Friday, June 01, 2007

The Rise of King James

Last night, I was winding down and thinking about going to bed. The Braves were off, The Office has gone away for the summer, and - like all the other young men in this country - there hasn't been a whole lot in the NBA Playoffs to captivate me once Golden State said goodnight. So at the start of the 4th quarter of Game 5 between Detroit and Cleveland, I start my evening routine and decide that if the game's still close when I'm done, I'll stay up and watch the rest. So after I brush my teeth, eat my vitamins and say my prayers, I sit down with about 7:30 to play in yet another close game in this series. At one point, Doug Collins said "can we just set the clock at 2:00 and just let them play?", alluding to the fact that every game in this series had come down to the wire. And in the crosshairs of those final minutes stood a 22 year old LeBron James.

In Game One, he was ridiculed for passing to a wide open teammate for a 3 to win - when Donyell Marshall misfired, LBJ took the heat. This was categorically unfair, in my opinion - again, wide open - but perhaps this is the nature of the beast we've created in today's star-driven NBA. In Game Two, he tried to win it himself and got fouled three different ways, but the referees decided to choke on their whistles, Detroit went up 2-0, and I wrote them off. Even though Cleveland had been here last year with Detroit. Even though Cleveland went on to win Games 3 and 4, with LeBron stepping it up considerably. Even though the game was close, again - I just figured Detroit would win it.

Anyway, the game stays close. What I didn't see in the seconds before I turned the game back on was Zydrunas Ilgauskas hit a layup to put Cleveland up 79-76 with 7:48 to play. Which didn't really seem significant at the time.

Then the Pistons went up 88-81 with 3:15 to play, and I'm like everyone else: this thing is over, this series is over, here comes Detroit-San Antonio II. LeBron goes to the hole and scores, then Drew Gooden hits a free throw to make it 88-84 with 2:48 to play. And then, after a Detroit miss, they start giving it to LeBron.

The 26 foot 3 he hit on the next trip down was significant in its own right - LBJ was 3 for 3 from beyond the arc for the game - and now Detroit was only up one. Then he looked human when he missed two free throws. Then, after a block on a Rasheed Wallace shot, the Cavs had the ball, down 88-87, with 0:43 to play.

Now, you and I all know the ball is going to LeBron. Detroit - an oustanding defensive team - knows this too. So what happens? He dunks on them. I mean, a nasty one that Tayshaun Prince can do nothing but get out of the way of. In a crucial Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the best defensive team in the East just let the signature/only good player on the other team dunk on them to take the lead with :30 to play. Hard.

So I'm thinking that what I just saw was quite special just long enough for Chauncey Billups to bury a 3 on the other end, and now it's 91-89 Detroit, and all that magic is over, right? 0:22 left, and you know the ball is going to LeBron again. And gues what happens? He dunks on them again.

These two plays, by themself, are amazing and legacy-inducing. If you didn't see it, it's hard for me to explain the forcefulness of the whole thing - that Lebron, who is the largest, most cut player on USA Basketball by far judging by those commercials - simply decided he was going to the hole, and no one on Detroit was going to do anything about it. Twice. With the game - and the season, perhaps - on the line.

Billups rims out a 3 and we go to overtime. Then LeBron dunks on them again in overtime, just for good measure. And this thing is turning into a freak show. TNT starts running a graphic about how many consecutive Cleveland points LBJ has scored. It starts at something like 12. And it keeps rising. And rising. And rising. By the time Billups makes two ice cold free throws to tie the game at 100 and send it to a second overtime, you know you're seeing something special.

And did the Detroit crowd not know it or feel it too? Because it didn't feel like or sound like a game of such great magnitude when I was watching it. Maybe that's because my TV is so small, but it felt like the crowd wasn't as into it as they should've been.

Or maybe they were in awe of someone on the other team.

As the second overtime progresses, and James continues to be the only Cavalier scoring, I decide that Detroit is destined to win. Because the story is going to go that no one man can beat a team - especially not this team, best in the East, playoff tested, championship material - and it's going to culminate with a Detroit victory in 6 or 7, and an offseason of "You see, he did everything he could and still came up short - no one can win it by themselves. LBJ needs help or he'll never win the big one." And all of that would've made sense and been right.

Problem with logic is that it doesn't count on LeBron cashing in a 3 with two defenders smothering him to tie the game, again, at 107 after a pivotal three point play from Chris Webber on the other end. I mean, they're all highlight reel shots in the last fifteen minutes. Then, when Rasheed is blocked again and Cleveland gets it with :11 to play, guess what's going to happen? And so LeBron gets it, sizes it up, and once more just explodes to the hole. And this time, there are four Pistons that attempt to collapse on him. But they're just along for the ride. He power glides his way through all of them, and puts it up in exactly the right spot off the glass for the lead with :02 left. Billups misses, Cleveland wins.

The line on LBJ: 48 points (18 of 33 shooting, 3 of 3 from the arc), 9 rebounds, 7 assists. He scored the final 25 Cleveland points and 29 of the final 30. And if you saw it happen, you know it was bigger than any of the stats.

LeBron is in a select company already. When you think NBA, right now you're thinking Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and LBJ. And those guys are all thought to be on the same level - Kobe and Wade have rings via Shaq, LBJ is on his way up. But what James did last night is what Wade doesn't want to do, and Kobe hasn't been able to do: he put his entire team on his back, and carried them to victory. Not just any victory. Not just any opponent. Not just any game.

What we saw on Thursday night has legacy written all over it...but legacies in the NBA are a work in progress. If Detroit wins the next two games and eliminates the Cavs, then this is all a different story. LeBron and Cleveland really need to win Saturday night at home in Game Six - a trip to the Finals would cement this story; he doesn't even have to win it all this year.

Playoff performances are cumulative. You remember the shot on Ehlo and the 63 points against the Celtics because Michael Jordan grew up to become Michael Jordan. You remember less fondly some spectacular performances from Allen Iverson and Vince Carter in the playoffs, because they never evolved any further. Because of the continuing story of someone like Jordan, you even forget that the Bulls lost the 63 point game.

So for LeBron, it must be a continuing story. But if it reaches the Finals, then you can legitimately begin to construct an argument around LBJ being the best player in the NBA. Right now. And you could've just witnessed the beginning of something truly special...we'll see...

1 comment:

Celine said...

Good post.