Whatever unfoldsover the next two weeks in the NBA's championship series, which was scheduledto begin on Thursday at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, we are--make nomistake--beholding the LeBron Finals. Not since 1998, when Michael Jordancleverly nudged aside Utah Jazz forward Bryon Russell to hit the jump shot thatgave his Chicago Bulls their sixth and last title, has the NBA had such asingular, celestial focus for its climactic event.
The San AntonioSpurs, seeking their fourth championship in nine years, are heavily favored toprevail against LeBron James's Cleveland Cavaliers (sidebar, page 42), butthat's merely a subplot. Right now, with the memory of James's immortal Game 5performance in the Eastern Conference finals still fresh in the mind, the storyline is about the young King who has finally shown he deserves to wear acrown.
Yes, we areofficially in the LeBron era, past the post-Jordan interregnum during which theleague hoped--though could not be certain--that James would one day arrivefront and center in the Finals. The variegated talents James displayed againstthe Detroit Pistons may even extend to the draft on June 28. Won't the PortlandTrail Blazers, who have the top pick, be more tempted to take 6'9" Texasforward Kevin Durant, a skinnier version of James but a version nonetheless,rather than Ohio State center Greg Oden? Could a 7-footer possibly supply thesame entertainment dollar as an out-on-the-floor all-arounder? More to thepoint, will a pivotman, even a shot-changing stalwart like Oden, wield as muchinfluence on a game as a swingman √† la James?
In eliminating thePistons in a 98--82 rout last Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena, James followedup his Game 5 heroics (already a YouTube megahit) with a performance that canbe summarized in one word: mature. The tendency for James, as for most22-year-old superstars, would have been to come out at home and try todemonstrate that his feat of scoring 29 of his team's last 30 points was only awarmup. But he didn't. His shot wasn't falling, and Detroit, being disinclinedto submit to public embarrassment once again, threw waves of defenders at him.Through it all, James stayed calm and focused, qualities that were amplified asthe supposedly savvy Pistons imploded. James played the role of facilitator torookie Daniel (Boobie) Gibson, who had a career-high 31 points and hit all fiveof his three-pointers in a nerveless display that Cleveland coach Mike Browncalled "LeBronesque." It wasn't that good, but we now have an adjectiveto describe contemporary playoff brilliance.
In fact,Cleveland's Game 6 victory despite James's modest stat line (20 points on just3-of-11 shooting, 14 rebounds, eight assists) was the worst news the Spurscould have received out of the Eastern finals. You mean, the Cavs can still beformidable even if LeBron is merely average instead of superhuman? "If youguys remember when I was in New York," James said after the game, referringto draft day in 2003, "I said I was going to light up Cleveland like it wasVegas." LeBron may have been iridescent on Saturday, but in a strictlyelectric sense he should spend some of his $90 million in Nike endorsementmoney to put a team of engineers on standby at his old-before-its-time arena.Malfunctions forced a 21-minute delay before the second quarter because neithershot clock in the 13-year-old Q was working.
But James was on aroll. "I'm going to be a G.M. someday," he said. Considering theturnaround he pulled off against Detroit, who can doubt him? Rarely if everhave teams exchanged identities so dramatically in midseries. The Pistons wonthe first two games by matching 79--76 scores with a casualness that suggesteda sweep. The Cavaliers' 88--82 win in Game 3 at home was considered the gimme.Cleveland did it again in Game 4, 91--87, before the playoffs' defining moment:last Thursday's double-overtime thriller at The Palace of Auburn Hills. It wasthen that the LeBron legend--jump-started when he was a 15-year-old manchild ina St. Vincent--St. Mary High uniform in Akron--was validated.
The suddenness ofJames's ascent as a playoff hero was astounding. Before the world championshipsin Japan last summer, the Team USA coaching staff was disappointed in James'seffort and his inability to function offensively unless he had the ball. Thecoaches would have made LeBron the first cut after his lackadaisical initialweek of practice were it not for the massive public relations fallout thatwould have resulted from the axing of the league's most globally marketedplayer. During his 27.3-point, 6.7-rebound, 6.0-assist regular season, therewas a general yawning acceptance of James's talent but not really anappreciation. He dropped from All-NBA first team to second team, and sometimesseemed oddly disconnected from his fellow Cavs on the court.
Even two shortweeks ago the public was defining James by his flaws. He didn't take the bigshots--witness his pass-off to forward Donyell Marshall in the waning secondsof the Game 1 loss. (Marshall missed a three from the corner.) He didn'tcomplete the big plays--witness the layup James missed late in Game 2. Helooked so tentative at times, and his team looked so uncomfortable trying toback him, that it hardly seemed as if he was speeding along a learning curve.Perhaps it was just simple humiliation.
That was all beforeGame 5.
You probably knowthe cold, hard facts. James had 48 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Heplayed 50 of the 58 minutes. He scored the Cavs' final 25 points, including allof their 18 points in the two overtimes of a 109--107 win. The Pistons,normally angry and arrogant, gently succumbed, as though hypnotized by James'sbrilliance. He started the series as tyro but in that game became tutor, in theprocess accomplishing the unthinkable: He made Eastern Conference basketballwatchable and lifted the hopes of a city desperate for a winner in this, theCavaliers' 37th season.
James also vaultedright over the crucial steps that another number 23 had to take, one that mostpundits saw as obligatory. It took Jordan three painful years of playoff lossesbefore he emerged from the shadow of the glowering Pistons--James did it in hissecond try.
How to explain Game5 in basketball terms? Certainly Detroit was complicit. Known for their abilityto change defenses on the fly, the Pistons seemed confused about what schemethey were playing. Sometimes, they had two defenders on James and neitherstopped him; sometimes, after he (almost inevitably) sped by a single perimeterdefender, no one picked him up. James came close to being a one-man team: TheCavs had only one assist in the game's final 22 minutes and just 13 for thegame.
But the only realexplanation is that the 6'8", 240-pound James unleashed everything that wasalready in his arsenal. He can break down defenses off the dribble, and if hegets near the basket, he will power-dunk on anyone's cabeza. He is a threat inthe open floor. Watching him take off on a one-man fast break is breathtaking:He accelerates, accelerates even more, gets his defender turned around and thendoes that cabeza thing. Take a charge at your peril.
He can shootstandstill jumpers from the perimeter and absurd fadeaways that areunblockable. He has a decent midrange game--witness his 16-footer from theright wing with the shot clock winding down in the last minute that proved tobe the key basket in Game 3. He can post up and take advantage of his superiorsize at the small forward position, and he can nail jumpers off curls andpin-downs (though he does need to improve in that area). And most of all he isa willing and able passer, irrefutably in the league of Magic Johnson and LarryBird. As good as James is going to the basket and firing from the outside, somedefenses are hesitant to load up because they know when they do, he will findthe open man.
James's Game 5performance initiated an instant debate, rare in the NBA: Where to rank it inthe pantheon of sterling one-man shows? It automatically falls belowmasterpieces that occurred in the Finals, such as Magic Johnson's 42-point,15-rebound, seven-assist series-clincher in 1980 or Jordan's 45-point effort in'98, which he capped with the jumper that dumped the Jazz. But it surpassesJordan's 63-point blitzkrieg in Boston Garden in '86, if only because the Bullslost that game and the Cavs won this one.
"That was thesingle best game I've ever seen at this level in this atmosphere, handsdown," said Brown. There were various other tributes offered (none by thesulky Pistons), but to a Cleveland sports public starved for success, the onlyfitting benediction would have been the one pronounced by Secretary of WarEdwin Stanton as he stood over the dying body of Abraham Lincoln: "Now hebelongs to the ages." Some believe that Stanton said "the angels."As far as Cleveland fans are concerned, LeBron belongs to them, too.
The cavs won 17games before James's arrival in 2003 and 35, 42 and 50 in the seasons thatfollowed. When the team broke a huddle early this season, James suddenlyyelled, "One, two, three ... championship!" instead of the defense thathad always followed. It took Brown aback, but James kept saying it, and now,suddenly, it doesn't sound so absurd. Whatever happens in the Finals, James hasmade Clevelanders forget the Drive and the Fumble, the most egregious chokejobs by their beloved NFL Browns. It is not outlandish to claim that James isthe most beloved Cleveland athlete since Jim Brown--and one more integratedinto the civic fabric, hailing as he does from Akron, 30 miles south.
So far he hasn'thad a major public-relations slipup. There have been persistent reports thatJames doesn't agree with Mike Brown's offensive strategy, but perhaps bothcoach and superstar learned a little during the conference finals. No one issuggesting that James doesn't have a monumental ego--the franchise runs onLeBron Standard Time--but unlike Jordan, who had a wink-wink way of holdinghimself above his fellow Bulls even as he presented himself as one of the guys,James seems to authentically like his teammates. He identified Gibson as "asecond-round steal" (the Texas product was drafted 42nd) and bonded withhim immediately. James always encouraged Gibson to shoot, aiding and abettinghis development behind starter Larry Hughes, who was largely ineffectiveagainst Detroit because of a partially torn plantar fascia in his left foot.Before Game 6, James approached Gibson and told him that he expected to bedouble- and triple-teamed, "so get that gun and get it locked and loadedand just shoot it." NBA officials might have preferred a differentmetaphor, but there you are.
And when the gameended, James ran to 7'3" Zydrunas Ilgauskas at center court and theyembraced joyously. It was a gracious gesture by James, for two more differentplayers could hardly be found: the one a magnificent, seemingly indestructiblephysical force of 22, the other an oft-injured, lumbering plugger who came toCleveland in '96 and played in only four playoff games before James arrived."Z has been through a lot, been through losing seasons, year after yearafter year," said James, "and I promised him when I got drafted, I wasgoing to try to change it."
In the finalanalysis the Pistons couldn't do anything but come apart as the Cavs and theirleader grew up in the cauldron of the conference finals. Detroit forwardRasheed Wallace--increasingly insufferable as he tuned out coach Flip Saunders,hollered at his teammates and griped at refs like a Shakespeareanshrew--committed a brainless sixth foul with 7:44 left in Game 6, drew twotechnicals and was ejected. One couldn't help but think that marked an end ofan era for these Pistons, who have made five straight conference finals but wononly one title (in 2004).
Even if it may notyet be the Age of the Cavaliers, James, at least, seems prepared for the momentand the Spurs. The future of the East now runs through Cleveland, and Clevelandis ruled by a King.
All the Angles
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