Friday, May 14, 2010

Lackluster Finish

Last night, everyone and their mother was proclaiming that it would take a triple-double by LeBron James for the Cavaliers to stave off elimination in Boston against the Celtics. Well guess what? LeBron got his triple-double — 27 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists — but the Cavaliers didn't win … and LeBron didn't play well.

That's how good LeBron James is at basketball. He can play a bad game — and I don't care what you say about how much his teammates sucked (and boy, did they ever suck) or how the Celtics tailored their defense to contain James, make him give the ball up (all true points) — and still put up a triple-double. Not many people post triple-doubles ever, let alone doing it on an off night. Yet that's where we are with LeBron in the game 6 loss to the Celtics that ended the Cavs' season.

Look at that line, and you might be fooled into thinking James had a very good game. Let me be the first to tell you that he unequivocally did not. He wasn't bad-bad, but he wasn't good either, at least by his own standards. He wasn't the monster that singlehandedly eviscerated the Pistons in 2007:

Maybe it was the injury, maybe it was the Boston defense, maybe it was some combination of everything, but he just didn't look like LeBron. He was passive at times again, though definitely more aggressive than in game 5. He was timid to rise up, again. He was deferring to lesser teammates too quickly, players who simply weren't capable of getting the job done, especially after Mo Williams duped everyone into thinking he could be counted on with a very good first half. He threw the ball all over the place, evident by his 9 turnovers. He was almost trying to do too much by doing too little, if that makes any sense whatsoever. And it was supremely disappointing.

After a game 5 performance that was nothing short of terrible, everyone thought LeBron would come out and tear the Celtics up, put a stamp on his alpha status in the league. Yet he did none of that, not that he had any help. The Cavs were atrocious, every last one of them, and they basically quit at the end of the game. With two minutes left, they were still within striking distance, however distant that chance was. They had to start fouling, preferably the inexplicably terrible foul-shooting Rajon Rondo, and take their chances, extend the game. Instead, they just gave up, let Boston run out the clock without ever fouling, conceding victory to the Celtics while facing an admittedly monumental task. Yet they didn't even give themselves a chance.

Maybe too much has been heaped upon him, maybe we've grown to expect too much too soon from the reigning two-time MVP, but watching that game, triple-double or no triple-double, LeBron just didn't look like that guy who finds a way, no matter what, to get his team to where it needed to be — the way Allen Iverson did in 2001, the way Jordan did time and time again, the way Kobe and Shaq and D-Wade and Hakeem and Duncan have in the past. LeBron just didn't look like one of those guys, which is beyond belief really.

I'm not here to talk down on LeBron. Maybe it's just not his time yet. The Cavs regressed as the season wore on, and James is going through the growing pains of playoff basketball. It happens. Just because he got to one NBA Final so early doesn't mean he still isn't learning. Remember, he's only 25 years old. He'll get his, I'm sure of it.

Ed wrote a great piece about LeBron today, something truly worth reading. And he brought up a point that my roommates and I discussed after the game, about the difference thus far in demeanor between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan and that of LeBron:

So here's the alley-oop I throw to you the basketball fan if you want to crucify the man. Crucify the man for not being a jerk, an asshole, or insensitive to another man's thoughts. LeBron, for everything he's done in his career, as a person...dude just seems like a cool dude. Look at how his teammates revere him, they joke around, they dance at unnecessary times of the game, the take fake photographs, and when things are rolling its all smiles for the Cavaliers. However, when you win 66 games in the regular season, when you lose a game or two and your star player doesn't seem all that affected by it, that permeates into the the rest of the team as well. Its not necessarily LeBron's fault, because his mindset is that he's not going to let one loss get him down. He's going to play better and keep it moving. This is the time I'm going to compare him to MJ and Kobe, the only time. If Mike or Kobe lose a game, they're pissed, breaking backboards, and either not saying a word or they're saying a lot of words that are 4 letters long.

You know what that does to their teammates? It puts the fear of God in them, and it makes them feel like they HAVE TO play better for them to win. Just for the fact that they are terrified of what could happen if they lose again. LeBron's biggest equivalent isn't to MJ or Kobe or anyone else, in my opinion he compares most to Tony Dungy. Someone who in my personal opinion, was one of the nicest and calmest coaches I've ever seen in NFL history, only won one championship with arguably one of the 5 greatest quarterbacks of all-time at the helm. LeBron is in that similar situation, he's too nice. He's not going into the locker room and tearing into the soul of Mo Williams. He's not going to berate Antawn Jamison about getting yammed on by Tony Allen. He's not going to take shots at any players in the press, he's just going to sit there and be quiet. He's only able to lead by example at this point.

That's the exact thing I was saying last night. LeBron's demeanor isn't that of a commandeering tyrant. He's not going to bust his teammates and get on them for every mistake. That's just who he is. That doesn't mean he can't win that way, or that that approach can't bring rings. But maybe in this instance, it hurt the Cavs. Because when LeBron couldn't play on a pantheon level, just the level of typical superstar, there was no one there to pick him, to help him out. It's not something he's demanded from his teammates, at least that's the perception. For all we know, he could do all this behind doors, though we don't hear about it at all.

Michael Jordan was so competitive and wanting nothing more than to win, friendships be damned. He didn't care if people liked him, if his teammates said good thing about him. All he cared about was winning. If he had to punch a few teammates in practice to drive the point home, that nothing short of winning was enough, then so be it. And that got him 6 rings. Same with Kobe. He doesn't care if teammates are complaining about not getting enough shots, makes no bones about admonishing guys for making mistakes. All he wants is to win. That's what consumes him, what consumed Jordan. LeBron wants to win, no doubt, but he wants everyone to like him too. He wants to be the popular one on the team, be buddies with all his teammates. And that's done a lot of good for the Cavs … but does it come at the expense of holding back a bit on asking for more, no, demanding more from them? I don't know, but it's an interesting point.

It's actually a point that comes to the forefront even more following last night. Why? Because Kevin Garnett, even being a player who was disparaged for being too passive in crunch time once upon a time, is cut more from the Jordan/Kobe mold. He barks at teammates when they fuck up. He demands them to work hard on both ends of the court. And he's not shy about putting teammates in their place. It didn't net him anything in Minnesota, but it brought him a ring (along with playing with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce) in Boston, and it has now helped the Celtics get back to the Eastern Conference Finals. Garnett has been the biggest key, whether it is changing the culture defensively in Boston, getting on his teammates, or taking over, like he did last night.

Garnett was the best player on the court last night, even better than LeBron and his triple-double. KG scored 22 points on 11-19 from the floor, and there wasn't a Cavalier out there that could contain him. He nabbed 12 boards, securing a double-double himself, and did all the little things to help the C's get it done. He played great defense, crashed the boards, filled up the basket, and confused the Cavs on pick and rolls. He was barking at Big Baby from the bench when Davis decided to forgo an open jumper and drive to the hoop, only to get blocked. He just had the aura last night of a guy who wasn't going to let his team lose, starting right out of the gate with a few turnaround jumpers, and his teammates followed suit.

It took KG a long time to reach this point. Not necessarily the mentality, because Garnett has always been looked at as an intense competitor, a demanding teammate who will tolerate nothing less than 100 percent. But he knows the road LeBron James is on. He knows playoff failure. He lived it for years. He knows failing to live up to expectations, of getting accused of being too passive or not being capable of getting it done. And he knows that it's possible.

If anything, watching KG and LeBron last night, it should make all the doubters pause for a second. With all the talent in the world, LeBron is simply going on the path KG has already been on. There's no reason to believe James won't get there too. Sure, were his last few games disappointing? Absolutely. The fact he isn't the scowling, demanding teammate certainly will bring up questions about his ability to lead as well. But something tells me LeBron will take this and use it as motivation going forward. Like I said, the man is only 25 years old. The sky is the limit. Which is why it's so shocking when he doesn't take flight. It was a disappointing end to this chapter, but the book is still being written.

By the way, in case anyone in Philly was wondering, yes, even though he now plays in Boston, Philly boy Rasheed Wallace is definitely rooting for the Flyers:


BallHype: hype it up!

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