I've been a huge fan of LeBron since he entered the league in 2003 at the age of 18. He's dealt with more criticism and scrutiny than perhaps any athlete in the history of sports with fairly little controversy. Along with that he's exceeded inflated expectations that any other player would have failed to live up too and come up big for the Cavaliers many times when they've needed it the most. Game 5 in Detroit, two game winners in his first playoff series ever against Washington, his insane Orlando series last year including a ridiculous buzzer beater in Game 2 and one of the most complete performances in playoff history in Game 5.
I've believed that for the last three seasons he has been the best player in the NBA and when people compare Kobe Bryant to James I've always found it amusing that it's considered a real point of contention. He's never been lucky enough to play with the talent Kobe has and even then has managed Cleveland to an NBA Finals berth much before anybody thought it was possible.
With all that being said, his Game 5 performance last night was truly and utterly pathetic. With the series tied 2-2 and the Cavaliers holding the homecourt advantage they had all to play for against the Celtics in Cleveland. Those are the games superstars, especially ones who inspire comparisons to Jordan live for. It's one thing if he just had a bad shooting night, went 10-30 from the field and the Cavaliers lost, but it's quite another to listlessly stand in the corner as a spot up jump shooter and allow Mo Williams to destroy your team and its fans' championship dreams.
LeBron is still the best player in the NBA and I can understand how difficult it is for him that if he doesn't play a great game his team will likely lose against the best teams in the league. There is simply not one other player in the league that can handle that burden or is even asked too. Kobe had some off nights in the first round and the Lakers found a way to beat the Thunder, Dwight Howard barely set foot on the floor against the Bobcats, but the Magic still found a way to win. Those guys have more help and they have that luxury, but not James.
No my issue isn't that LeBron didn't play well or that he had a poor shooting night, my problem is that at no point in that game did LeBron deem it necessary to take control of the game and decide the Cavaliers' fate himself. I'm not stupid enough to say he choked or that he can't handle the pressure. Clearly when a guy scores 25 points in a playoff game that's not the case, but that's what makes what transpired more mystifying.
<<More After The Jump>>What the hell was LeBron doing during the beginning of the third quarter yesterday when Boston was pulling away from the Cavs? Say what you want about Kobe that he tries to do too much or that he struggles to recognize when to pass and when to shoot, but he's never backed down from the challenge of carrying his team regardless of what the results were.
Actually check that. If there is one game from another superstar that I could compare LeBron's no show too it would be Bryant's unforgettable Game 7 disappearing act in the 2006 NBA playoffs. In a deciding game in a first round series with the Phoenix Suns, a series the Lakers had lead at one point 3-1, Kobe decided to effectively stand by and do nothing in the second half, taking only three shots which he missed and scoring one point on a technical free throw.
That was it for the Lakers. They had to pack their bags for the summer and were left pondering whether Kobe had played his last game in purple and gold.
That's where LeBron still has a chance at immediate redemption whereas Kobe had to wait until the Lakers' championship run last year to completely erase the memories of his worst big game playoff performance against the Suns three years prior.
Not LeBron though. As bad as Game 5 was with the Cavs losing 120-88 on their home floor, James can still salvage this season by doing what he does best - drive to the hole with reckless abandon and dictate the game.
He's still the best player in this series by a wide margin and has the ability to single handedly lead the Cavaliers to two straight victories against any team in the league. He's that good, but it's time he started to act like it.
Lost in the masterpieces that were his Game 3 performance in Boston and his Game 4 dominance in Chicago in the first round was the lack of aggression he's shown throughout the playoffs. He's been content to let his teammates find their game and look for their shots while he's eased himself into games, but at some point he's got to put it on himself, say enough is enough and put the Cavaliers' fate on his shoulders.
If I'm Mike Brown I look back at this season and I think back to when the Cavaliers were playing their best basketball. It was when Mo Williams' was out with an injury and LeBron was running point for the team. In some ways that might be best for James. Put him in a position where it is impossible for him not have a great impact on the game. Win or lose at least you'll have gone down fighting with the best option available to you.
A couple of other things would help also like playing small ball, finding time for J.J. Hickson who's done nothing but produce, bench Mo Williams and tell both him and Delonte West not to dribble the ball for 10 seconds every time they touch the damn ball.
There are a lot of problems that the Cavaliers are facing right now in this series, but the one they shouldn't have is LeBron failing to have any impact on a critical playoff game. Unfortunately in Game 5 that's exactly what happened and it resulted in an epic failure.
The good news is that they're still alive in the playoffs and James has a chance to make up for his disinterested Game 5 performance. He has a chance to take the time to look back at all the great players that have played this game and if he's serious about joining their ranks then he needs to learn from them about playing through adversity and injury.
Learn from Jordan playing through a flu that left him so dehydrated he could barely walk off the floor. Learn from Larry Bird who's back pain was so bad he had to lay on the sidelines during his last few seasons in the NBA and still found a way to lead Boston in the playoffs. Learn from Magic Johnson who as a rookie filled in at center for Kareem Abdul Jabbar in Game 6 of the NBA Finals and delivered a crown to the Lakers with one of the greatest performances of all time. Learn from Isiah Thomas who scored 25 points in a quarter trying to bring Detroit its first championship all while barely being able to run up and down the floor on a severely sprained ankle.
For better or worse a player's career is rarely looked at in it's entirety. It's usually a collection of snapshots both bad and good. Great players are defined by the snapshots we remember them by. This Game 5 is a terrible moment in LeBron's career both individually and in the context of his team's situation, but he has a chance to fix that if he can accept the challenge.
Even if he takes it upon himself to play great and carry his team, there's no guarantee it happens, but there won't be any regrets and at least as fans we won't be left wondering if LeBron even cares. Kobe had to wait three years to atone for his Houdini act by delivering the Lakers a championship last year.
LeBron has a shot at redemption on Thursday in Boston. Now it's up to him to choose to accept the challenge or to lay down like he did in Game 5 otherwise the Cavaliers franchise and its fans will be wondering whether LeBron will be back next year.
Update: This might explain some of his performance yesterday.
A medical professional close to LeBron James is suggesting James is suffering from a torn ligament in his right elbow, according to a report from Fear The Sword.
"Lebron has a torn ligament in his elbow that should keep him out 6 to 8 weeks," said the source. "He's trying to play through it and not complain, so the media doesn't know it's that serious. Before game 4 he had a shot in the elbow to numb it. You can only get the shot once every 10 days, so last night he couldn't do it."