As we head towards the final stretch of the regular season, one storyline has come to the forefront and will stay here whether the Miami Heat win a championship or not: the continued judgment of Lebron James and his shortcomings with the game on the line.
Last week, after he passed up a game winning shot in the All-Star game, I defended him:
This is Lebron’s championship to lose. Even as we’ve waited year after year for him to come through, it seems the pieces are finally in place. But we’ve been down this road before. If anything, we are moving closer towards embracing Lebron again. I can’t be the only one. But if he falls short again, we will re-start this conversation with another year’s worth of evidence to support all that we hate about him.
Of course, another referendum came down on James this past Friday when he passed up a game winning shot and made the right basketball decision in passing to an open Udonis Haslem. The shot didn’t fall threw. The flood gates of criticism opened yet again.
Somehow, making the right plays don’t matter anymore.
If Lebron isn’t attempting a shot, no matter how difficult or low percentage it is, there’s an element missing to James’ game.
I wholeheartedly disagree.
There was a statistic going around this weekend that James has hit just one of nine shots in crunchtime situations since arriving in Miami. The problem is that we’re focusing on the attempts and not the makes.
The nine attempts matters more than the one make.
If Lebron was one for ninety, he’d actually be lauded for having the intestinal fortitude to take the shot.
Of course, the discussion would naturally move to why he wasn’t making such shots. Then we would eventually circle back to why he isn’t taking more advantage of his teammates, some of which are stars like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
He really can’t win.
But not long ago, this type of team basketball and trust in teammates earned James a reputation for being the best all around player we had seen. Lebron was the selfless superstar, with the ability of carrying his lesser teammates in Cleveland to the top of the standings.
He made everyone better, dominated the game when he needed to, deferring when it was the right decision.
Has any of this changed? Is the pass to Haslem this past week not just a continuation of what he’s cultivated as a player throughout his career?
All the criticism this week reminded me of Lebron’s performance in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pistons in 2007. With the series tied 2-2, Lebron single-handed won Game 5 in Detroit with what is now known as “The 48 Special”.
Flip Saunders, then coach of the Pistons, was widely criticized for not double-teaming Lebron in that game. He responded in Game 6 by crowding Lebron, daring any of his Cavalier teammates to beat them.
Lebron didn’t force the issue, and he repeatedly found Daniel Gibson for open threes. Gibson scored 31 points, 19 in the fourth quarter and clinched the Eastern Conference championship for the Cavaliers.
But more eye-opening is an exerpt from this interview with Lebron after that game, when he was asked to speak about his trust in Gibson:
This game reminds me of my freshman year in high school in the state championship, and what Boobie did tonight reminded me of our point guard, Drew Joyce hitting six consecutives threes, he hit seven threes in a row, and we won the state championship. They doubled me, we kicked it to Drew and he hit back to back to back to back threes in a row. And Boobie is unbelievable, what he’s done, how he’s grown, and I’m lost for words right now.
It’s the same trust that Lebron has in his teammates going back to high school. And it’s the same trust that leads him to pass to the open teammate.
Somehow, his decision to move to Miami and everything he’s done since to upset the public has skewed his career narrative.
I was one of these culprits, finding all the reasons last year to root against the Heat. It’s natural to feel that some come uppance was deserved after their pre-season championship celebration.
But take a step back, set aside the theatrics and remind yourself that the experience of watching Lebron is probably a once in a generation thing, perhaps a lifetime.
This is not a defense of his performance in the NBA Finals last year, or his disappearance in Game 5 against the Celtics in his last series as a Cavalier. Those still remain unexplainable.
Lebron will not force himself into a situation where he’s taking the shot for the sake of settling an argument, for changing the conversation.
On one side, some would argue that he is carrying all the criticism and pressure on his shoulders, and it’s affecting how he reacts in crunchtime. These passes are an indication of passiveness, and the refusal to accept his responsbility of a superstar.
On the other, it’s possible that Lebron is still just playing his game, in a different city, with better teammates, and will always choose to make the decision that he believes will lead to the best result, whether that means taking the ball out of his own hands.
You can believe in the former and continue to let this weigh on the best player in the game, or consider the latter, sit back, and enjoy another post-season of scrutiny and high drama as the best player of our generation chases that elusive championship.
But to say that Lebron has changed as a player or has become overwhelmed by the biggest moments of the game seems incorrect to me. There’s a consistency here. From Akron, to Cleveland to right now in Miami: Lebron is the ultimate team player blessed with the talent of someone who should dominate the game all by himself.
One thing is clear: getting that championship will make sense of a lot of his shortcomings.
To be continued.