How Will LeBron James Make His Mark?
Sunday, April 16, 2006
CLEVELAND -- When LeBron James crashed to the floor at The Palace of Auburn Hills on Wednesday, Cleveland Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown said his heart skipped a beat. Brown sprinted down the court to check on James as the franchise crawled around on his right knee, writhing in pain, with his left foot elevated.
In that brief moment of despair, discussions of James's late charge at the league's most valuable player award, his string of nine consecutive games with at least 35 points, and his recent success at hitting buzzer-beating jumpers didn't matter. As James limped off the court late in the third quarter of a loss against the Detroit Pistons, they were replaced by thoughts of another LeBron-less postseason.
To the relief of Brown and many around basketball, it was only a sprained ankle. Nothing serious. Nothing that would keep James out of more than just one regular season game -- he is expected to play Sunday night against the Washington Wizards -- and certainly nothing that will keep him out of the playoffs, something the city of Cleveland has been without for eight years. In his third season, James will finally get to take the stage in the NBA playoffs. "It's something that I dreamed about the last two years," James said.
James, who will make his final appearance at Verizon Center this season Sunday night unless the Wizards can secure the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, has had a spectacular regular season. At only 21, he is about to become the fourth player in NBA history to average at least 31 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists, joining a small fraternity that includes Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Michael Jordan. In leading the long-suffering Cavaliers to the playoffs for the first time since 1998 (when he was in seventh grade), James has improved in almost all aspects of his game -- shooting, scoring, rebounding, passing and leadership on and off the court.
"He's one of the top two or three players in the league now," Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups said. "He's climbed to the top of the mountain very quickly. With the hype he got coming in, it was hard to imagine that he could've lived up to it. He's surpassed it."
But James understands that his already larger-than-life persona -- he is featured attempting a dunk on a 10-story billboard in downtown Cleveland with the caption, "We're All Witnesses" -- can elevate only in the postseason. "That's a road you have to follow if you want to be considered among the great ones," said NBA Commissioner David Stern, who will surely enjoy the ratings boost James's presence in the playoffs will provide. "The campaign last year about the Finals was 'where legends are born,' and I think you could have said that for the playoffs. . . . Clearly in order to write yourself large in NBA history, you've got to be in the playoffs."
Many around the league are anxious to see how James responds, but Brown said he has no concerns about James. "I think it is going to be an adjustment period for him. You can hear about it, you can watch it on TV, but until you go through it and experience it, you won't really know what you're getting into," Brown said. "But that guy has ice water in his veins. He's about as cool as there is out there. Not once have I seen him fold or panic. I can't see the playoffs being a place where he is going to . . . get scared."
This is the same James who scored 21 fourth-quarter points in a losing effort against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden earlier this month. During a break in play late in the game, James leaned against the scorer's table and began munching on his fingernails. Teammate Damon Jones ran over to James and began shouting at the young star, telling him that this was his time to take over the game. Jones kept yapping, but James's eyes never moved beyond his cuticles. He didn't need to hear a pep talk. They don't usually work anyway, for someone who has already discovered that nothing anyone tells him will ever come close to the experience of actually going through it. "I had to figure everything out on my own," James said.
Few players make an immediate impact their first time in the postseason. Michael Jordan advanced to the postseason as a rookie, but needed four trips to actually win a playoff series. Shaquille O'Neal got swept. Kobe Bryant is remembered for shooting two air balls in crunch time against Utah.
"At every level of his short NBA career, he's responded, and I think he'll respond in the playoffs. But it's not going to be easy. No matter how great those guys are, it's not easy the first time," said Cavaliers point guard Eric Snow, who played in Philadelphia with Allen Iverson, one of the few stars who dived right into playoff success.
James has a man's body, a full beard and maturity beyond his years. He said he is prepared for the playoff grind, when the intensity is ratcheted up several notches and defenses deliver poundings on a nightly basis. "I don't worry about it," said James, who is averaging 31.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists this season. "My game doesn't change. I'm still going to be the same player I am right now in the regular season. The level of intensity does step up a bit, but that doesn't mean my game steps down. My game elevates to the level of play."
James has raised his game considerably in the past two months. The Cavaliers (48-31) have won 12 of their past 14 games. During that run, he has recorded two triple-doubles. He scored at least 30 points 10 games in a row. He silenced some of his critics who said he was afraid to take the final shot by hitting game-winners against Charlotte and New Orleans/Oklahoma City. "I don't go out there and try to prove nothing to nobody," James said, but later added, "I'm happy I have few under my belt."