Thursday, May 31, 2007

LeBron Gets It

Cavaliers star LeBron James makes the game-winning layup in Cleveland's 109-107 double-overtime victory over the Pistons in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

I'm not sure how I should write this post. About an hour ago LeBron James turned in one of the greatest individual performances in playoff history. In a 109-107 double-OT victory over the Pistons in Auburn Hills that will become a part of NBA lore, the King played 51 minutes, scored 48 points (on 18-of-33 shooting), grabbed 9 rebounds, and dished out 7 assists. He made his team's last 11 field goals and scored 29 of their last 30 points, including the last 25. He made huge basket after huge basket, some tough fallaways mixed with a few strong drives to the basket that he capped off with even stronger finishes. On the game-winner, he drove right through the heart of the Pistons defense and finished with an acrobatic layup. He was unstoppable. He was not going to let his team lose this game.

I wasn't even alive when Magic did what he did sans Kareem at the Spectrum in the '80 Finals, or when Michael gave Boston 63 at the Garden in '86, but I know everything about those games and I've seen parts of both of them on ESPN Classic and NBA TV. And this performance is right up there with those two. All things considered, this one may be even more impressive. I mean, think about it: LeBron is 22-years old. He's in his fourth year out of high school, the savior of a traditionally bad team. He has a terrible coach and a very mediocre supporting cast. Even Kobe has more help (at least he has Phil and the occasionally brilliant Lamar Odom; LeBron has Mike Brown and Larry Hughes). The Cavs are the very definition of a one-man team. More than that, he's under more pressure and scrutiny than any 22-year old that's ever played the game; Cleveland's successes and failures rest directly on his shoulders, and when they lose, he is criticized more than any player in his position ever should be. Magic was on an excellent Laker team that, even wihout Kareem that night, still had Coop, Norm Nixon, and Jamaal Wilkes (who finished with a forgotten 37 that night). And while I would never compare this Pistons team to the 1986 Celtics, they're still a veteran, battle-tested, title-worthy club that's famous for for their big-game swagger, a very formidable foe. LeBron won his game; Michael didn't.

More than just this game, I'll remember the last five days as the time it all clicked for LeBron. Bashed after the first two games of the series for a lack of agressiveness and some shaky end-of-game decisions, he learned on the fly, playing games 3-5 with the kind of assertiveness and killer instinct that only Kobe, Wade, and A.I. can match. After the two losses in Detroit, I seriously wondered whether or not that last quality could be learned; afterall, if you look at any of the great money players of the last 25 years, they were all sharks from the beginning of their careers. From Magic to Bird to Michael to Kobe to Wade, they were all fearless and unshakable from day one. It's inborn. Kobe airballed those three threes at the end of those playoff games against Utah his rookie year, but even at 18, he still thought the next one would go in and wasn't afraid to shoot it. His confidence in himself never wavered, not even for a second.

Up until Game 3, LeBron seemed to be lacking that self-assurance. And I sincerely doubted if he had it in him. I was ready to write him off as the next A-Rod.

Over the past week and especially earlier tonight, he made me out to be a fool.