Posts tagged ‘basketball’

June 21, 2013

LeBron 2013: The Villain is King (Again)

The Miami Heat have now appeared in three straight NBA finals and won the last two. Tuesday night they were a Kawai Leonard made free throw away from losing two of three NBA finals. Thursday night they took what the Spurs were providing – high risk, low reward jump shots – and they capitalized with frightening precision. Their physicality was able to just barely, in game seven, exhaust, and finally rupture, the finely tuned Spurs offense.

In the 2012 playoffs, I saw flashes of a LeBron that I begrudgingly respected. I saw him get pushed around, get knocked down, and battle back. But while he gained that modicum of respect, he was not dethroned from his role of villain in my eyes, the Heat his loyal cohorts. The relationship has remained thus throughout this season and postseason as LeBron and Co have turned into the largest whiners in the game (though it could just be the camera’s fixation on melodramatic temper tantrums).

For years now, the knock on LeBron was that he couldn’t be clutch, that he evaporated in big games, and in the past this was true. But that was the past. If you still want to pull out the LeBron is a Choker placard, you also need to set your Tardis to pre-2012. The better option would be to just open your eyes. In game six, LBJ recovered from a demure start to dominate the fourth quarter and send the game into a winnable overtime. Before game seven he attached an IV of ice to his veins and shot the lights out of the building. The difficult long range and low efficiency mid range jumpers were handed to him on a silver platter and he gorged himself. San Antonio challenged the apparent weakness in his game and he proved resilient.

LeBron and the Heat now have two straight championships. What stands in the way of a third? In the East: A rejuvenated Bulls offense as Derrick Rose returns to balance their stifling defense; the schizophrenic Knickerbockers; the blue collarish, gold swaggerish Pacers crew? In the West: Bionic Vampire Kobe Bryant and minions; laser guided Warriors, the Zombie Sonics of OKC? The Spurs are not decaying the way the Celtics currently are, but the prime of their Big Three is long past; even if their mind-numbing precision can bring them back to the Finals again next year, their joints will be one year closer to chronic rheumatism. LeBron is the captain of a juggernaut with no opponent left standing.

People, both LeBron’s lovers and haters, love to drag out the Michael Jordan comparisons. I don’t care, it doesn’t matter. They will never play each other in their primes, just as neither will play Kobe Bryant in his prime. Or Bill Russell in his prime. The 1992 Bulls are not in the league to stop the 2013 Heat, so we don’t need to complain about it. But you also need to stop whining when I tell you that LeBron will remain my villain for the foreseeable future. Just like you on the other side need to stop saying that he’s a choker. He has proven his mettle – he is the best player in the league – but that does not in the least mean I need to like him.

June 20, 2012

What I Learned From LeBron James Last Night (and it’s probably not what you think)

Full disclosure: I haven’t liked LeBron James in a long time, but I did once upon a time. I stopped liking LeBron before he left Cleveland. It wasn’t because he couldn’t win and it was more than his inability to carry a team on his never before seen physical specimen and it was more than mental checkouts during the playoffs. There was a void: nothing in his game which made me want to be him, even if he was the best player of his generation. When I’ve shot wads of paper towels into bathroom trashcans, simultaneously filling the roles of athlete and commentator, I’ve never substituted his name for my own.  Even as he flew around the floor making plays at both ends, the grace and fluidity with which he performed was too effortless, too benign, to be endearing. There was nothing to suggest he was doing anything more than chasing a bright orange ball around the room or performing in the Russian Ballet.

Contrast that to players who I do pretend to be. With A.I., there was always a Napoleonic desperation in his attempts to will the 76ers to victory. With MJ, you knew all he wanted was to rip his opponent’s heart out with his teeth and gnaw on it. Kobe is like that, and you know it’s coming when he sticks out his lower jaw, but in his dreams he’s doing it to MJ in his prime. There is something internal, a level above competitiveness, which gives our idols an edge as well as our affections.

LeBron has never exhibited that to me, especially in light of playoff check outs; he has never been a killer. He just loved basketball as a game, not as a competition, not as a fight. He just wanted to be your friend and run around with a bright orange ball. If you punched him first, he wouldn’t punch back. That is why he could feel camaraderie with a bunch of substandard role players who couldn’t help bring Cleveland a championship. That is why he wanted to go to Miami, to play with his best friends. Just like he’d group together a ragtag bunch of journeymen together for imaginary group photos in Cleveland, he gathered together the press and the city of Miami for an imaginary victory parade; because he wanted to be gracious to his new friends. Playing with his best friends, who happen to play at something at least close to his level, is what denied him access to the pantheon of players like Bird and Magic. They were able to be best friends off the court, but on the court try to destroy each other; joining forces was never an option. Playing with your friends is what the Olympics were for. The NBA was for war.

The festivities with which he joined Miami were the final nail in the LeBron James Fandom coffin for a lot people besides me (i.e. Bill Simmons). It pushed LeBron into a villain’s role for which he was regrettably unprepared. The guy who wanted nothing more than to be everybody’s friend was now everybody’s enemy and, ironically, every attempt to rehab his image only seemed to distance him more from the populace who found his preoccupation with his image the source of their dislike.

Last night Bron Bron exhibited what we always demanded from him and never received. It wasn’t MJ’s flu game, and it wasn’t as dramatic as Paul Pierce going to locker room in a wheelchair only to return, but it showed LeBron punching back. Falling to the ground with cramps and turning the ball over in a tight game, he popped up, spat out metaphorical teeth and blood, and proceeded to score on the next possession before heading to the bench. Now I know that had the Thunder won, I’d most likely not be writing an article because LeBron’s fighting through cramps would be seen as only a façade to save face as he wilted down the stretch. But the fact is that they didn’t lose because he didn’t wilt. Hobbled, and significantly sidelined, he fought to be on the court as much as he could stand. He wasn’t playing basketball now because he wanted to effortlessly chase around a bright orange ball; he was playing because he could taste blood in the water, both his own and the Thunders, and he’d be damned if he was going to be friends with the shark trying to devour him this time.

I still dislike LeBron. He’s probably going to be my NBA antagonist until he’s past his prime and fighting to maintain his relevancy, a’la Kobe’s last few years, against the rise of newer stars whom the media will dub the “next MJ.” But now, even if the Thunder manage to win the series, LeBron has recovered a modicum of respect in my eyes.