By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
SALT LAKE CITY
Even out in the Western Conference, where the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs have their own issues about which to obsess, LeBron James is a primary topic of conversation. Everybody has an opinion about whether he should shoot or pass, whether he's up to the big moments of playoff basketball or shrinking from them, whether his great late-game playoff performance Sunday night in Game 3 is an exception or the first of many big postseason moments to come.
His first truly impressive fourth quarter in the 2007 postseason cut Detroit's lead in the series to 2-1 and should quiet the criticism over what he hadn't done -- until Tuesday night's Game 4.
Everywhere basketball people gather, the conversation turns rather quickly to James and the Cavaliers-Pistons Eastern Conference final series.
"I feel bad for LeBron, taking some of the criticism he's taken," Utah forward and ex-Cavaliers teammate Carlos Boozer said here Sunday morning. "First he's criticized for passing the ball to a teammate standing there by himself, then in that second game he's got to be thinking, 'I've got to shoot' and gets criticized for holding the ball to take the last shot. Talk about a no-win situation."
LeBron and the Cavaliers were in just that, a no-win situation, down 0-2 to the Pistons entering Game 3. LeBron said before the tip-off it was the biggest game of his career, hardly running from what was at stake for him personally.
As the biggest remaining star in the playoffs in a league that loves stardom, LeBron and his choices are being reviewed with a scrutiny reserved for great players. Basketball Hall of Famers Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson, covering the series in Detroit for TNT, said LeBron should have taken the final shot in Game 1 with his team trailing by two instead of passing to Donyell Marshall, Cleveland's best three-point shooter, who had an open shot to win the game.
Marshall missed, and the firestorm began.
With Cleveland down a single point in Game 2, LeBron held the ball for 18 of the final 24 seconds, then dribbled into the lane and tried to force a shot over good defense.
LeBron missed, and the firestorm intensified.
In Game 3, with Cleveland in a back-and-forth game the Cavaliers had to win, LeBron threw one down on Rasheed Wallace, then made two critical jump shots, one with 16 seconds left.
LeBron came through and was doused with praise.
Nobody is neutral in what has become the No. 1 playoff discussion.
"LeBron should have shot the ball at the end of Game 1," said Jon Barry, who played 14 seasons in the NBA before joining ABC/ESPN. "He had what amounted to a layup. I know Rasheed was coming over, but he wasn't going to block that. The way LeBron explodes to the basket? . . . You want your best player taking that shot on the road in the playoffs."
Sitting two feet away here in Salt Lake City, former Pistons and Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, who coached Barry in Detroit and also is working for ABC/ESPN in the playoffs, said: "I like the pass to Donyell. You're on the road, you've got a guy wide open for a game-winning three-pointer who had hit six of 10 three-pointers the previous game" against New Jersey in Game 6.
Utah's Derek Fisher, who has hit game-winning playoff shots twice in his career, was frustrated not at the difference of opinion, but with the volume of the criticism. "If he shoots it with a teammate open, he's selfish," Fisher said. "If he passes to an open teammate, he's afraid of the moment. I never thought I'd see the day when an athlete is criticized for being unselfish."
The Spurs' Bruce Bowen was just as adamant. "Donyell had just hit six of 10 threes against New Jersey, right?" Bowen asked. "That's just making the right play. Maybe LeBron has an ability [that] Charles, as great as he was, didn't have. And Magic? Come on. That's the exact play that made Magic Magic. He had Byron Scott, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], James Worthy. Magic made that pass all the time. It's the right play."
To his credit, LeBron after Game 3, said he was not thinking, " 'Hey, I've finally done it.' "
Grant Hill, the Orlando Magic free agent and seven-time all-star working the playoffs for ABC, also believed LeBron has made smart plays, but sees a bigger issue confronting LeBron, who was justifiably criticized for having several dreadful fourth quarters in these playoffs. Before Sunday, LeBron had averaged just 3.5 points on 30 percent shooting in two fourth quarters against Detroit.
"When you say publicly your goal is to be a global icon," Hill said, "you bring some of that scrutiny and criticism on yourself. You say the words, 'global icon' and I think of Pele, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, and now Tiger Woods. And what did they all do? They won championships. It's winning that makes you a global icon."
No doubt Hill is on to something. The immense popularity that swept LeBron from high school into the NBA seems to double back and wash over him like a tidal wave at times, like now.
LeBron has two problems he'll have to learn how to negotiate. First, he's not Jordan and has to resist any urge to play like him. Jordan was a scorer first and foremost. LeBron, while not a point guard, is a playmaker. His personality, unlike Kobe Bryant's, is to include his teammates, to facilitate scoring. The notion that his aim should be to finish every play is to suggest he has to be Jordan to win a championship, which simply isn't true.
LeBron's bigger problem is never having learned how to play these kinds of high-stakes games in college -- and now having to learn against a recent champion. Most every iconic player in NBA history, particularly the triumvirate of Magic, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, learned to play big games during March Madness. For every Kobe (who had Shaquille O'Neal), there's an Isiah Thomas or Dwyane Wade or Richard Hamilton, guys who learned how to deal with the enormous pressure of big games in college, then successfully transitioned into the NBA playoffs. It's no coincidence that Tracy McGrady and Kevin Garnett, who also skipped college, struggle so mightily in the playoffs. Without Shaq, Bryant is 0 for 2 getting out of the first round of the playoffs.
LeBron, of course, didn't go to college and beating Warren Harding High in Ohio boys' basketball wasn't the prep course for beating the Pistons in the conference finals. Even Jordan, with his pedigree, needed three cracks at the Pistons before beating them in the postseason. This is LeBron's apprenticeship, playing for the University of Cavaliers without receiving a college kid's benefit of the doubt. He earned an A-plus Sunday for his performance in Game 3. How well he handles this graduate course will determine whether he's ready to be passed on to the NBA Finals exam, the prerequisite for global icon status.