By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, May 9, 2010; D01
For the first time since his ascension to the top of the basketball pyramid, LeBron James looked vulnerable. Okay, it was for only one game, really, and a loss to the recent champion Celtics, hardly a bunch of stumblebums. The second-round NBA playoff series was tied, 1-1, but a hint of panic was in the air.
Nightmare scenarios were discussed, ones that had the Cavaliers losing here in Boston on Friday night, then again on Sunday, and being forced by the end of the weekend to the brink of not just elimination but the specter of life without LeBron. The immediate and long-range future of not just the Cavaliers but the psyche of the entire city of Cleveland was at stake.
As NBA melodramas go, this one was pretty irresistible for about 10 minutes in Game 3, the one that could visit so much gloom and doom on Cleveland and the Cavaliers. That's about how long it took LeBron to blow the Celtics away with one of the most explosive quarters in recent playoff history. He outscored Boston by himself, 21-17, in the first quarter. LeBron simply made the Celtics submit to him, physically and psychologically.
By the end of the first quarter, with Cleveland leading 36-17, there was no more talk of LeBron's uncooperative elbow, of the Celtics taking control of the series, of LeBron being two games from considering his free agent options and therefore the end of the Cavaliers as we've known them. He wound up with 38 points, 7 assists and 8 rebounds. Cleveland wound up with an unthinkable 29-point victory and LeBron goes into Sunday's Game 4 here never having looked more invincible.
"I think he's healthy," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said, pausing for dramatic effect. "Enough with the elbow injury. He looked awfully good. He was great."
It was easily the single best performance of these playoffs, one where LeBron James looked like Wilt in 1967 or Michael Jordan in 1991, which is to say physically and psychologically superior to his opponents. Rivers said it was as if LeBron was playing H-O-R-S-E instead of a playoff game on the road against a team just two years removed from an NBA title.
And to think the game had caused so much anxiety. Cleveland Coach Mike Brown had been angry over the Game 2 loss. LeBron had been almost eerily calm, which is to say just the opposite of the city he represents, which hasn't had a professional sports championship of any kind since 1964 when the Browns won the NFL championship. The drought, then, has reached 46 years, and the civic fear is that if the Cavaliers go out early it means LeBron is more certain to leave after this season. LeBron has given no such indication, but when you've had as much sporting heartbreak as Cleveland, doom is only one loss away.
Antawn Jamison, thrilled nonetheless to be in Cleveland after living through Washington Wizards hell the past two seasons, had his own reaction to the loss of Game 2 and the urgent need to rebound here Friday night. "I couldn't sleep," Jamison said. "The last three days, it was like the world coming to an end."
Jamison is the perfect person to capture the largeness of LeBron at the moment because he's still new to it, having been traded to Cleveland in February. "There are two to three thousand people waiting for the team at the hotel when we arrive, like when Michael [Jordan] was playing. LeBron's a straight rock star. How was he the last three days? He was cool. He said: 'Look, we didn't play well in Game 2. We played horrible. Now let's calm down. There's no need to act like we're under a lot of pressure.' He was focused, no-nonsense, serious."
LeBron, afterward, was in a mild "told-you-so" mood without actually saying so. But he had recommended calm over anger. After Game 2, Coach Brown was in a rage over getting blown out at home, over the Cavaliers seeming to sleepwalk through a playoff game.
LeBron went the other way, and it's hard to argue with the results. "After Game 2, if you remember," LeBron said, "I was very calm. You guys were like, 'Why are you so calm?' I knew how important the next game was. I knew how important the whole series is. I didn't see any need, as a leader, to talk about pressure."
And as we know, there's no pressure when you can get into the lane, get all the way to the basket, go around or over anybody on the court, finish at the rim with George Gervin's finesse or Wilt's power. What we were reminded during one breathtaking stretch of Game 3 is that LeBron James is the most powerful force in basketball and if he's healthy he's going to be favored to finish off the Celtics, and even beat undefeated-in-the-playoffs Orlando in the next round. LeBron, with seven fewer years and so many fewer miles than Kobe Bryant, is indisputably the best and most valuable player in the NBA.
That said, in the NBA one player can be and often is responsible for winning the championship, so LeBron is ultimately (and fairly) going to be judged by that standard. What the three days between Games 2 and 3 demonstrated was that he doesn't run from that judgment. "It starts with me," he said after Game 3. "We haven't had consistent play in the playoffs. We've just played well enough to win and we don't want to just play well enough to win. I can play the lay-back role a little more at home, wait to the second half, wait to the fourth quarter to close the games out."
But there's no waiting now, and LeBron is unlikely to make that mistake again. Of course, the issue with Cleveland is still whether LeBron's teammates are good enough, whether they're the stuff of champions. Shaquille O'Neal did hit 5 of 7 shots in Game 3, but 12 points and nine rebounds, which is a good game for him now, isn't going to deliver the Larry O'Brien Trophy. Mo Williams can be spectacular some nights, then have no impact the next two.
The rest of the band doesn't have anybody who could carry one solo number on an album. Probably, it's going to be Jamison (20 points, 12 rebounds, 5 offensive) who can take over the mic occasionally. LeBron still has to do too much, be too many things at the same time, too many nights.
But this is who the Cavaliers are, a still-flawed team built around a basketball marvel, one who can do so many things so well that executives from Los Angeles to New York to Miami go to bed at night envisioning him in their team's jersey. There's no vulnerability going into Game 4, just the possibility once again that the biggest, strongest, best player in the game can do anything to anybody.