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NBA Playoffs Cavs Celtics Game 6: The LeBron referendum

May 13, 2010, 9:53 AM EDT

James_solo.jpgUsually when a sportswriter makes the statement “Game X is the most important game of Player X’s career” it belies a rather pathetic lack of imagination and a pandering to traditional cliched writing. Every playoff game is the most important one, because every one could end up defining his career. What do people remember more, Hakeem Olajuwon’s performances in the Finals, or his domination of David Robinson? That’s what can happen. You have to approach every game like that, because these things aren’t scripted.

So please understand the gravity of the situation when I say that Game 6 in Boston of the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals is the most important game of LeBron James’ career.

The once-and-future-King may never reach his throne if he were to fail tonight to carry his top-seeded Cavaliers to a win. James, as you may have heard in about a billion ways and we told you the other night, had a performance that puts a blemish on his ridiculously brilliant career, one which threatens to submarine his entire legacy if Boston closes out at home as any Finals contender would do.

James’ performance has been shredded from coast to coast. We’re not talking “oh, hey, bad time to have a bad game” territory. We’re talking “maybe this guy just doesn’t have the will of a champion, because he had zero effort” land. It has brought about what may be the most staggering repudiation of a player’s status as the pre-eminent Greatest Player of Our Time. James faces a mark against his permanent record that would be akin in the job marketplace to “once set fire to his boss’ office while engaging in inappropriate behavior with the cleaning lady on the boss’ desk.” That’s what “doesn’t have the will to be great” means in the NBA for a player of his status.

One thing that’s been occurring to me over the past two days, along with how ridiculous it is that people are questioning whether he is the best player in the NBA* , is that James has never needed the drive to succeed. He just has. Since he was probably 13, he’s been a phenom. A legend. He was the best player on the court, until he arrived in the NBA, and then he was probably second or third at worst, and then only for a few seasons. He made the Finals at age 22. He was the MVP at 24. He’s averaged 49.9 wins per season since entering the league. He has had the full weight of Nike behind him since the beginning. He has been the crown jewel of the league arguably for the last four seasons. He’s never been faced with a situation where he was legitimately challenged to the degree he is now, never faced with so much pressure to be the difference between a win and a loss.

This isn’t to say that this should be all on him. Every great player has had great players step up to provide support when the shots aren’t falling. And the Cavs have never, not with all their trades, not with all their time to do do, have never brought in a true number two option for James. They thought it would be Antawn Jamison, but Jamison has ran into a matchup nightmare in the Celtics. It’s just not every game you have to check Kevin Garnett who suddenly feels 30 again. Shaquille O’Neal brought 21 points on 11 shots in Game 5, but it was largely irrelevant. And Mo Williams? Do we really even need to bring him up?

So tonight James is on his own. 1 on 5. And if he wants to live up to the expectations that have been built for him, or that he has built for himself (depending on who you talk to), he’s going to have to put it all on his shoulders.

Or elbow, as it were.

And by playing, by not sitting out, by not opting for surgery, if indeed he needs it as the rumors continue to suggest, he has opened himself for this. The elbow will not be accepted as an excuse. It will not be considered brave that he tried to play through a severe injury. It will be only that he shrunk in the biggest moments. His Game 5 in 2007 will be a footnote. His Finals appearance will be overshadowed by the valley of nothingness his past two years. And with the very real possibility of him relocating to another franchise in the next two months, this may be his last shot at a championship for a few seasons.

This is how quickly things can change. This is how fast you can go from the best player, on the best team, headed to a championship, to a weak-willed self-entitled player that lacks the killer drive.

The truth, of course, lies in the middle. But that doesn’t lower the expectations on him for his career, for his season, for tonight.

If anyone can rise up in this situation, well, it’s probably Kobe Bryant. But it’s also Dwyane Wade. And Paul Pierce. And Steve Nash. And LeBron James. He can do this.The Celtics are gameplanning for him, but it does not mean they can stop him. When he chose to in Game 5, he drove, he collected fouls. Were he to execute as he is capable of, he could simply foul out the entire Celtics’ frontcourt. But he has to accept the hit, and he has to commit to the drive.

Maybe the jumpshot will return. Maybe the two days of rest will be enough for the elbow. Maybe the constant hammering by the media will motivate him to be what he needs to be. Or maybe the shots will just drop.  But this is not a situation where James can rely on the favorable fortune that has been bestowed on him throughout the last 15 years of his life. Tonight, he cannot be a passive recipient of fate.

Tonight, he has to be the whirlwind instrument of it.

*Does anyone remember how brilliant he was in the regular season? I recognize the importance of the playoffs, but those games did count, and without them, you don’t make the postseason.

  1. Anonymous - May 13, 2010 at 1:52 PM

    Ball hog or not, at least Kobe & team gets it done when needed. Every team is different. Some lack the unstoppable super star, but have a balanced & potentially lethal team when they’re hitting on all cylinders. (ie Orlando, 04-05 Pistons) Other teams gamble with a single super star and supporting cast. (ie LA, 90’s Bulls) The latter strategy means a single player is basically the center of the universe….and usually is thought to be a ball hog by all who hate him. Jordan, James, and Bryant all fit into this category. The team’s strategy IS for them to be “ball hogs”. These scoring-thirsty players need the ball to maintain their egos….that’s not a bad thing in this sport. Kobe and Michael’s careers show maturity from complete selfishness to eventually just occassional stints…..and both have collected enough bling to be NBA legends. Without question, James is one of the best athletes the NBA has ever seen, but he lacks genuine leadership, which is why the supporting cast doesn’t elevate to new levels. This problem isn’t going away regardless of where he plays until Lebron truly becomes what he thinks he is.

  2. Lebrick James - May 13, 2010 at 1:53 PM

    Become a fan or “like” Lebrick James on Facebook…

  3. lee - May 13, 2010 at 2:31 PM

    Please LeBron, go back to wherever it is you came from, get a college degree so you can become a flunky sports caster or something other that play TEAM sports. You in your mind are the team, to bad you did’nt take a lesson from your thug buddy in Los Angeles and just go out a rape someone and get all the annonimty in the world. it will be the only thing you could possible be noted for when the Celtics get done with you.

  4. chingo - May 13, 2010 at 2:35 PM

    The best player??? His team needs to step up??? HIS TEAM HAD THE BEST RECORD IN THE LEAGUE!!!!!! They are quitting because he is quitting. He is not the best. Nor is he the second best. Kobe, Wade, and then maybe Lebron.

  5. MrsT - May 13, 2010 at 2:43 PM

    LBJ is just another player trying to make it to where Kobe has made it. Like you say, he don’t have a ring so how can people call him King James, whatever! He is a good player, I give him that, but he has a nasty attitude. And yeah, he will be going fishing.
    So, get your pole ready Lebron, cause Rondo ain’t havin it!

  6. Hoops McCann - May 13, 2010 at 2:50 PM

    Good Article – well written.
    Let’s not forget the fact that this is also the defining game for this current Celtics team as well. They have everything at stake too. This is their last shot at winning another title and to be remembered as more than a just a one year wonder.
    This is going to be a GREAT game!
    As far as LBJ and his ability to make his team into a champion, let’s also not forget that it’s the COACHES job to get the most out of his players and build a system that maximizes their talents. It’s not a 25 year old player’s job to do that.
    You don’t pay these guys millions to babysit the players during the reg season, but to out-coach and out-motivate the opposing teams’ coaches in the playoffs! Do you think the Cavs would win the title this year with either Jackson, Riles, or Pop as their coach?
    ABSOLUTELY!

  7. IMJCS2 - May 13, 2010 at 2:55 PM

    Excellent point regarding coaching.

  8. RAM 11 - May 13, 2010 at 2:55 PM

    Lebron enjoy looking at your MVP trophy in the comforts of your living room while you watch the LAKERS/CELTICS in another classic NBA CHAMPIONSHIP battle.
    I’m a LAKER fan, so it’s hard for me to root for the Celtics, but against Lebron it’s easy to cheer for them.
    Until Lebron gets a ring why are we even discussing where he ranks. Did anyone see the video of how arrogant Lebron was to a towl boy who was trying to get Lebron sweats as he walked on to the court. U can probaly U Tube it, but it just showed how arrogant Lebron is.
    I hope the Celtics put a Whoopin on Lebron tonight.

  9. Sideline Reporter - May 13, 2010 at 2:58 PM

    It looks like every single Lebron hater is coming out of the woodwork today. Sure, he had a disappointing performance the other night, but to say he’s a quitter is an absolute insult. Lebron is driven to be the best and in order to be recognized as the best you have to win playoff series and ultimately, the championship. Russell and Jordan are the best because of the rings they collected AND because of the support they had on their teams. Lebron may go down tonight, but he will go down fighting.

  10. Sideline Reporter - May 13, 2010 at 3:00 PM

    It looks like every single Lebron hater is coming out of the woodwork today. Sure, he had a disappointing performance the other night, but to say he’s a quitter is an absolute insult. Lebron is driven to be the best and in order to be recognized as the best you have to win playoff series and ultimately, the championship. Russell and Jordan are the best because of the rings they collected AND because of the support they had on their teams. Lebron may go down tonight, but he will go down fighting.

  11. you'remissingthepoint - May 13, 2010 at 3:07 PM

    I don’t know if everyone who posted watched the game last night or how many times they’ve watched Lebron play, but it seems most of these comments miss the point. It’s not about Lebron being a ball hog as he’s been criticized in the past for being too unselfish. Someone mentioned Iverson. There’s no comparison. James shoots a high percentage. Iverson far and away lead the league in shot attempts many times and he’s a career low 40’s percentage shooter. That kills your team. It’s not about Lebron’s teammates needing to step up. I have been watching the NBA since the early 70’s and I have NEVER seen such a lack of effort or interest in such an important game from the team’s star player as I saw in game 5. I was in shock. If you watched TNT after the game, Barkley summed it up best. I’ve seen Havlicek, Bird, Cowens, Jabbar, Jordan, Magic, Worthy, Wilkes, Wilkins, Olajuwan, Robinson, Ewing, Mourning, Malone, Stockton, Nash, Barkley, Drexler, Duncan, Kobe … you name it … and NEVER in my life have I seen one of them lay down in a game like I saw Lebron lay down (and I like Lebron). You can’t be considered one of the all time greats with an effort like that in such a pivotal game and that’s why everyone is talking. Those guys I mentioned have had horrible games but those guys sweat and bled and gave you everything they had regardless of their shooting performance (Iverson too for that matter… couldn’t stand him as a team player but you could never fault his effort).

  12. Disrespect Us? - May 13, 2010 at 3:18 PM

    Amazing . . . Celts are obviously the best team in the NBA when it counts. For those with short memories: Without KG they almost took out the Magic last year. KG is back. Celts will win the title. FACT!

  13. Chas Xroc - May 13, 2010 at 3:21 PM

    There has only been one True King in all of History. But there have been many so-called kings, all of whom have fallen in their own time. The mistake that Lebron made is that he ever allowed the word to get close to his name. Regardless if he wins or loses any game in sports, he will fall eventually.
    Elevate yourself and you will come down.
    Just the way it is.
    It would be better if he referred to himself as James the Humble which is what he soon will be.

  14. Magic_Li - May 13, 2010 at 3:24 PM

    Don’t blame LeBron. One man can’t win a championship alone. Just ask any Magic fan who watched Tracy McGrady try to do it two years in a row. It takes a TEAM to win a championship, and the Cavs just aren’t there.
    Booing LeBron James is just low-class. Even MJ had a bad game once in a while. Cut him some slack. He’s carrying 4 other guys at a time.

  15. URIdiots - May 13, 2010 at 3:29 PM

    You LeBron bashers are just idiots. Complete F’n idiots.

  16. Mike Diggy - May 13, 2010 at 3:30 PM

    Lebron brings in way too much attention for himself and the team. Everyone on that team are “followers” behind their leader. Lebron is their leader and the Cavs followed him on Tuesday night. Followed him to a massive blow out that they might not be able to come back from. My Celtics I’m sure will make sure they do not….To the Cav fans out there……Welcome to the “Garden”………

  17. Gooz - May 13, 2010 at 3:47 PM

    Le Gone doesn’t deserve to be MVP…take it BACK

  18. Marco - May 13, 2010 at 4:00 PM

    For all the talk about LeBrick and the Traveliers and how they’re essentially going to have their season end tonight, thus destroying any hope of sports success in Cleveland, has anyone got to thinking that the best thing for LeBrick might be for him to lose tonight so he has a chance to leave Cleveland??
    I don’t know about you guys but if he were to go to Chicago, I see that team being a serious threat to the rest of the NBA for the next 6-8 seasons… and if he does want a title, his best chance will be to sign to a long-term contract there.

  19. Marco - May 13, 2010 at 4:01 PM

    For all the talk about LeBrick and the Traveliers and how they’re essentially going to have their season end tonight, thus destroying any hope of sports success in Cleveland, has anyone got to thinking that the best thing for LeBrick might be for him to lose tonight so he has a good reason to leave Cleveland??
    I don’t know about you guys but if he were to go to Chicago, I see that team being a serious threat to the rest of the NBA for the next 6-8 seasons… and if he does want a title, his best chance will be to sign to a long-term contract there.

  20. MentoneGirl - May 13, 2010 at 4:06 PM

    As long as he’s winning LA rings, he can snitch on ma mamma if he wants too! Wooo hooo!!! Is that “The Great Pretender” I hear in the background?

  21. fire mikebrown - May 13, 2010 at 4:08 PM

    @ Ridiculous, to be real Lebron did not earn the MVP this year, that award should have gone to Kevin Durant (just check the stats) But I’m a Cavs fan and this series playoffs should not be about Lebron, it should be about SHAQ. Its a crime that the Cavs will not run their offense through him. He should be the first, second, and third option! Boston does not have a answer for him. WAKE UP MIKE BROWN!!!
    Boston game plan will be very simple tonight, let Lebron score his 35-40 points and shut everyone else down. Why can’t our coaching staff figure this out….oh they are so in love with Lebron! FYI he hasn’t won anything stop calling him KING and please stop treating him like one. I’m sad to say Boston will most likely blow the Cavs out the building tonight, they just have too many weapons we have 2 and one of them we don’t know how to use.

  22. Anonymous - May 13, 2010 at 4:08 PM

    This was more than a bad game. Anyone who watched it knows.

  23. Wilson - May 13, 2010 at 4:16 PM

    Lebron is an incredible player but I think the article sums it up well….he just doesn’t seem to have that will to be great when it counts. Hate on Kobe Bryant all you want but the guy is comstantly changing his game learning from the best and pushing his team to championships. He knows when to turn it up. Regardless of Lebron I will be cheering on the Celtics tonight because they have shown that they really want to win this as a team.
    …and I am a Lakers fan

  24. Prophet - May 13, 2010 at 4:21 PM

    You are an idiot. Lebron is now where a ball hog. He has ammassed tons of rebounds and assists along with his high avg points per game. This guy is in a group along with Bird, Magic, MJ, and Kobe. He is the MVP by far. Someone put it in good perspective today on a radio show. “besides James who out of the other 4 starters would start if they played on the Celtics or the Lakers. And the likely answer to that is one or none.”

  25. j19x - May 13, 2010 at 4:24 PM

    I’m so tired of hearing about what LeBron’s not doing, or how he’s disappearing, etc… why can’t this be about the Celtics, and how well they are finally playing together? No one expected them to do anything in the playoffs, but that was based on what? Injuries hobbled them in the second half of the season, so they never got into a rhythm… but how quickly everyone forgets, they started the season 23-5. Sure, LBJ wasn’t as aggressive as usual in Gm 5, but he took open shots, crashed the boards, went up for blocks… what else do you want from the man? I’m sure he was just thrilled about his team getting booed by its own fans – no, the Cavs weren’t playing well but the boo-birds came out a tad bit early. He is still the best player in the NBA but the Celtics are the better team. I hope the Celtics and Lakers both make the Finals, so all the schizophrenic sportswriters who wrote both of those franchises off mere weeks ago will eat some crow as they get reminded what champions do – find ways to win.

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