This playoff game was truly unlike any playoff game I’ve ever seen–the Celtics, who underwhelmed this regular season, destroyed the regular-season champions and MVP LeBron James while playing in a notoriously difficult Cavaliers stadium. The Celtics rebounded harder, defended harder, passed better, played smarter and did virtually about everything else better than the Cavs. Even more, the Cavs were never even close–they barely escaped the first quarter with a lead and from there on out, the Cavs showed no heart. I haven’t witnessed the Cavs suffer such a devasting loss since the 08-09 regular season when the Magic beat the Cavs in Orlando by 29, leading 92-60 after three quarters. Suffice to say, the Cavs were dominated in an uncharacteristic fashion. But there was one more important aspect of Game 5: We were all witnesses to LeBron James’ utter lack of effort and leadership.
I have been watching LeBron James since he was a rookie in the NBA. I have watched him win back to back MVPs while leading his team to the best regular season record both years. And I have never, ever, ever been more disappointed watching LeBron play. Despite all the criticism he has caught for sitting out the team’s final games in 09-10, for doing silly pregame routines with his teammates, and for his various off-court endeavors, I have always felt LeBron James cared about the game of basketball. His teammates and coaches say he is vocal/intelligent/perceptive enough to be a coach. He has the best statistics and clutch statistics in the NBA. He has made the NBA All-Defensive 1st team two years in a row with his dedication to defense on and off the court. He was arguably USA’s MVP en route to the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal. The man, for all the mistakes he has made, has always loved winning, loved being the best player, loved entertaining his crowd, loved leading his team, and loved basketball. LeBron James looked unhappy to play basketball on Tuesday night. He never made a concerted effort to reel his team back into the game. He displayed no visible effort on offense or defense, no crowd-pleasing antics, and no leadership. The only talking I saw LeBron do was toward the refs–the man didn’t make his teammates better last night. A true leader would have been screaming on to his teammates to play better while leading by example on offense. LeBron did lead by example–his example was that of an indifferent, quiet, and careless basketball player. LeBron, to me, is the third best passer in the NBA after Chris Paul and Steve Nash (obviously, there are others such as Rondo and Deron Williams who also pass about as well); in Game 5, LeBron certainly passed the ball, but rarely did he set up his teammates for easy buckets. Instead, LeBron’s “unselfishness” was manifested in belated swing passes to fellow swingmen/guards and post-feeds to Shaq. Lebron–you are allowed to pass the ball, but if you pass it, make sure it’s after a hard drive-and-kick to an open shooter. Moreover, LeBron, you can only keep passing so long when a) the only player who can hit a shot is Shaq b) your team is down 20+ points with few remaining minutes in the game and c) you know you are an unstoppable and efficient scoring machine. Your inner-Magic Johnson is normally great, but even Magic (as a rookie) channeled his inner-MJ (before MJ was in the NBA) in the NBA Finals after Kareem went down–he started at center had 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, and three steals in a Game 6 victory. Sometimes, a player has to assert his will on the game–this was Game 5 on your turf, LeBron, and you blew it. Everyone has bad games, and as you said, it’s easy to point out a bad game or three over seven years. And, hey, it’s even true that your teams have overachieved in the playoffs and that your playoff performance has generally exceeded that of your regular season. But last night wasn’t an off-game. An off-game in Game 5 is barely acceptable from a player like you, but if it happened it would entail sub-par production (which I understand is only partially under your control) and unquestionable world-class effort (because that is under your control, because it’s Game 5 in the playoffs, and because you’re the friggin’ MVP). What happened with this second part, the effort? That is the mystery to me, as I have never witnessed this from a player I consider(ed?) to be a such an elite competitor. My opinion hasn’t entirely changed yet of LeBron, but it will take heroic efforts in Game 6, and if possible, Game 7, to change my opinion. But make no mistake, I will never forget this as the day where, for the first time, I questioned LeBron’s leadership and passion for winning/basketball.
A couple other notes:
-a friend I was watching with, who had barely ever watched Rajon Rondo, said after seeing him for little more than 30 seconds that Rondo reminded her or Anderson Varejao and Joakim Noah in his tenacity and scrappiness. Is this a Blink-like first impression that we can pick up on immediately? What do they share and where do these players differ?
-LeBron had one good play in the entire game, and it’s worth noting (video soon?) because it’s a play maybe only LeBron can make. Early on, he flew sky-high for a contested-offensive rebound (the only effort I saw him exert all game) and then quickly dished a no-look bounce-pass underneath the hoop to Shaq for an easy bucket. The combination of rebounding, quickness, awareness, and passing ability make this a play that possibly only LeBron James could perform.
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