Unlike other sports icons, James' performance in big games remains highly volatile
BY JOE POSNANSKI
June 12, 2013
MIKE EHRMANN/GETTY IMAGES
LeBron James has many gifts, but his greatest might be his talent for being fascinating. He simply cannot help it. James has been the best player in the world for the last five years, at least. He has been a star in the NBA for 10 seasons. Before that, he was perhaps the most talked-about and hyped high school player in American history. We know him. We seemingly have known him forever. Kids pretend to be LeBron James from Beijing to Berlin, from Maui to Madrid. Adults around the world wear his jersey. We know him.
And, let’s be honest: We have absolutely no idea whatsoever how he will play Thursday in San Antonio.
No idea. None. He might dominate the from start to finish. He might haltingly disappear into the empty spaces. He might grab 20 rebounds or four, might dish out 15 assists or commit seven turnovers, might score 50 or 18. He might get a triple-double without playing well, or he might entirely control the game without putting up interesting numbers. His games are as unpredictable as Indiana Jones movies. Only, sometimes, the boulder crushes him.
Michael Jordan wasn’t like this. Magic Johnson wasn’t like this. In his absolute prime, Kobe Bryant wasn’t like this. It isn’t that they were great every game. They weren’t. But they were predictable in some deeper way. They were inevitable. They played the same aggressive, forceful game every time. True, sometimes the shots didn’t fall. Sometimes the passes didn’t quite connect. Sometimes they even looked to be in a bit of a fog. But they were fundamentally the same. They were recognizable forces of nature.
LeBron James, though, is like a human mood ring. You just never know. In the Indiana series, he averaged 29 points, seven rebounds, five assists and shot 51%. Tuesday night, in Game 3 of the Finals, he was tentative, uncertain and, to an extent, unwilling. He scored 15 and, impossibly, that was the third straight Finals game he scored fewer than 20 points. Do you know the last time he had three straight games of fewer than 20 points? It was 2004. He was 19 years old. He was a rookie. It was in March, when he was playing for a Cleveland Cavaliers team that was still lousy.
But even though he has scored fewer than 20 points in each of the first three NBA Finals, the games themselves have not resembled each other.
In Game 1, James only scored 18 points. But he grabbed 18 rebounds and dished 10 assists and was the Heat’s commanding player in a game they lost in the final seconds.
In Game 2, James only scored 17. But he was the driving presence in the Heat’s absurd 33-5 run as they blew the Spurs off the court. This is James at his happiest, when his teammates play brilliantly and make their shots and allow him to be the conductor of a spectacular orchestra.
In Game 3, James only scored 15 points. But his teammates weren’t good, and at some point it was clear that the responsibility was all his. He was not up to it. He did not want the ball. For a brief burst at the end of the third quarter, he took over, scored nine points in a flurry, brought the Heat back to what seemed like striking distance. Then the Spurs made a few shots and James faded away again.
Thursday? Who knows? He could play a game for the ages, like he did last year in Boston when the Heat season and history was on the line. Or he could crawl deeper into his self-doubt like he did in Cleveland when he looked around and found no one he could count on. He could decide to play like Magic, setting up his teammates for dunk after dunk. He could decide to play like Charles Barkley and just bull the basket over and over. He also could decide to leave the stage to others.
No great player I can think of was so volatile … and so interesting. With Jordan, you never had to wonder what was going on in his mind. It was, simply, “WIN!” It was, simply, “DESTROY!” The fire was inextinguishable. This was the fury at the heart of Bill Russell and Tiger Woods and Steffi Graf and Tom Brady and Mark Messier -- you never wondered about what they were playing for.
With James, you wonder all the time. Sometimes he is indomitable. Sometimes he doesn’t want the ball. Sometimes he is magical. Sometimes he looks indifferent. What drives him? What inspires him? What worries him? What matters to him? Sometimes, clearly James plays to win. Sometimes, he looks like he’s playing to entertain. Sometimes, he looks like he’s having fun. Sometimes, he looks like is a terrible weight that has crashed down him.
The ever-changing LeBron makes for passionate opinions. Within seconds of his brilliant Indiana series, people were writing about his greatness. But does he care about his greatness? Within seconds of his lackluster performance on Tuesday, people were writing about his at-risk legacy. But does he care about his legacy?
I suspect that Thursday night, LeBron James will be breathtakingly good. The Spurs have done a good job getting into his head -- and Kawhi Leonard’s defense has been extraordinary -- but such tricks and illusions cannot last forever. The fate of the series might actually come down to Tony Parker’s hamstring, but as far as James goes, I suspect in Game 4 he will start to shoot confidently, and he will attack the basket authoritatively, and he will be irrepressible on the offensive glass, and he will block shots -- no player has ever had so many basketball talents. I suspect that all the the negative LeBron James stories that ran Wednesday will be awestruck LeBron James stories Friday.
“He will figure it out,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He always figures it out.”
But, truth is, Spoelstra doesn’t know either. Not for sure. With LeBron James, you never know for sure.
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