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Underrated? LeBron has a case

CLEVELAND -- Is LeBron James underrated?

A ridiculous question there -- unless one considers the recent MVP voting, in which James finished fourth behind the winner, Kobe Bryant, runner-up Chris Paul and Kevin Garnett. On the basis of their team records, obviously, that polling stands as fair judgment.

But imagine what James would accomplish with teammates like Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom in Los Angeles, or David West and Tyson Chandler in New Orleans, or Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston. Instead, James has played on a team this year with no other All-Stars, with two contract holdouts and with numerous injuries; a team that underwent radical midseason surgery to surround James with four newcomers to the rotation. Cleveland was seven games over .500 before the February trade and managed a 14-13 record afterward -- all because James was a modern-day Oscar Robertson with career bests of 30.0 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.2 assists.

That's why his performance in Cleveland's conference semifinal against the No. 1 Celtics has been so surprising. James was shooting 22.4 percent over the first three games, though his overall performance in the Cavaliers' victory Saturday helped give them a chance at evening the series with a win in Game 4 here Monday night.

When James was going 2-for-18 in Game 1 or 6-of-24 in Game 2, there were questions about how so prodigious a talent could shoot so badly. But another perspective could have been, Why doesn't it happen more often?

The Celtics have been able to load their defense against LeBron because the rest of the team is so unthreatening. Even when all of James' teammates played well to inflict Boston's worst loss of the year -- a 108-84 result in Game 3 -- Garnett was daring them afterward to do it again.

"In order for us to beat this team, we have to make these other guys make some plays,'' Garnett said after Game 3. "I don't think these guys are used to making plays. Throughout the year, LeBron has set up a lot of these guys to be successful.''

Yet James, at 23, has reached an NBA Finals and won five playoff series with rosters comparable to this one. None of his peers has achieved more with less. In that sense, his accomplishments are probably underrated.

One of many reasons why the Knicks hired coach Mike D'Antoni was to pursue James in 2010, when he can opt out (along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) at the same time New York may have the room to offer him a max contract. Provided they can clear enough cap space, D'Antoni's new Knicks would offer James the ultimate stage in New York as well as an up-tempo, open-court style featuring all of his skills. Before Game 3, James referred to D'Antoni as "an offensive mastermind,'' a compliment that must send chills up the spine of Cleveland's management.

It's obvious that James would prefer to play in a fluid offense with more talented teammates, and it's assumed he would love to play in New York. On the other hand, it's just as obvious that the Cavs and coach Mike Brown have squeezed as much success as possible from their recent rosters, and that general manager Danny Ferry -- with $30 million in contracts that expire next season -- could have opportunities to trade for an All-Star teammate or two who can help James contend for a championship in Cleveland.

The Celtics are expected to prevail in this series. They have home-court advantage and their defensive scheme has held James to 18.0 points a game after he averaged 32.3 against them during the regular season.

But the Celtics may regret their hopeless effort in Game 3 that liberated Cleveland to shoot 53.6 percent from the field. James' shooting is sure to improve soon, and then the Cavs are going to be harder to beat -- especially by a Celtics team that has yet to win on the road this postseason. He is one of the few players who would look forward to -- rather than be intimidated by -- a Game 7 in Boston. Don't forget that James led Cleveland to four straight wins in the conference finals last year after losing the opening two games at Detroit.

Asked if he sensed a similar dynamic at play in this series, he wisely offered no guarantees. "Does it feel a little bit like Detroit? I don't know,'' he said. "After Game 4, when we take care of business, I'll be able to answer that a lot better.''

Notice he said "when.''

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