Brilliant LeBron James Performance Lifts Heat over CelticsMany adjectives could be used to describe LeBron James' 45 point, 15 rebound, five assist performance in Miami's 98-79 victory at Boston in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals but it is difficult to fully describe just how well James played. Here is one way to spell it out:
Those words are carefully chosen: James deserves praise for the energetic way that he played, some of the shots he made were breathtaking and remarkable and he overpowered Boston's efforts to stop him--but the most important word is the last one: James' performance was necessary. James joins Wilt Chamberlain as the only two players in NBA playoff history to ring up a 45-15-5 stat line (the closest ABA playoff stat line that I know of is Julius Erving's 48-14-8 in game two of the 1976 ABA Finals)--but this is not about hitting specific statistical targets: it is about playing with such energy, force and commitment that you inspire your teammates and deflate the other team.
Early in ESPN's game six telecast, Mike Breen wondered why some people are so critical of James. I cannot speak for other people but as someone who has both praised James as a worthy MVP--I even declared that James should have been the first player in NBA history to win four straight MVPs--and criticized James for quitting against Boston in the 2010 playoffs and for quitting against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals, my stance on James has not wavered (unlike the Cleveland media members who breathlessly praised James and now relentlessly bash him): James is a great player who has worked hard to improve his skill set weaknesses but he does not consistently display the mindset of a champion and he does not consistently play with high energy against elite teams. Again, this is not about stats; it is about impacting the game and willing your team to victory. The way that James played in game six is the way that he should play all of the time; it will not always result in 45-15-5 numbers but if he played that energetically all of the time then he would surely lead the Heat to a championship. The reason that since 2010 I have questioned if James will ever win a title is that I am not certain that he has it within him to consistently play with that kind of energy. It is so ironic that the supposed justification for James leaving Cleveland was that he needed more help to win a title but in the Heat's most important 2012 playoff game so far he had to have a signature individual performance for his team to win; there is simply no way for James to escape the reality that it is his responsibility to play at a very high level regardless of who his teammates are. As Magic Johnson said before the game, that is why James is paid the big money and receives the big endorsements--and that is why in his day Magic was paid big money and received big endorsements. You simply cannot take the money and the endorsements and then passively stand in the corner before complaining that your teammates are not getting the job done; you have to lead the way and get your teammates to follow--only then is it legitimate to complain about going into gun battles with butter knives.
ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy declared, "James has an every night pressure that no one else has." With all due respect--and I very much respect Van Gundy's basketball knowledge--that is a ridiculous statement. Here is a partial list of players who faced/have faced at least as much pressure/scrutiny as LeBron James AND withstood that pressure/scrutiny to win multiple championships:
- Wilt Chamberlain was--and, in some cases, still is--pilloried by the media for putting up gaudy stats but supposedly never winning the big game; Chamberlain silenced at least some of his critics by leading two of the greatest single season championship teams in the sport's history, the 1967 76ers and the 1972 Lakers.
- Magic Johnson faced tremendous pressure and scrutiny after his Lakers lost in the first round of the 1981 playoffs and that pressure/scrutiny increased when the team fired Coach Paul Westhead early in the 1982 season after Johnson loudly complained about Westhead's methods. The media did not cut Johnson much slack even though he had already led the Lakers to a championship in 1980 with one of the greatest single game performances in NBA Finals history. The Lakers then won the 1982 title but despite winning two rings in his first three seasons Johnson was called "Tragic" instead of Magic after committing several gaffes in the 1984 NBA Finals.
- Many critics contended that Michael Jordan would never win a championship because he was too focused on chasing scoring titles. Jordan eventually led the Bulls to six championships, winning the scoring title in each of those seasons.
- Kobe Bryant's shot selection endlessly fascinates self-proclaimed basketball experts who annually lecture Bryant about the importance of "trusting his teammates" even though Bryant has been the Lakers' primary playmaker for the bulk of his career, winning five championships along the way.
Van Gundy is right about one thing, though: no one's game six story is going to focus on Paul Pierce's 4-18 field goal shooting or Dwyane Wade's 6-17 field goal shooting. That is why it is so foolish when media members and/or "stat gurus" try to compare guys like that to players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Kobe Bryant; James, Durant and Bryant are expected to score at least 25-30 points every single game while also rebounding, passing and defending. It is never acceptable for any of them to score less than that unless they are having an absolutely phenomenal game in one or more of the other categories (or unless their team wins so easily that they can sit out the entire fourth quarter). There is a big difference between being a legit MVP level player who can carry a team and "merely" being a perennial All-Star. James, Durant and Bryant are expected to be consistently dominant, while Wade, Pierce and most of the league's other All-Stars are expected to be consistently very good and occasionally dominant (Dwight Howard is expected to be consistently dominant on defense and as a rebounder but not as a big time scorer).
James' remarkable performance should put to rest two myths:
1) Contrary to what so many people have written/said, James is not a "pass first" player; he is a prodigious scorer who is also a gifted passer. Magic Johnson was a "pass first" player and it was major news when he scored more than 40 points, a plateau he only reached six times in his regular season career (three times hitting exactly that number) and four times in his playoff career; James has scored at least 40 points 48 times in the regular season (including nine 50 point games, seventh on the all-time list) and 11 times in the playoffs. It is understandably confusing to James' teammates (and outside observers) when he spends the first three quarters of a game looking like one of the greatest scorers in NBA history and then spends the final 12 minutes standing in the corner; that is not being unselfish or being a "pass first" player: that is failing to accept the responsibility associated with being an MVP level player and that is worthy of criticism, regardless of what Mike Breen or Jeff Van Gundy say.
2) The Miami Heat are not in any shape, form or fashion Dwyane Wade's team. Wade is not the Heat's best player, best closer or best anything; James is the best player on the team and the quality of his play is the single biggest factor determining how well the team does.
We know that James is the best player on his team, the best player in the league and a dynamic scorer who can also impact a game with his rebounding, passing and defense--but any intelligent person knew all of these things before game six, because we have seen James play at a high level on many occasions; he dominated the Celtics in game three of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals only to come up empty in the next three games. If James comes up empty in game seven at home this time around, he rightly will receive heavy criticism; James deserves much praise for his game six performance but let's not put up any "Mission Accomplished" banners until James puts up at least one championship banner in Miami.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:49 AM