Lebron Gets It
By Bob Liss
Lebron James has been a groundbreaking force in many ways, but who expected him to be in the forefront of the humanization of superstardom? A team player in all senses – even extending the notion to the NBA family of players – after seven years of Cleveland, he felt he needed someone to make the assist, help him carry the load. His buddy Dwyane Wade wasn’t quite enough last year, but this year, he found the perfect man; or, that man found him.
In Kevin Durant, whose calm self-effacing manner makes him a kind of anti-Kobe Bryant, James serendipitously was presented with the exact proper foil to carry him home without demanding that James trade too heavily on the alpha male aggression that he has seemed mysteriously to eschew.
Both aesthetic delights, James and Durant are archetypal opposites. Look – no, marvel – at their bodies. Each extends the line of development of discrete and divergent body types within the range of tall non-centers: brute force and raw power (the Wilt line of development) vs. agility mixed with sinewy strength, the body type best exemplified by Connie Hawkins and Julius Erving.
It once had seemed James, with his impeccable skills and awe-inspiring body, would meld the lines of development and establish a new paradigm, unifying Best Big Man and Best All-Court player. (Wilt/Russell and Oscar being the prototypes.)
But on his seemingly inexorable ascent toward being recognized as the greatest player ever, King James – enigmatically – hit a number of speed bumps, both on and off the court. Graceless when he lost in Cleveland, even seeming to quit at critical junctures in his last game as a Cavalier, Lebron mysteriously repeated the pattern of disappearing at crunch time – but to a far greater degree – in last year’s Finals loss to Dallas. Ahead 2–1, Lebron’s Heat squandered a fifteen point fourth quarter lead in Game Four, and wound up not winning that or any subsequent game, resulting in a 4-2 Dallas series in which Dirk Nowitzki was as much of a hero as James was a goat.
Failing to take over at the end, mysteriously deferring to lesser players, he added tons of fuel to the already-raging fire originally sparked by his “Decision Day” gaffe in switching teams so indecorously; not even to mention his switching from #23 to #6, Bill Russell's old number, in supposed deferential homage to Michael Jordan!
But how could these anti-heroics be explained? After all, the Man had not been short of Herculean accomplishments. In Cleveland, he carried a mediocre cast on his back, making an ordinary starting guard like Mo Williams into an All Star and leading his team to two sixty game win seasons, and one trip to the NBA Finals. He had taken over games like almost no-one else in history, most notably his 48 point playoff effort against heavily favored Detroit in 2007, rudely ending Piston hegemony in the NBA’s East.
No, these egregious failures were utterly confounding, completely inexplicable: after great starts, he had faded – often mystifyingly – as per his astonishing average of just three fourth quarter points in last year’s Finals, reinforcing the absurd notion that he lacked what Howard Beck (New York Times 6/7/12) called “some intangible championship gene.”
The Lebron enigma resists the cant of sports pundits to whom every outcome is explicable; even foreordained. Nothing is random in their world. Event X always proves Theory Y: the fallacy (you may prefer “myth”) of historical inevitability. Plus, they insist on acting as if they are privy to the personal psychologies of both their heroes and their torturers, who serve as giant projection screens for our fantasy lives.
So much hype! Why even bother with the NBA anymore? We’ve seen it all, it seems: Wilt, Oscar, Russ, Elgin, Bill Walton, Tiny, Earl, BirdnMagic, Michael, Hakeem, Kobe, when he’s on fire. Yet the young (and he’s still young) Lebron James offered something new and special: for several years, disenchanted with the league I once adored, I still watched games involving Cleveland, because there was always the possibility – still is with James – of seeing something that had never been done before, like in Game Three of the Oklahoma City series when he absorbed three distinct hits at different times in coming down the lane, and still scored a twisting lay-up.
In my mind, he was destined to be the greatest ever, a designation I had once thought Tim Duncan would ascend to. (And maybe he did – gradually – at least at his position. If so, he did it quietly: flew under the radar: Ginobli, Parker, Coach Pop, that bank shot.) Hard to leave Magic out of any discussion of Greatest Ever, though most people say Jordan among the non-centers.
I have always stuck with Oscar. That’s who Lebron had to surpass for me. Only he could add a healthy dose of Wilt. The Bronster Monster is sui generis!
II GETTING THERE
The two month playoff road to Lebron’s first title was perilous, and seemed destined to produce failure even before reaching the Finals. After engineering a Miami comeback against Indiana – the Heat were down 2–1, behind ten, on the road, and without one of their “Big Three,” Chris Bosh – Lebron and his team-mates struggled and sputtered for three consecutive games against the Celtics. Down 3–2, in Boston, James seemed about to repeat his failure of the previous year, but a round earlier.
His numbers were high, Oscar-esque in fact (32, 10, 50% from the floor), but in the clutch in too many big games, he had missed shots, made bad decisions, often failed to decide at all, seeming instead to get caught drifting, floating, as if protecting who knows what. We can’t know why, but his vacillation was maddening: he was unable to counter Boston’s surges, led by the wily Rajon Rondo, and was too often ineffective, as the Celtics took increasing command.
With Magic Johnson hyping the stakes with projections of a permanently tarnished reputation, James seemed cornered and ready for further excruciation. His history in elimination games was no balm. LBJ’s record stood at 2-6, despite a scoring average of 29 points, behind only Michael, Wilt, and Allen Iverson.
The NBA, like ancient Thebes, was undergoing an awful drought: its King’s inexplicable loss of special powers. This fan began to feel it would never end.
Then it all changed, in Game Six of the Boston series, with Lebron’s 45 point 15 rebound masterpiece, a performance that rivaled his 48 point gem in the decisive game Five of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against reigning champion Detroit, in which he scored his team’s last 25 points and 29 of its last 30. James’s Elgin Baylor-esque (circa 1962 playoffs in Boston Garden) 30 first half points on 12–14 shooting, despite missing four foul shots, put the Heat decisively ahead 55–42. He played the whole way, until the last three meaningless minutes of what turned into a rout 98–79 rout.
Before Game 7, back in Miami, James was said to have limited his twitter and cell phone use. Focus is all, some like to say! Still, there were plenty of difficult moments: the Celtics got hot early, and made a 13–2 run to go up 23–14, in a game of early three’s, with James fitting in, though not passing up anything that was noticeably his. Then, with Garnett resting, he became more aggressive, going to the basket, picking up fouls, making six straight shots, then one of those awesome chase-down blocks on Rondo, but Boston – still without Garnett – made another Rondo-led run, for a 49–38 margin. After three quarters, it was 73–73, with Rondo still in high gear.
James made an amazing drive to give Miami an 81–79 lead with nine minutes left. With Chris Bosh (back just in time from a long injured stretch) using James’s penetration and passing – when he wasn’t simply scoring on the drive – to shoot 8–10 (with a career-unprecedented three threes), Miami’s reconstituted Big Three scored its last 29 points to win going away, 101–88.
A satisfying and moving ending was provided by intense hugs between James and Celtic Coach “Doc” Rivers, but it was only a partial ending, as the Oklahoma City Thunder awaited, with a player, Kevin Durant, too respectful of his elders to ask Paul Pierce to give up his nickname of “The Truth,” however deserving of it he may be. Durant led and epitomized a young athletic group that had taken four straight from a San Antonio team that had won its last twenty, including two against the Thunder.
If Miami lost the Finals, Lebron’s great Celtic series would be as easily forgotten as last year’s! No slack for James: his success or failure still hung in the balance, despite his having averaged thirty points and ten rebounds in consecutive playoff series, a feat not accomplished since 7’4” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (Wilt did it regularly, of course.)
III THERE AND BEYOND
Timing is all, many say, Al Attles included. Sometimes if you wait too long, things happen to change the whole game. There was the blossoming of Durant as assassin/team leader along with the rapid development of raw point guard Russell Westbrook, an extraordinarily explosive player who draws much criticism despite his near- or post-Jamesian athletic endowment. Westbrook is unique, being in mid-process of becoming a point guard in a radical make-over of his collegiate game. His scorer’s instinct must be preserved; it doesn't have to conflict with a playmaker's mentality. And he didn’t ask for this job; it’s not like he can’t play the “2.”
Announcer Jeff Van Gundy encapsulated it perfectly in a marvelous malaprop, calling Westbrook ‘indefensible,” when he meant “un-guardable.” “You can’t defense him,” Casey Stengel might have clarified. It’s in combination that Westbrook and Durant really intrigue. These guys, still evolving together, were out to compete athletically with Lebron, and they almost could.
Had Lebron missed the moment? Maybe he didn’t have Wilt’s 25 year cushion. Had cutting-edge DNA made another turn in its Hegelian drive toward further perfection? Durant is surely different. His agile length is what will define the developmental arc as he matures, stretching in a different direction from the line James seemed destined to merge with Biggest Alpha Male (Wilt’s lineage). After James, though, what could DNA do but evolve a long stroke that harnessed enough power to rival Lebron’s locomotion. That power – incorporating the delicacy of an elongated glide – had to come from a source that belied Durant’s having been unable to press even the minimum weight required at the NBA Combine; leave that to the physicists. He’s a Duncan mutation, emphasizing length over power.
But does DNA work like that? Are you crazy? Still, this guy’s pull up jumper can make you feel that way. Durant brings back a Bob McAdoo level of joy – of glee – in his lean grace, but combined with more than a touch of Michael. (McAdoo had been the player who most rekindled my passion and made me feel like a kid again, watching him ease back further and further to evade the menacing advances of the ferocious Dave Cowens.)
You could dig Durant best in a quick sequence late in Game One when he followed a jumper with a steal on the run, covering sixty-one feet with just two dribbles, culminating in an awesome dunk. It was breath-taking: his delayed answer to a steal and dunk by James (who had seemed in that fleeting moment to establish physical domination) as Miami took apparent command of the game 37–24. A nadir from which the Thunder managed to climb back for their only win. Durant leading the comeback drive with those seemingly endless flights of his feather-like frame.
If you look at the combination of Durant and Westbrook, maybe you got a guy to play James even-up, yet announcers are now calling Westbrook the league’s most athletic player. Here again, as pure athlete, consider how Lebron extends Wilt’s power line, recall that play when he absorbed three separate hits – at three separate times – and still scored.
Without that kind of strength, Durant has a stamina deficit, as the Finals told us. He could not play James one on one on both ends. But in two years, he might. Westbrook? His 43 point Game Four showed just how good he is, and may be more consistently.
IV WHY? TELL ME WHY?
When it comes to thinking through James’s past failures, I’m partial to what you might call “the rhythm hypothesis.” Lebron himself defined his mind-set after the Boston series as “just trying, as always, to play at a high level and have fun with it.” This was a comment you would never have heard from Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Larry Bird, or Magic Johnson, all great players known for rising to greater heights in clutch situations. Lebron looks to “feel” a game, not to transform it. Watch his head nod before a game; he’s IN rhythm; whereas Jordan WAS the game’s rhythm; MJ insisted on it.
Whenever I find myself trying to explain basketball to an un-initiate, I am reminded of the supreme innate intelligence that it takes to play the game at the highest level. The game attracts the world's greatest athletes. That’s a given, and physical talent will take you a long way in this the most athletically demanding of sports, but once you get there, you won't be there alone, and the great minds find a way to triumph: Russell over Chamberlain, most notably, but hardly exclusively. Take Magic and Larry Bird as great examples of two gifted players whose intelligence made then stand out. Intelligence of a particular kind, that is. With the salary cap machinations, you need a degree in accounting to make trades as a general manager. That's not rocket science, but it sure is complicated. Basketball IQ is something different. It’s like pornography: you know it when you see it. What’s so odd is that James clearly has it, but had not consistently applied it.
Here is where we must still wonder about him; the jury remains out, even after three MVP's, and a first ring. If he had Magic Johnson working with him, well, don't get me started.
V THE FINALS
Game One of the Finals felt like a college game for the first half; up and down; no dramatic tension. The Heat led 55–47 at the half, but in the second half, Durant and Westbrook went wild and outscored the whole Miami team 41–40. Westbrook got twelve in the third quarter, and Durant had seventeen in the fourth (compared to James’ seven, recalling his three point fourth quarter average in last year’s Finals). It became 82–74 after Durant’s long contested three and ferocious dunk slicing through traffic, extending seemingly forever, and ended 105–94.
Would Durant continue to “own” the fourth quarter? Pretty much so in Game Two, when Miami blew another lead, and Durant tallied sixteen in the fourth, but missed a shot for the tie, a shot on which James clearly fouled him. By allowing the more than incidental contact, the refs were too deferential in honoring James’s superior strength. But Miami had its service break in Oklahoma City, an advantage they rode out the rest of the way.
All Oklahoma City needed, though, was one out of three in Miami, as they had shown themselves capable of winning two at home, even though the second one got away.
In Game Three, all four superstars finished the first half in double figures. The Thunder had a ten point lead in the third quarter, but twice fouled three-point shooters, missed five foul shots, and made a coaching error after Durant’s fourth foul (subbing for Westbrook when Durant was out). For the first time, Durant ceded fourth quarter superiority, tallying only four points. Durant was taking plenty of punishment, and its toll was showing in his low rebound totals. Lebron elevated his game, finishing with 29 points and fourteen rebounds.
In Game Four, the Thunder led 33–19 early, with Westbrook obviously pumped, dominating and overpowering everyone. He was like a bigger tougher Kevin Johnson. Though near exhaustion by the 104–98 end, he single-handedly wiped out a ten point Miami lead in the two minutes that James needed to rest, because of leg cramps.
The statistics before Game Five made it clear that, yes, for sure, Lebron had gone from fourth quarter disappearance to domination: he stood at plus sixteen in fourth quarter situations, whereas he was minus 16 against Dallas.
His first half statistics of fifteen points, five rebounds and five assists was an exact Oscar pace and he finished up with 26-12-13. Game Five was the only that was not competitive throughout, seeming uneven even before the 16–0 run that put the game and the series completely out of reach. Yet the Thunder also seemed to get a phenomenal amount of near-misses and bad bounces. By the end, it all seemed inevitable.
But suppose Durant had made that shot in Game Two when Lebron fouled him and it wasn’t called. Before that play, Durant had dominated the fourth quarter of both games at home (getting 36 the night they won, 17 in a ridiculously in-rhythm fourth quarter shooting and scoring exhibition). That was the only service break of the series. And maybe there wouldn’t have been one. Then, what would everyone be saying about James?
You’ve heard it all before: all the (tired) all-encompassing explanations, the post hoc reasoning to prove the logic of what had happened, and none of it would've been kind to James, particularly juxtaposed against the all-popular Durant, who is so pure and utterly at peace amidst warfare that you cannot fail to love him. Rhythm could’ve explained it; so could focus. Could intelligence? Sure.
James himself put it simply: the excitement, joy, and love were back in his game this year; all the hate he received last year had been internalized and transformed into guilt: “I believed it.” This best fits focus theory.
No matter: much that was wrong was suddenly made right. After all, if you really care about the game, this is a man you want to love, not hate.
James’ raging unpopularity was a wrongful thing. Leave plagues to Aeschylus and Sophocles. Turn that hatred to Jerry Sandusky, a more legitimate recipient. Explain that!
The 149-day lockout had both delayed and compressed a season that ended with the promise of a great rivalry and a plague lifted. The Fisher King is not you, Derrick Fisher, but Lebron.
With its new labor contract in place, a Bird-Magic redux in the making with Durant still developing, Steve Nash and Jason Kidd jumping to the biggest market towns of Los Angeles and New York, and Anthony Davis coming aboard, the league that David Stern brought to the brink of temporary extinction can count on enough good years to see him safely into retirement.
From July, 2012
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