This is not to take anything away from the amazing 4th quarter by the San Antonio Spurs (who shot an incredible 14-16 from the field, on 12 assists in the period). Heck, this is not even meant to be an indictment on LeBron. Rather, this is an examination of what the hell did we all see in Game 1 (or hear about in the morning).
That’s right. The human cyborg, LeBron James, the specimen of specimens, a player who wants to make the NBA’s Mount Rushmore (and be the ‘GOAT’) succumbed to cramps in a pivotal Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals. ‘Well it’s only Game 1 how is it pivotal?’ – well, when your team is the underdog and the San Antonio Spurs have home court advantage you need to steal a road game. And this game was very stealable – before LeBron left the game for good with 3:59 to go the Spurs were leading 94-92. James finished the night as easily the Heat’s top performer with 25 points (on 9-17 from the field, 2-3 from three, and 5-6 from the line), 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. He also had the best +/- of any Heat starter with a dead even 0 (and second best on the team behind Shane Battier’s mainly inconsequential +1). Basically in Game 1 with LeBron James on the floor, or the threat of him being in the game the contest at essentially kept even. Without King James, the flood gates opened. By the time the clock hit triple zero the score had become an out of control Spurs victory 110-95.
Almost immediately after James left the game his teammate’s body language changed. Their faces were a mixture of disbelief, contempt and anguish. Ray Allen actually turned back into the 38 (about to be 39) year old version of himself instead of a combination of his Celtic days and his character in He Got Game. Dwayne Wade turned into the lion-hearted, ex-alpha who can no longer lead a team through insurmountable odds. Role-players turned into road Finals game role-players, making mistakes and doing very little right. The Spurs seemed to gain confidence with each possession, as LeBron sat on the sidelines with a look of dejection and apathy. On one side you had a star that wasn’t playing, on the other you had Tim Duncan, the leader of the Spurs putting in yeoman’s work, playing solid defense and putting up 21 points (on 9 of 10 from the field ) and 10 rebounds. With the performance Duncan grabbed himself a very premature lead on the Finals MVP award.
Mark Jackson’s quote helped damn LeBron during the game “The great ones find a way to tell their body ‘not now, I’ll talk to you tomorrow’ “. There is a lot of truth to that statement – and fair or not, King James will be held to it. LeBron, because of his insane greatness, gets judged by a different set of rules than mere mortals. He has to be Michael Jordan playing through ‘the Flu Game’ (food poisoning?). He has to be Jerry Rice returning from an ACL tear during the same season. He has to be Tiger Woods and win the Masters on a broken leg. Willis Reed, Isiah Thomas, Jerry West. Name any player who had a ‘moment’ where they played through or dominated when injury had them down and out – that’s the standard LeBron James is held to, to live up to the greatest.
As of today the Larry Bird fans are thumping their chests. So are the Kobe and MJ fans. Could you imagine Jordan, Bird, Kobe or Russell (the biggest ‘clutch competitors’ you could think of) leaving an NBA Finals game due to cramps and not returning? One could argue (and people will more vicously this weekend – at least until Game 2) that Bird should still be considered the greatest small forward ever. Routinely people question whether Larry Legend could play in today’s era, but now we can question whether LeBron could play pre-AC or how he would do in the 1980s Boston Garden. Greatness should transcend Eras, circumstances, conditions. Bird played Game 5 of the 1984s Finals in a lovely 98 degrees securing the win to put his Celtics up 3-2 over the Showtime Lakers. All he did was put up 34 points on 15-20 from the floor (2 for 2 from three) with 17 rebounds while playing a game high 42 minutes. Remember, this was against a team that, in theory, should have been more ready for the conditions being fast past, more athletic, and with the star power of Kareem, Magic and James Worthy. LeBron on the other hand can’t outlast Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker (playing on a bad ankle) who are 38, 36 and 32 respectively. No one can honestly think with their ‘big three’ being so old that the Spurs ruined the air conditioner on purpose. It defies logic. Who on the Spurs would want to jeopardize their best players in the hopes that the supposed most in tuned and well conditioned athlete in the world, the freak of freaks, would be the one to succumb to the temperature. Let that sink in, who would have thought LeBron would break down before the elderly – in sports years – Tim Duncan? People won’t quickly forget that LeBron was conquered in a Finals game by a lack of A/C, little things like that effect the legacy of the greatest since the margin or difference between the Gods of the Hardwood is so slim (along with rings, accolades, and statistics ad nauseum). ‘The moment’ seems to still defeat LeBron more than it should for someone of his ilk and talent.
LeBron James is already the greatest player of his generation – he’s no longer playing for that title. (depending on where you start and stop ‘generation’ and presuming you have him ahead of Shaq, Duncan and Kobe and don’t expect Kevin Durant or someone else to supplant him). In fact, he’s no longer just playing for a Championship or a three peat, rather at this point LeBron’s playing for his legacy. LBJ has a shot, albeit still relatively small – though not impossible or insurmountable, to be considered the greatest basketball player of all time. The way we view and judge this episode in his career will depend heavily on whether or not the Heat win this series. Ultimately, if the Spurs win the series because they won Game 1, and that was because LeBron was broken by a broken air conditioning system….he will be judged harshly. The good thing for James is there is plenty of time for him to sway the court of public opinion and make up for Game 1. A good start for LeBron would be to put in monster game in Game 2. Something like his Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals or a 40 point outburst with dominance all around will suffice – if he can carry the Heat to another title, if he can’t ‘cramptonite’ may enter into our sports lexicon.