Every night LeBron plays, I get ready a little early. I sit down in front of the TV 30 minutes before the tip just to listen to the awful pre-game show. I brace myself for dominance, prepare myself for one of the greatest players ever to touch this earth in hopes of feeling rewarded for my displays of respect. I hope I see something legendary, and most nights I do.
Then there’s nights like last night. The Miami Heat, locked in a 2-2 series, failed to take the upper hand against the Boston Celtics. They’re down 3-2, and now, of course, the Heat need to trade everyone on their roster to better complement James. Or maybe, to better complement Wade, depending on the delusional person you talk to.
The Heat took control of the game early last night, grabbing a 13-point lead by the second quarter on a James 3-pointer. They had the opportunity to break the game open then and there, but they didn’t. They let Boston crawl right back in, and clung to a 2-point halftime lead. From there, the game fluctuated with runs, Miami going up 7, then seeing that lead dwindle to 1, only to see it rise to 9 before watching it fall back to 2. With the newly returned Chris Bosh logging minimal floor time in the second half, Kevin Garnett continued to have his way offensively and defensively, and the Heat continued to have no answer. Boston etched their names into the Miami floorboards by scrounging for the loose balls, pushing in transition, and playing that weird grindstone basketball that’s awful, but still somehow works for them. It was truly a Boston Celtics night– a type of night we’ve come to expect from these gritty vets who care not for public opinion.
And there was LeBron James in the middle of it all, caught in the midst of a both brilliant and pitiful performance; exhausted, strained, and helpless. He was the sole source of Miami offense the entire first half, racking up 18 points and 9 rebounds. He got into the lane and made those shots that only he can make– the kind that require so much upper body strength it’s not really fair. There’s a reason people think he’s a cyborg, but even cyborgs get tired from time to time (or so the rumor goes), and by the second half, the panting James was noticeably on his last limbs.
Honestly, it seems like he hasn’t made a jump shot in ages. He keeps shooting them, though, against everyone’s will. He’s so explosive driving to the hoop, but it seems like he’s not getting enough legs into his jumper– likely a product of the ridiculous amount of minutes the man has been logging over the past two series. It’s not just the quantity of the minutes, but the quality too. The grueling task of guarding every position on the court and being close to the only reliable offensive option takes a significant toll. (I mean really, there was a possession last night where he guarded Rondo perfectly to start, and then finished the possession locking down Garnett, fronting him like a maniac. The different skill sets he has is ridiculous. How do you stay in front of Rondo and then not move when Garnett tries to plow you over? Again, superhuman.)
So by the end of the game, for two straight possessions, either by choice or terrible play design, LeBron stood entrenched in the righthand corner, slouched over with his hands firmly on his knees, watching Dwyane Wade initiate the offense. He would get involved again shortly after that, but the aforementioned image conjured up the unshakable memory of last year’s Finals performance. He’d have 2 nice penetrate and kicks, a missed three, a blocked layup, and a nice finish over Kevin Garnett all before the night was finished, so it wasn’t the same, but it might have been a sign. If the Heat do make it out of the Eastern Conference Finals, and it’s a bigger “if” now than it ever was, will we see the same LeBron James we saw in the NBA Finals last season?
For all the good he’d done that game, for all the life he had single-handedly pumped into the Heat for the first 40-something minutes on both ends of the floor, for all his efforts and brilliance, he will be berated by the media. A failure in the clutch, the definition of a choker in closing time. He has no chance. He’s set up to fail in a way we’ve never seen in sports. He’ll do everything to inspire the utmost confidence, and then rip it all apart by missing a single jumpshot or having one of his layups swatted off the backboard. He’ll get chastised for taking a two possession-long breather, when really, Spoelstra should have had the sense to give him a 2-minute break. He’ll get blamed for every Heat loss, even when the clear signs pointed to something else, which was transition defense last night. He’s blamed for everything, and a good chunk of the time, rewarded for nothing.
We don’t deserve a player like LeBron James. On a night when he struggled to assert his natural dominance, he poured in 30 points and grabbed 13 boards. We don’t care, though, because he missed two shots late and caught some air for a possession or two. He plays at a pace and with a ferocity that is unparalleled in this league. No one goes harder than this guy does, and yet no one is more helpless. He does everything right, but he comes up short, time and time again. This series isn’t over, but if past performance is any indication of future performance, it pretty much is. If James doesn’t get it done this season, the level of disappointment will increase exponentially, the blame will be higher than ever, and the criticism will be intensified like never before. And all for what? For a player that’s done everything humanly possible to keep his team alive while dealing with an injured Chris Bosh and a Dwyane Wade who, for the most part, has forgotten how to play basketball.
LeBron James can’t win. He’ having a difficult time winning games, and he’s having a difficult time winning over the critics. There’s only so much he can do to remedy both situations.