Eulogy for LeBron James Premature
This wasn't LeBron's worst playoff performance. Game 1 of the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics was. In that game, LeBron shot 2-18 for 12 points and had 10 turnovers. The Cavs lost, a rough start to the second round a year after Cleveland had made (and been swept out of) the Finals.
You know what James did the rest of that series? He averaged nearly 30 points a game against the world's greatest defense, and almost single-handedly took the Celtics to seven. He famously scored 45 in the Game 7 shoot-out with Paul Pierce. He had a bad night in Game 1, but didn't dissolve into the atmosphere. He bounced back, he soared and he took his Cavs with him.
All that's forgotten now, as every observer races to expose King James's lack of clothes. Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski lays into LeBron, going far over the top to insist as irrefutable fact that James doesn't care that much about winning. (Opening line: "This isn't important enough to LeBron James.") Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who has covered LeBron longer than anyone, wrote that James has become disengaged in games and hasn't been a strong enough leader in the locker room. When Windhorst writes, I read. I believe him. But I also fail to grasp how LeBron getting in the face of Kendrick Perkins when the Celtic center was jawing with a 38-year-old former MVP in Shaquille O'Neal stops the Cavs from getting beat by 32 points. I don't aim to make excuses for James, but this is a veteran, experienced team. Should Mo Williams or Antawn Jamison need a kick in the pants from their 25-year-old teammate?
This type of near-universal mourning would be appropriate if the Cavs had lost the series and LeBron shrugged it off. But the series isn't over, not by a long shot. And should Cleveland bounce back and take the series, the caterwauling filling today's airspace will either be forgotten or laughed at. Imagine if the world had buried Kobe Bryant in the middle of last year's surprisingly difficult Houston series. Like after his 15 points-in-17 shots Game 4, a loss which tied the series at 2-2. Kobe cared about winning. Kobe desperately wanted to win. He just met a tough match-up, a brilliant defensive team who knew how to manage his talent and had enough offense to overcome Bryant's superior supporting cast. But the Lakers got through it, and raced off to a championship.
Completely putting the blame on LeBron here (which, it should be noted, Windhorst doesn't do) masks very real issues. The Celtics play absurdly good defense and match up particularly well against James. Williams can't guard a single person on the Boston roster. Jamison, O'Neal, Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas still aren't comfortable with each other on offense or defense, and the Celtics' scorers are hitting some tough shots in this series. It's not like LeBron is shooting 3-14 against folding chairs. Boston had the league's No. 5 defense this season, despite a year filled with injuries to key cogs. And with so few Cavaliers scoring with any efficiency, the Celtics have been able to send two good defenders at LeBron as soon as he makes his move.(Despite that, James had 12 free throws and seven assists Tuesday.)
The Cavs are certainly in trouble. Giving a team as strong as Boston this sort of opportunity is dangerous. But because Boston has that opportunity and because LeBron didn't produce in a critical Game 5 doesn't mean James is a fraud. That's a facile, unnuanced way of looking at the situation. The world just ain't that simple, and neither is LeBron.