Despite the triple double LeBron James notched last night in Miami’s Game 5 loss in the NBA Finals, many people are (justifiably) crucifying him for his play throughout the series. In my eyes, he played well, if not amazingly (for him) through the first three games before looking absolutely awful (for him) throughout Game 4. He just failed to assert his physical dominance and force the Mavs to stop him off the dribble in a game during which he scored only 8 points and too-willingly swung the ball around the perimeter.
“Eight points is definitely inexcusable to me. I hold myself to a higher standard than that,” James told reporters at a team press conference, according to the Palm Beach Post. “I didn’t play well. I know that. I was hard on myself all last night.”
Game 5 was somewhat of a different story.
He played better, putting up the aforementioned triple double and generally being more aggressive with the ball while playing excellent defense at times. This was by no means LeBron at his best, or perhaps even his typical (and he got inexcusably SMOKED by Jason Terry on perhaps the biggest play of the game … which came one possession after LeBron missed a long three). But it wasn’t the “no show” that so many people were calling his Game 4 display. He shot poorly but played fine overall. Not great, but fine. And you can’t validly tell me a player was “passive” throughout crunch time when he committed a powerful offensive foul at the rim with 150 seconds to play and took three other shots in the games’ final three minutes.
Although more active, he remained atypically unproductive late again, however — which continues his trend throughout this NBA Finals. And now, if Miami can’t win two in a row at home to come back and win the title, LeBron will be undoubtedly be hit with a tsunami of criticism larger than I can remember any athlete ever facing for his on-court failings.
That’s what I was thinking last night anyway.
Then, this morning, @bandwagonknick posted something that made me, not change that opinion, but reconsider it slightly. Apparently, back when I was in kindergarten, Magic Johnson was similarly ripped apart by the press for coming up short when the sport was supposed to matter the most.
Whatever hurt Johnson felt [when LA lost to Boston in the 1984 NBA Finals] was only to intensify as the summer went on. He was stunned at the way he was carved up by the press that had once doted on him. He was particularly wounded by the suggestions that, with the championship at stake, he had choked. “I sat back when it was over,” Johnson says, “and I thought, ‘Man, did we just lose one of the great playoff series of all time, or didn’t we?’ This was one of the greatest in history. Yet all you read was how bad I was.”
It’s funny how history and time (and, ya know, winning three of the next four NBA titles) changes things. Magic is now the beloved, happy-go-lucky, HIV-surviving, bafflingly uninsightful guy on my TV who most everyone believes could do no wrong on the basketball court. He and Larry Bird “saved the NBA” that Michael Jordan would soon own. He was Showtime. He is a fantastic citizen.
He couldn’t have ever been the guy the media would “carve up.”
But he was.
And we are about to see something similar — on hyperdrive given today’s media landscape — for the next (at least) 12 months if the Heat don’t win two more games this year. It will be an annoying thing to see play out, but unlike the scorn thrown at him last Summer for The Decision, this time, there will be a lot more legitimacy to it.
He is earning this.
LeBron hasn’t played well in the Finals.
Post-script … Oddly, I was listening to a mixtape by the hip hop super-group Slaugherhouse this morning and, right as I was reading the Magic story that @bandwagonknick tweeted, the Joe Budden diss track “Pain in His Life” came on. (It’s hard to keep track of Budden’s rap feuds but this joint is about Saigon. The two MCs later made up and recorded a track together that features Sai spitting one of the illest verses I’ve heard in years.)
The opening lyrics of that song are eerily descriptive of stuff you could say about LeBron right now:
“It’s like a lose/lose, already my rep ruined
How I beat dude we know will accept losing?
Under Achiever was a underachiever
Almost thought you would come with the Ether“
Rep ruined? Check.
Dude we know will accept losing? Check.
Almost thought he would come with the Ether (in Game 5)? All the checks.