Sunday, May 20, 2018
Sports

This has to be LeBron James' NBA Finals

It is all about him, of course. Isn't it always?

His teammates are fading, and the opposition is admirable, and the stage is huge. The lights are on, and the pressure is mounting, and the world is watching. And so, once again, the eyes turn to LeBron James. Where else would you look?

This is James' time, and this is his legacy, and more than anyone else, this has to be his NBA Finals.

Heaven help him if he is less than wonderful.

This is who he is, and this is what he does. The bigger the stage, the thinner the air, the more it is about LeBron. When the Heat played the Bulls, why, it was about LeBron's legacy. And when the Heat was pushed to Game 7 by the Pacers, that was about LeBron's legacy. And now the Spurs. LeBron's legacy, it seems, is a moving target.

In the end, however, it is always about the King and his Rings. Dwyane Wade goes 12 straight games without scoring 20, and still, it is about LeBron. Chris Bosh turns into the Incredible Shrinking Man, playing so badly he apologizes for it, and still, it is about LeBron. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and the rest of the Spurs blow into town like it's 2007 all over again, and yet, it is about LeBron.

It is about LeBron the way the NBA used to be about Michael Jordan, and about Magic Johnson, and about Bill Russell. And if James, in reputation, is going to sit at the big table with those guys, then he has to win this. He is the best player in the NBA, but so far, he has won one NBA title. As talented as James is, winning once is not enough for all-time greatness.

Yeah, yeah. The Spurs are a fine team, and given the sputtering of some of James' teammates, they are capable of squeezing out a last title before getting back to the retirement home. But you know what? Jordan wins this kind of series. Magic wins this kind of series. Russell wins this kind of series.

You want to put James with that company?

Then he needs to win this series.

Oh, you can talk about Wade's bruised knee all you want. And you can talk about how the Pacers made Bosh look ordinary. You can talk about the ageless Duncan, or the way Parker can whirl past an offense, or how Kawhi Leonard can lessen a great player's offense. But such things are details. The series will be decided with the ball in James' hands.

Who else's?

For James, it has been a remarkable year, one in which he recaptured a lot of the fans he had alienated with his display of arrogance in his televised "decision." Look, James didn't invent free agency, and he didn't invent the idea of leaving Cleveland. For crying out loud, the Lakers have been cherry-picking the rest of the league for years. But turning a business decision into his own game show was a burst of bad decisionmaking.

Lately, however, it's hard not to grin at James. He won an NBA title. He won another Olympic medal. He rushed onto the court to embrace a fan who had hit a midcourt shot. He played catch with a kid at courtside.

Oh, his critics are still there. They grouse about James' pregame dunks. They complain about his flopping, as if he is trying to win an Academy Award as well as another MVP. But the resistance is wearing down. Winning championships will do that for a player.

Lately, however, playing basketball has been lonely work for James. Wade has struggled with his bruised knee, and Bosh seemed overwhelmed by the Pacers' Roy Hibbert. In one four-game stretch, Bosh scored only 28 points and admitted to not being aggressive enough.

In the end, that won't matter. When Jordan was playing, it was never about how Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman were doing. When Russell was playing, it wasn't about how Jim Loscutoff (who won seven rings) was doing. The NBA is a league where the player who rises the highest can lift everyone else, too. The lead singer always brings home the trophies.

Odd, but the other day, James was talking about 2007, when his Cavs team lost to the Spurs in the Finals.

"I'm 20 times, 40 times, 50 times better now," James, 28, said.

Ah, but is James another ring better? That's the question. If you buy the Heat as a true super team, then it has to win more than one title, and maybe more than two.

That comes down to LeBron, and down to the essential moments when an essential player dominates. Like Jordan did. Like Magic did. Like Kobe and Oscar and Duncan and Havlicek did.

In the end, James has to own this Finals.

Maybe next year's, too.

. fast facts

When last we met

LeBron James and the Cavaliers were swept out of 2007 NBA Finals by the Spurs. How James fared in each game:

Game Pt. ReB. Ast.

1: L, 85-76 14 7 4

2: L, 103-92 25 7 6

3: L, 75-72 25 8 7

4: L, 83-82 24 6 10

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