A year ago I almost felt sorry for LeBron James. This time there’s no “almost” — I do feel sorry for him. He cannot simply play a game anymore, and woe be unto him should his team happen to lose one.
About playing the game: The general idea is to win by whatever means necessary, but LeBron and the Miami Heat are held to a different standard. They have to win in a way that satisfies their critics, which has become impossible because there are too many critics. (I know. Before my sympathy button got pushed, I was one.)
You can see it at the end of these games against Boston. The Celtics trust one another; they don’t care who takes the last shot. The Heat may profess not to care, but deep down they know that there’ll be hell to pay if LeBron James — or, failing that, Dwyane Wade — doesn’t take the last shot.
And then come the permutations: What if LeBron is triple-teamed (as happened in Game 4) and passes to Udonis Haslem, who misses? Was LeBron wrong for not forcing the issue? Aren’t Great Players supposed to Make Something Happen? Would Michael Jordan have passed in such a situation?
(For the record, the answer is yes. Jordan would have and demonstrably did. The title-winning shot in the 1997 NBA finals was made by Steve Kerr off a pass from Jordan. The title-winning shot in the 1993 NBA finals was made by John Paxson off a sequence that commenced with Jordan driving and passing to Scottie Pippen, who passed to Horace Grant, who found Paxson on the perimeter.)
Back to Game 4: LeBron got ripped in some circles for not shooting at the end of regulation, and then, with LeBron disqualified on fouls, Wade was reduced to hoisting a contested 3-pointer at the end of overtime, which led to him getting ripped, too. So which is it: Is a superstar supposed to take the last shot no matter what or isn’t he?
Apparently the answer is: The superstar can do as he wants, so long as he doesn’t miss. Trouble is, superstars miss, too. Jordan missed more than half the shots he took as a professional. (Not many more, it should be noted.) A guy who takes the last shot cannot be afraid, but the pressure on the Heat — the initial helping having been self-inflicted — has made it difficult for them to breathe, let alone dare.
After Tuesday’s Game 5, the sixth paragraph of the Associated Press report began thusly: “James finished with 30 points and 13 rebounds for Miami, though he went eight minutes without scoring in the final quarter.”
The difference between the Heat and the Celtics is that the latter side knows its can lose without recrimination. Garnett and Pierce and Allen and Rondo have proved they can win a title. When LeBron made The Decision in July 2010, he reduced his career to two questions: Has he won it all yet, and if not, why not? Is he not good enough? (Ridiculous question.) Is there some sort of character flaw? (If there is, it didn’t show when he lifted the Cavaliers to the 2007 NBA finals by himself.) Is he scared?
Given that LeBron James is 27 and has, counting playoffs, scored 22,000 NBA points, that question would seem laughable — until you actually watch him play a postseason game, and then you begin to wonder. You wonder if the nit-picking of every on-court decision hasn’t gotten to him in a way it never got to Jordan. (Then again, there was no Twitter when MJ ruled and no real blogs, and even ESPN was a kinder, gentler place.)
All things being equal, the Heat should beat the Celtics. All things are not equal. Boston doesn’t have to impress anybody. The Heat do, but in the 21st century there’s no way impress everybody. When LeBron joined forces with his Super Friends, he had no way of knowing that in search of ultimate victory he’d plopped himself into the ultimate no-win situation.
If the Heat prevail, they’ll have done so because of their talent. (In other words, in spite of themselves.) If they fall, it’ll be because of some sort of moral failing, even if we on the periphery have to concoct one.
Comparing/contrasting LeBron James and Michael Jordan has been done so often as to make the eyes glaze over, but in LeBron’s second postseason run with Miami the key difference is obvious: We watched Jordan to see him win, and we’re watching LeBron to see him lose. He’ll eventually get his title — he’s too good not to do it — but he might never escape that trap. He set himself up, and we’re only too happy to keep knocking him down.
By Mark Bradley