By Jason Keidel
Last night, like every NBA night, morphed into a sweaty, LeBron James symposium. And the firewall between factions is rather defined. He’s either a chump who cheated his team out of a win, or he’s a victim of fate or faulty wiring, a hardwood martyr who can’t get a break.
The LeBron detractors assert this isn’t the first time he’s flaked out in a Finals. He vanished against the Mavericks, and no one can explain the disappearance. So cynics say this isn’t his first case of cramping on the court. They also point out that LeBron was the only one who came up lame, not his older teammates or the exponentially older Spurs, like Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili. And not even Tony Parker, who already had a bum leg entering the game.
(Then there’s the whole “Jordan won the Finals with the flu” thing. But since we’re not doctors, let’s not compare maladies.)
The LeBron apologists say his Heat were about to win the game and only by some divine or devious intervention saved the Spurs. Miami was ahead by two when he first limped and winced and raised his hand for help, so that’s proof positive that King James was about to add another ruby to his crown.
Neither is particularly accurate. To say LeBron James is soft is just silly. The man carried the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals. If that doesn’t say everything about his talent and temerity, then nothing will. They were a 20-win team when he arrived, and reverted to one the moment he left. And if that weren’t enough, he routinely plays 8-month seasons, and still has enough juice left to carry us to a gold medal when needed.
But to assume Miami would have won the game under normal climes is equally absurd. Losing on the road, to the team with the best record in the NBA – who happened to be a Ray Allen jumper from the title last year – is hardly shocking. San Antonio was 9-1 at home during these playoffs, so going 10-1 is pro forma in pro sports.
But we need reasons, excuses, and emotions if we’re to perpetuate the twin morality plays in this series.
These NBA Finals are a referendum on two matters. First, the idea that a great team beats a greater player. Can the deeper, more mature Spurs halt LeBron’s crusade to history? Does the extra pass and pick-and-roll trump the ungodly talents of a basketball transformer?
LeBron is bionic, in every Steve Austin sense. He’s bigger, faster, stronger, and jumps higher than anyone in the league, if not anyone in history. Yet, we remember how absurdly close San Antonio came to stripping LeBron of his title.
Which brings up the other half of the LeBron referendum. His climb up the ladder of immortality, whether he can touch, if not pass, the Michael Jordan rung. Kobe Bryant was thought to be most like His Airness, but Kobe just ran out of gas and supporting cast.
With another title and first three-peat in his prime, like Mike, LeBron has a head start on Jordan, who famously dashed to Birmingham to play baseball, to concentrate more on double plays than double-nickels.
LeBron James has no interest in riding buses between minor league depots. So he has a wide runway with which to make his case. For anyone to say it’s unfair to expect LeBron to be the Alpha and Omega of the Heat, the NBA, and the sports world, remember that he signed up for this the moment he did his televised, “Take My Talents” lap dance with Jim Gray. And he knows it.
Had he stayed in Cleveland, LeBron would have been measured with more muted metrics. He would have been a hometown hero doing what he could with what he had. Cleveland is the Sahara of championships. So no one would have killed LeBron for not reaching Jordan proportions, particularly since he never would have had a Scottie, Horace, Dennis, and Phil backing him.
And why would anyone think this series is over just because the Spurs bagged the first game? Almost every time we question or cajole LeBron James, whether is a pundit, former player or Lance Stephenson blowing in his ear, he tears his opponent apart.
San Antonio will have the AC at full blast on Sunday, cold enough to play hockey on the court. And if LeBron loses again, he won’t be able to skate his way out of the hole he’s in. He signed up for this.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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