I thought this would be easy, pulling against LeBron James. Eleven months ago I’d worked up a disdain I figured would carry me through 2011 and probably 2021. But here Miami is, playing for the NBA title, and I have a confession:
I’m actually starting to feel sorry for LeBron.
He’s the best player in the world. He’s on the sport’s biggest stage. He’s hiding in the corner.
He scored 17 points in Game 3 of the NBA finals, which prompted Gregg Doyel of CBS Sports to dub him an “incredibly shrinking superstar.” Bristling at a Doyel question, James took pains to extol the virtues of all-around excellence, and in his defense he did feed Chris Bosh for the jumper that won Game 3, and when your team wins you can say whatever you want.
There can, however, be no defending Game 4. James scored eight points, a personal playoff low. He took one fourth-quarter shot. The Heat blew a sizable lead for the second time in three games, and suddenly the Legion of Superheroes doesn’t look super or heroic — it looks like a hugely gifted team that doesn’t know what to do.
Check that. Dwyane Wade knows. He was supposed to be the Boy Wonder to LeBron’s Caped Crusader, but in the finals Wade has averaged 29.8 points to James’ 17.3. Even Bosh, always regarded as the least of the Big Three, has outscored James in this series.
That’s correct. The best player in the world has become the third-leading scorer on his team.
Eleven months ago, I’d have sworn typing such a sentence would fill me with glee. That’s how frosted I was over “The Decision” — that programming monstrosity foisted on us by LeBron and ESPN. It was the utter height of hubris, and in one stage-managed hour I went from liking James to hoping he never wins anything ever.
But time has, as time will, softened my outrage. “The Decision” was a grievous mistake. NBA commissioner David Stern said so. Even ESPN’s ombudsman said so. But I’d been a LeBron fan since I saw him play for St. Vincent-St. Mary High in Greensboro on Martin Luther King Day 2003, and as these playoffs have unfolded I’ve started to think it might not be the worst thing in the world if he gets his title.
Through 3 1/2 quarters of Game 4, that long-sought championship — the very reason for “The Decision” to leave Cleveland in the lurch — seemed very near. (Earlier that day, James had told reporters he was “starting to taste” a title.) Only thing was, the Decider was having little to do with it. The ball was going to Wade on every trip, and he was operating as if he’d become LeBron James surrounded by lesser Cavaliers.
That part about standing in the corner? I mean it literally. James stationed himself — I say that because I can’t imagine this was an Erik Spoelstra ploy — 25 feet from the goal. And stood there. In the infamous Game 5 against Boston last season, James was criticized by Cavs fans for not shooting. This time he barely moved.
Why would the world’s best player decide not to try very hard? Was he afraid of rankling Wade? If so, what was that blather about uniting with players of similar ability for the greater good? Was LeBron scared of the moment? If so, why would the greatest amalgam of speed, strength and skill in the history of the sport be scared of any moment?
A conspicuously ailing Dirk Nowitzki scored 10 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4. An apparently healthy LeBron James has scored nine fourth-quarter points this series. The guy who wanted out of Cleveland because his supporting cast wasn’t good enough is standing around admiring D-Wade’s work. I’m confused by this startling development — heck, everybody is — and I’m also confused by my response to it.
I thought it’d be amusing to see LeBron lose, but I don’t want him to lose like this. If Nowitzki and the Mavericks outplay him and the Heat straight-up, so be it. But this way feels wrong. It’s as if King James has, on the morning of his coronation, chosen to abdicate the throne.
By Mark Bradley