I have seen LeBron James play in person just once, during his second season in the league. The Cavs were in town to play my hometown New York Knicks in a matchup of the most exciting young player in the league versus a team that featured Michael Sweetney, Moochie Norris, and Vin Baker. I sat down low around midcourt, craning my neck and standing on my tiptoes to watch LeBron warm up in layup lines. He was enormous, looking more like an NFL linebacker than an NBA forward, and he seemed to have boundless energy and springs for legs.
LeBron played an awful game.
The Knicks, the same Knicks who would fire coach Lenny Wilkens just a few weeks later, dominated the young Cavs team. LeBron seemed to drift from baseline to baseline, occasionally eliciting ooh’s and ah’s from the crowd but for the most part remaining invisible.
The 6’8” 250-plus pound physical specimen was the smallest player on the court, totally absent from the game, and the Knicks coasted to an easy win.
As I filed out of Madison Square Garden, I looked up at the scoreboard to check LeBron’s scoreline: 13 points, 9 rebounds, 10 assists. I thought to myself: That guy is the most exciting player in the league? That guy nearly had a triple double? Pfft, I’d rather have Stephon Marbury.
Obviously, LeBron has changed.
He came into the league as a great player, had a somewhat off sophomore season, and then turned into the otherworldly player we’ve all come to love and hate. He has been transcendent at times, like his 48-point outburst against the Pistons in 2007. He has been maddening at other times, like during his all-time stinker in Game 4 of these NBA Finals. But even Michael Jordan had bad games – remember the time he went 0-3 with two strikeouts again the Chatenooga Lookouts?
Stephen A. Smith stoked the flames Thursday with news that a “personal issue” had contributed to LeBron’s stinkbomb, and Twitter lit up with a dubious report that Rashard Lewis had slept with LeBron’s girl. This follows last year’s bunk that teammate Delonte West slept with LeBron’s mother. (Let me say this: I have seen Rashard Lewis up close, and his skin is as bumpy as Mystique’s in the new X-Men movie. Delonte West is no prize himself. The women in LeBron’s life clearly have strange fake tastes in men.)
Game 5 rolled around and all eyes were squarely on LeBron. A few minutes into the first quarter, Dwyane Wade went down with a hip contusion after a hard foul by Brian Cardinal. With Wade in the locker room, this was LeBron’s time to shine. He had to know the moment, he had to know that he was the best option for Miami to win this game, and he HAD to know that it was time to take over.
So instead he passed the ball at every opportunity, half-heartedly drove the lane to try and draw fouls, and did not hit a single shot outside of the paint until midway through the third quarter.
It was an absolute disaster of a game.
Don’t let the stat line fool you: LeBron had a triple double with 17-10-10, but this was a superstar absolutely wilting under tremendous pressure in front of a raucous away crowd.
All credit belongs to the Mavericks, who shot the lights out all night and got A+ games from Dirk Nowtizki, Jason Terry and JJ Barea, plus outstanding contributions from Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd and…well, basically everyone on Dallas played their hearts out. Barea hit about five shots that made my father mutter “unbelievable” under his breath as he sat next to me watching. Dirk hit the most sensational rainbow three I think I have ever seen. And Terry and Kidd were clutch the whole night. This was a shooting clinic for Dallas – I honestly expected the net to catch on fire à la NBA Jam at one point.
But LeBron made it easy for them – in fact, it seemed that everyone on Miami tried to pick up the slack except LeBron. Wade scored 23 in spite of what looked like a nasty hip injury that required two extended trips to the locker room. Chris Bosh was aggressive driving to the rim, fighting for offensive rebounds and putbacks and shooting off the dribble. Mario Chalmers seemed to think he was playing Memphis in the NCAA Finals and hit about every three he took, including a half court buzzer beater. Udonis Haslem was great inside. Even Juwan Howard, who is so old that he majored in Alchemy at Michigan, got in on the action.
LeBron though looked overmatched all night.
He played 46 minutes – 46!!! – and took just two free throws. Read that again.
He was blanketed all night by Deshawn Stevenson to the point that he was a spectator on multiple Miami possessions. He turned the ball over, he threw bad passes, and every time he got the ball in the paint he would slash to the hoop and pass out to the wing. Passing to 2003 Mike Miller is one thing, but passing to 2011 Mike Miller during the NBA FINALS GAME FIVE is like giving up on a possession.
So what does this game mean for LeBron going forward?
I don’t think people really hate LeBron James. I think he frustrates them. They see the talent, the once-in-a-generation ability, and they get mad when he doesn’t average a triple double over a season, or single-handedly win the NBA Finals, or match the sky-high expectations that have dogged him his entire career. He doesn’t dunk from the three point line or score 100 points or rip down the rim every time he has the ball, but he does something incredible juuuust often enough that people want to see him do it every time.
That was the problem with The Decision in a nutshell. If he had gone on TV and announced he was staying, no one would have called him a media whore. If he had gone on TV and said he was going to the Knicks, or Bulls, or anywhere without Wade and Bosh, no one would have said he was looking for the easy route to a championship. But he seemed like he was giving up, admitting he couldn’t do it without Wade, and it upset people who have seen him do incredible things on a basketball court, things that no one has ever done before.
The dirty secret about LeBron is that he will coast. He can get by on talent alone and seemingly mail in a game and wind up with a triple double in a close loss and think stuffing the stat line is enough effort. He can put up big numbers on a bad team, or as a second fiddle, and still wow us with big dunks and chase-down blocks and brilliant passes.
In a way, he is a victim of his own immense talent. We’ve seen the 48-point games and we want it every time he steps on the court. Fair or not, anything less is not enough.
LeBron said before Game 5 that it was the biggest game of his career. I think Game 6 just got a little bigger.