By J.A. Adande
DALLAS — There are two contests being waged here: the NBA Finals that’s being decided by tissue-thin margins and the yawning chasm between what LeBron James wants and what we want him to be.
The LeBron gap appears irreconcilable. Only LeBron could win an NBA Finals game and still lose ground in the public eye. Two themes emerged from Miami’s 88-86 victory in Game 3, the second consecutive game in this series decided by a single shot. One was that Dwyane Wade is taking control for the Miami Heat, at the expense of LeBron. The other, written on website after website, was that Dirk needs help.
You know what sentence wasn’t written anywhere? The indisputable fact that LeBron had a better final minute than Dirk Nowitzki. In their last two possessions, LeBron had an assist and a missed shot, and Dirk had a turnover and a missed shot. As a result, LeBron’s team won.
If the Heat didn’t win, LeBron would have received the blame, not his supporting cast. We’re making Larry Bird comparisons for Nowitzki even though he’s ringless, yet are withholding judgment on LeBron until we see how many he wins. There’s an even greater status Dirk has achieved: He’s allowed to miss. He became sanctified after making that 3-pointer and lefty layup late in Game 2. That’s what happens when you have the made shots in the Finals on your résumé.
If winning an NBA Finals game won’t be enough for LeBron, then winning the Finals won’t be either if this series continue in this manner and Wade plays the starring role in two more victories. LeBron wants to win. That’s not enough for us. We want him to go out and win it and in a specific manner. You can already hear the keyboards clicking now, saying LeBron’s first championship didn’t count because he wasn’t the Finals MVP.
Did you know that in Kobe Bryant’s first NBA Finals he shot 37 percent and averaged 15.6 points per game against the Pacers in 2000? But when it’s time for comparisons, you only hear that Kobe has five rings, not 4.5.
When Michael Jordan repeatedly passed to John Paxson in the final quarter of the 1991 NBA Finals, it was viewed as a breakthrough, the superstar yielding to the system for the sake of the team. LeBron does it and its treated as an act of cowardice.
With the score tied in the final minute, James had the vision and the skills to fire the ball sideways past a double-team to an open Chris Bosh. James has always shown a willingness to go back to his teammates no matter how poorly they’re playing. With the game on the line, he went to a guy who was 6-for-17 at the time, with a scratched eye that left him squinting like The Boondocks’ Uncle Ruckus.
“I don’t care if he missed 15 in a row, he’s wide open and that’s his sweet spot, that baseline jumper, and he was able to knock it down,” James said. “It’s just the trust we have in each other’s ability, no matter what point of the game it’s at.”
Erik Spoelstra called it “fundamental basketball at its best. When you see an open man, you hit an open man.”
Here’s the paradox of LeBron: He regularly makes the sensible play when it comes to passing, but he doesn’t always make the sensible play when it comes to going to the hoop. After making only two trips to the free throw line in Game 2, he vowed to attack the basket more in Game 3 and did exactly that in the first half. Five of his six shots in the first two quarters came from inside the paint, including a memorable initiation to the Finals for Ian Mahinmi. LeBron James going to the hoop is one of the most unstoppable plays in basketball, and yet we rarely see it, and every time he plays a stretch like he did in the first half Sunday, it makes you wonder why.
We also saw the equivalent of two lunar eclipses in the same week: James posted up to start the first and third quarters; both resulted in a double-team and a pass to an open teammate for a made jump shot. Again, why don’t we see more of it?
LeBron just isn’t as comfortable playing with his back to the basket. He never had to in order to make it this far. He won the MVP award twice without a low-post game, part of a long line in which he’s always rewarded for doing things his way.
Now he’s two victories away from seeing the payoff on his unprecedented free agent move in the prime of his career to join an established star. Are we ready to give it to him on his terms? Or will we diminish it because it doesn’t suit the route we once planned for him, the story of a Cleveland-area kid bringing a championship to the city’s long-suffering sports fans?
He already was put in the unusual position on Sunday night of being accused of shrinking from the moment in a game he had just won, when he had fired up his team’s final shot with a two-point lead and five seconds remaining.
“I think you’re concentrating on one side of the floor,” James said. “All you’re looking at is the stat sheet. Honestly, I’m a two-way player. Tonight, in instance, D-Wade had it going offensively, so we allowed him to handle the ball, we allowed him to bring us home offensively. You should watch the film again and see what I did defensively. You’ll ask me a better question tomorrow.”
It was a strange news conference, one in which James’ and Wade’s insistence on conducting joint interviews created some awkward moments.
Wade repeatedly talked about his role as a leader and referred to “my guys,” as we kept waiting for LeBron to add, “You mean, our guys.” Instead LeBron blinked, rubbed his face, adjusted his position in his seat, then looked at Wade.
Wade also barked at James on the court, when LeBron had the audacity to give the ball to Mario Chalmers.
Even with Wade’s surge in the Finals, James remains the Heat’s playoff leader in points, assists and steals, and is virtually tied with Bosh for top rebounder. None of that seems to matter at the moment. It’s as if LeBron’s big shots in closing out the Celtics and Bulls didn’t get forwarded to his new address at the Finals. He’s having to start from scratch, and in this series he has only two fourth-quarter field goals. His numbers from the fourth Sunday night: two points on 1-for-3 shooting, two turnovers, four assists.
People don’t step back and view the larger numbers, such as the fact LeBron has logged more minutes — 790 of ‘em — than anyone in the playoffs. He played 45 minutes on Sunday, his stamina allowing Spoelstra to feel secure enough to sit Wade out three more minutes than he did in Game 2, and Wade was fresh enough to hit a go-ahead jumper with two minutes left.
With LeBron it’s never just about the what, it’s been about how. It all goes back to The Decision, a topic that even seemed relevant at Shaquille O’Neal’s retirement party last week, when I wondered why O’Neal’s departure from Orlando, bitter though it may have been, didn’t create the same lasting animosity as LeBron’s leaving Cleveland.
“On a business level, if he would have been straight up with the guy [Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert] and let the guy make moves to try to build his team, everything would have been all right,” O’Neal said. “But you can’t keep messing around with people [saying], ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.’
“Then this guy [says], ‘All right, Mike [Brown], you’re gone. [Danny Ferry], you’re gone. You’re gone, we’re going to do this.’ The guy was trying to make it better for LeBron, but LeBron and his group of guys didn’t tell him what was going on. And then at the last minute it was too late. The guy couldn’t go out and get no free agents, you know what I’m saying?
“I just think if LeBron would have did it better, different tactically, things would have been all right. Because guys have left, guys have left franchises for the past 40, 60 years. The way he did it just kind of caught people off guard.”
LeBron did it the way he did it. He continues to do things his way. The player with the talent to make the NBA look like a video game never lets anyone else have the controller.
ESPN senior writer J.A. Adande
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