in their players, but they can always take it away. As a coach, you need to be careful to not take any confidence away from guys that are missing shots that you would want them to take anyway.

Barrasso: LeBron walking off the court with 10 seconds to play certainly won’t have the same historical repercussions that Isiah Thomas and the Pistons have faced since walking off against the Bulls as Chicago was completing their Eastern Conference finals sweep in 1991, but for someone who cares so much about the game, are you surprised he would open himself up to that kind of criticism?

Smith: Honestly, when I was watching, I had thought the game had ended until Mark Jackson mentioned there was still more time to go. I don’t think his goal was to show up the Miami Heat, I think he just thought the clock was running out and the game was over. Maybe I just give him too much credit for who he is and how he does things.

And it’s interesting you mention the Pistons. Now that was premeditated. They said, ‘We’re not shaking their hands.’ That’s a different hatred. I don’t know if there is a hatred, or even a dislike, from LeBron to the Miami Heat. It’s totally different in my estimation.

Barrasso: There is obviously no one to replicate Hakeem, but does this team at all remind you of your Rockets’ teams? And does Tyler Herro have some Vernon Maxwell or Mario Elie-type qualities?

Smith: You could say Vernon Maxwell or Sam Cassell. There was myself, and we had Mario Elie. He brought a quality of championship basketball. There’s no fear in taking that last shot. That’s what you need to have in championship basketball. For those Rockets teams, Hakeem Olajuwon was our best player, but we couldn’t always get him the ball for game-winning shots or game-winning plays. He was our big guy, so he wasn’t bringing the ball up the court.

Even in Game 1 in the [1995] Finals against the Orlando Magic, that play was for me to come off the screen and shoot the three. When Mario hit the ‘Kiss of Death’ against the Suns, that play was for him. Sam Cassell against the Knicks [in the 1994 Finals], that play was for him. Plays for Clyde Drexler. That’s where you’ll see the similarities. Butler doesn’t need to go off for 40 if Duncan Robinson or Tyler Herro are going off. It could be them at the end of the game. But I think this Heat team is more similar to the Pistons that had Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace. They mirror that team more than ours.

Barrasso: Shifting away from basketball, the United States is rapidly approaching a presidential election. You are part of the Be Woke. Vote initiative encouraging people to vote. Why is this so meaningful to you?

Smith: We have a whole new generation of voters, as well as people that historically have not voted that have become more aware. I joined forces with Be Woke, and it’s a way to understand the judicial system. Once you understand it, you start voting on the local level. Then you become more active and proactive, which enables change.

Barrasso: Be Woke.Vote is a bipartisan group. Is it difficult to remain bipartisan when you feel so passionately about the candidates?

Smith: My job is not to be bipartisan; my job is to be Kenny Smith. I have my own opinion about the game, about life, and about the election. I never think about being bipartisan. I think of the circle of people around me and how this affects me and how it affects them.

Barrasso: In addition to covering the playoffs, you are also still active with your Jet Academy. Teaching the game virtually is a unique experience, but you’ve had success so far.

Smith: That’s it, it’s like-minded individuals that want to learn more about the game of basketball. What Jet Academy does is be your personal trainer for an hour, but we also have sessions on how to get a scholarship. We have the trainers that trained Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, and you can upload your videos and ask questions. Now we’re starting these 15-minute sessions, which I call Locker Room Access and people can ask questions. Without this technology, we couldn’t have done that, and we look forward to continuing.

Barrasso: The bubble will forever serve as a unique time in NBA history. What stands out most of the way the players handled basketball, and life, in the face of such social injustice in the country?

Smith: It’s interesting. The players have let everyone know they are part of society. That’s the biggest statement I’ve seen.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.