James and the Cavs Need Less Talk, More ActionI am not foolish enough to say that game three of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals is the biggest game of LeBron James' career; I will leave that kind of senseless hyperbole to others. James has already played in bigger games (including the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, the 2007 NBA Finals and the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals) and he will almost certainly play in bigger games in the future (including this Sunday, which will be a must win game if the Cavs lose tonight). However, the Friday night showdown between James' Cavs and the Boston Celtics is certainly a very important game. James is the consensus MVP, the Cavs have had the best record in the NBA for two years in a row and James plays alongside the deepest supporting cast in the league--yet the Cavs squandered homecourt advantage in this series with a 104-86 game two loss that Cleveland forward Antawn Jamison quite correctly called "embarrassing." Cleveland Coach Mike Brown was certainly embarrassed, angry and frustrated when he delivered a postgame rant to the media about his team's deplorable lack of urgency and intensity, while James stepped to the podium not 20 minutes later and blithely insisted that there is no reason to panic. James also denied that he is having any problem with the much-discussed right elbow that he is constantly rubbing, the elbow that mysteriously enables him to shoot half court jump shots with perfect form and yet was apparently incapable of shooting an important end of game free throw versus Chicago in the first round. The big NBA news on Thursday was that James did not receive another MRI on the troublesome joint not long after a previous MRI showed no structural damage.
The Cavs--led by Brown and James--have long called themselves a "no excuse team" and they have for the most part lived up to that standard. I don't know what the deal is with James' elbow but after seeing Kobe Bryant play virtually a whole season without complaint despite a broken index finger on his shooting hand (after winning a championship last year despite a similar injury to the pinkie finger on that same hand) and after hearing Bryant recently say that no one on his team would dare sit out due to a minor injury because that player would be called out as a "chump," I do know that I am sick of hearing about James' elbow. Coach Brown said after game two that the doctors and training staff did not say anything to him about James being injured and James reiterated that he will not make excuses, so the Cavs collectively need to stop talking about the elbow and start focusing on their real problem: the team defense that has been the cornerstone of their success for the past several years has shown noticeable cracks throughout this postseason. The Cavs need to play with greater energy, focus and precision at that end of the court and James must lead the charge--and he must do so not just by making flashy "chase down" blocks for the highlight reels but also by serving as the defense's signal caller to ensure that everyone is positioned properly. That is the role that Bryant has played for the Lakers for years and James' ability to take on that responsibility is the real reason that he deserves to be considered an All-Defensive First Teamer.
If the Cavs do not beat the Celtics in Boston on Friday night then Sunday's game becomes a must win (due to the difficulty of coming back from a 3-1 margin in a playoff series), so as the league's best player it is James' responsibility to prevent his team's season from lurching toward the brink of elimination. There are many ways for a truly great player to dominate a game and James' performance tonight will ultimately not be judged by individual numbers but rather on whether or not he clearly asserts himself as the best player on the court. He must impose his will on this game. That is the true measure of greatness. We saw Kobe Bryant do this versus the Oklahoma City Thunder in game five with playmaking and defense, followed up by scoring a game-high 32 points in the game six series clincher. Rajon Rondo has been the most valuable player so far in the Boston-Cleveland series and James must decisively change that reality tonight. He is fully capable of doing so and I expect that he will come through with a signature performance--but if he fails I do not want to hear one more word about his elbow.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:16 AM