Is LeBron's Historic Performance a Preview of Coming Attractions?LeBron James became just the second player in NBA playoff history to tally 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists (Elgin Baylor posted exactly the same numbers in each of those categories in a 1961 playoff game) and he led the Miami Heat to a 101-93 road victory over the Indiana Pacers in a must win game four; the Heat tied the series at 2-2, regaining home court advantage. James' tag team partner Dwyane Wade once again struggled early in the game but after James spoonfed Wade for a couple of point blank shots Wade came alive in the second half and finished with 30 points, nine rebounds and six assists.
Even though the Heat are without the services of the injured Chris Bosh and even though their supporting cast is much criticized, it is obvious that since the Heat have the two best players in this series--including the best player in the entire league--they have more than enough talent to win provided that James and Wade both play the right way at the same time: that means that the ball must primarily be in James' hands and that both players must attack the hoop relentlessly on offense and play very energetically on defense. James cannot stand in the corner awaiting future developments and Wade cannot dribble the air out of the ball before jacking up wild long range jumpers. James did not attempt a single three pointer in game four, while Wade took just two (making both); in game three James and Wade combined to shoot 1-6 from three point range and neither player attacked the hoop the way that they both attacked the hoop in game four.
James cannot be expected to put up 40-18-9 on a nightly basis. That had only happened once before in NBA playoff history and it may never happen again--but, as a three-time MVP who is almost universally acknowledged to be the best player in the league, James should absolutely be expected to play with great energy and aggression every time he takes the court. Kobe Bryant is much older than LeBron James and at this stage of Bryant's career he is much less athletic than James but Bryant is still attacking the hoop and drawing fouls (in his past two playoff games, Bryant has attempted 35 free throws while taking just three shots behind the arc).
Even without Bosh, the Heat should be able to win this series now; a best out of three set with two games at home (if necessary) should favor the team that has the two best players. The sad thing about James is that we really have no idea which James we will see in games five and six. In the second round of the 2010 playoffs, James authored a masterful game three performance versus Boston (38 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, one turnover, 14-22 field goal shooting) to lift his Cleveland Cavaliers to a 2-1 series lead but the Cavs then lost three straight games, with the low point coming at home in game five as James quit during a Celtics rout. James shot 2-3 from three point range in the game three win but he shot 2-13 from three point range in the next three games; he drifted passively around the court for large stretches of those games and he looked disinterested during timeouts.
I do not lightly throw around the word "quit"; I know firsthand what it means to compete and I know that a person can try his very best and still fall short of victory--but a masterful performance like the one James just authored paints a vivid, indelible, three dimensional picture of exactly what it looks like when James is really trying. This is not about numbers but rather about giving maximum effort, about doing everything on the court with great conviction and purpose: James and Wade both displayed maximum effort in everything that they did, so even if they had missed shots on offense or given up miracle shots despite playing tenacious defense no one could reasonably question or doubt that they left everything on the court. It is obvious what James looks like when he is really trying, so when he stands passively in the corner it is equally obvious that he is not trying very hard. Forget the nonsensical justifications that center around James being a pass first player; in game four James poured in 40 points without forcing any shots and he still delivered nine assists. Giving up the ball without attacking the hoop and thus putting pressure on a less talented teammate to take a lower quality shot is not being unselfish; it is making a bad basketball play and--in light of what we have seen that James is capable of doing--it must be described as quitting.
It is possible that the scintillating James-Wade game four performance versus Indiana will propel the Heat into the Eastern Conference Finals and perhaps even all the way to winning an NBA title--but it is also possible that James will be passive in games five and six as the Pacers eliminate the Heat just like the underdog Celtics took out James' Cavaliers in 2010 and the underdog Dallas Mavericks defeated James' Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals.
I have no idea whether or not James will quit in the next two games. I have no idea why he quit in the 2010 and 2011 playoffs, so I consider this quitting phenomenon inexplicable and thus impossible to predict--but the fact that it is even conceivable that he will do so (and every NBA observer who is honest and objective knows that it is at least possible that James will spend the next two games aimlessly drifting around the perimeter) is a very sad commentary about James, something that cannot be wiped out even by his great game four performance. One could argue that even winning a championship will not excuse or justify James' previous quitting episodes but we all know that if James wins a title his previous failures will be largely forgiven and forgotten--if one Super Bowl ring made the media forget that Ray Lewis obstructed justice (at the very least) in a still unsolved double murder then one NBA championship ring will surely make the media forget James' 2010 and 2011 playoff failures.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:03 AM