NBA Playoffs Cavs Celtics Game 6: The LeBron referendum


James_solo.jpgUsually when a sportswriter makes the statement “Game X is the most important game of Player X’s career” it belies a rather pathetic lack of imagination and a pandering to traditional cliched writing. Every playoff game is the most important one, because every one could end up defining his career. What do people remember more, Hakeem Olajuwon’s performances in the Finals, or his domination of David Robinson? That’s what can happen. You have to approach every game like that, because these things aren’t scripted.

So please understand the gravity of the situation when I say that Game 6 in Boston of the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals is the most important game of LeBron James’ career.

The once-and-future-King may never reach his throne if he were to fail tonight to carry his top-seeded Cavaliers to a win. James, as you may have heard in about a billion ways and we told you the other night, had a performance that puts a blemish on his ridiculously brilliant career, one which threatens to submarine his entire legacy if Boston closes out at home as any Finals contender would do.

James’ performance has been shredded from coast to coast. We’re not talking “oh, hey, bad time to have a bad game” territory. We’re talking “maybe this guy just doesn’t have the will of a champion, because he had zero effort” land. It has brought about what may be the most staggering repudiation of a player’s status as the pre-eminent Greatest Player of Our Time. James faces a mark against his permanent record that would be akin in the job marketplace to “once set fire to his boss’ office while engaging in inappropriate behavior with the cleaning lady on the boss’ desk.” That’s what “doesn’t have the will to be great” means in the NBA for a player of his status.

One thing that’s been occurring to me over the past two days, along with how ridiculous it is that people are questioning whether he is the best player in the NBA* , is that James has never needed the drive to succeed. He just has. Since he was probably 13, he’s been a phenom. A legend. He was the best player on the court, until he arrived in the NBA, and then he was probably second or third at worst, and then only for a few seasons. He made the Finals at age 22. He was the MVP at 24. He’s averaged 49.9 wins per season since entering the league. He has had the full weight of Nike behind him since the beginning. He has been the crown jewel of the league arguably for the last four seasons. He’s never been faced with a situation where he was legitimately challenged to the degree he is now, never faced with so much pressure to be the difference between a win and a loss.

This isn’t to say that this should be all on him. Every great player has had great players step up to provide support when the shots aren’t falling. And the Cavs have never, not with all their trades, not with all their time to do do, have never brought in a true number two option for James. They thought it would be Antawn Jamison, but Jamison has ran into a matchup nightmare in the Celtics. It’s just not every game you have to check Kevin Garnett who suddenly feels 30 again. Shaquille O’Neal brought 21 points on 11 shots in Game 5, but it was largely irrelevant. And Mo Williams? Do we really even need to bring him up?

So tonight James is on his own. 1 on 5. And if he wants to live up to the expectations that have been built for him, or that he has built for himself (depending on who you talk to), he’s going to have to put it all on his shoulders.

Or elbow, as it were.

And by playing, by not sitting out, by not opting for surgery, if indeed he needs it as the rumors continue to suggest, he has opened himself for this. The elbow will not be accepted as an excuse. It will not be considered brave that he tried to play through a severe injury. It will be only that he shrunk in the biggest moments. His Game 5 in 2007 will be a footnote. His Finals appearance will be overshadowed by the valley of nothingness his past two years. And with the very real possibility of him relocating to another franchise in the next two months, this may be his last shot at a championship for a few seasons.

This is how quickly things can change. This is how fast you can go from the best player, on the best team, headed to a championship, to a weak-willed self-entitled player that lacks the killer drive.

The truth, of course, lies in the middle. But that doesn’t lower the expectations on him for his career, for his season, for tonight.

If anyone can rise up in this situation, well, it’s probably Kobe Bryant. But it’s also Dwyane Wade. And Paul Pierce. And Steve Nash. And LeBron James. He can do this.The Celtics are gameplanning for him, but it does not mean they can stop him. When he chose to in Game 5, he drove, he collected fouls. Were he to execute as he is capable of, he could simply foul out the entire Celtics’ frontcourt. But he has to accept the hit, and he has to commit to the drive.

Maybe the jumpshot will return. Maybe the two days of rest will be enough for the elbow. Maybe the constant hammering by the media will motivate him to be what he needs to be. Or maybe the shots will just drop.  But this is not a situation where James can rely on the favorable fortune that has been bestowed on him throughout the last 15 years of his life. Tonight, he cannot be a passive recipient of fate.

Tonight, he has to be the whirlwind instrument of it.

*Does anyone remember how brilliant he was in the regular season? I recognize the importance of the playoffs, but those games did count, and without them, you don’t make the postseason.

Bulls’ Dunleavy to see specialist after suffering setback with back injury

Mike Dunleavy, Joakim Noah
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CHICAGO—Over the past few weeks, Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy has seemed to be making progress in his back rehab. Dunleavy underwent back surgery shortly before the start of training camp and was initially given a timeline of 8-10 weeks. Recently, he’s been increasing his workload, and he traveled with the team on their recent west coast road trip.

However, his recovery may have hit a snag.

“Mike is going to see a doctor again tomorrow and then we should have a better update after that,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said after practice on Sunday. “He had a little bit of soreness. But we’ll have more on that tomorrow.”

An update to Dunleavy’s status is coming, but given Dunleavy’s age (35) and the frequency of back injuries to reoccur, this news certainly isn’t encouraging. Between Tony Snell and Doug McDermott, the Bulls have struggled at both ends of the floor on the wing. Getting Dunleavy back, whenever that happens, will be a huge help. But nobody knows when that will be.

Stan Van Gundy calls out Andre Drummond’s effort after loss to Thunder

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After a promising start to the season, the Pistons have lost three of their last four games and seven of their last 10. And although he’s been outstanding for most of the season, Andre Drummond has not been above receiving criticism from Stan Van Gundy. The coach called out Drummond’s effort on Friday night after a loss to the Thunder.

Via Sportando:

“I didn’t think he brought much energy to the Milwaukee game, and I didn’t think he brought much energy tonight,” Van Gundy said of the two beatings the Pistons received this week. “Why that is, I don’t know. But we need a lot more from him than we got tonight.”

Calling out your best player in the media is bold, but Van Gundy has enough of a track record and a reputation, going back to his days in Orlando with Dwight Howard, that he can get away with it. It also sends a message to the entire team that Van Gundy isn’t going to hold his star to a different standard than the rest of the team.

Despite a couple of poor performances, Drummond is having a career year, leading the league in rebounding at 17.1 per game while also averaging 17.9 points.

Lopez twins don’t live together because their cats don’t get along

Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez
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The Lopez twins have always been close. They were teammates at Stanford, they’re both heavily into comic books (and even write their own together), and they both have Instagram accounts for their cats (here’s Brook’s cat, Poupin, and Robin’s cat, Prince Edward Zephyr). So naturally, this summer, when Brook re-signed with the Nets and Robin signed with the Knicks, the logical thing to do would be to live together. Apparently that isn’t happening, because their cats don’t get along.

Via Kirsten Fleming of the New York Post:

“Brook’s cat is very two-faced,” Robin tells The Post. “Everybody loves Brook’s cat. To everybody’s face, he’s such a nice cat. And it may sound like I’m joking, but I am dead serious. He acts like a lazy, sweet cat when everybody is looking. But when their heads turn, he’ll try to chase after [my cat] Edward. The second I lay eyes on him, he’ll act like, ‘I’m a cherub. I’m innocent.’ I’m not buying it.”

Brook agrees that it would be a bad idea.

“We thought about it,” Brook tells The Post. “But the cats really wouldn’t get along. They just wouldn’t allow it.”

This is an extremely valid reason, even though it’s a disappointing. The Lopez twins are two of the most entertaining people in the NBA, and them living together would have had off-the-charts reality TV potential.

Byron Scott isn’t thinking about next year’s draft

Byron Scott

A month into the season, the Lakers the only team in the Western Conference that can absolutely be written out of any hopes of playoff contention. They’re in an awkward position with the upcoming draft: they still need talent long-term, and they owe their pick to the Sixers if it’s outside of the top three. Not surprisingly, Byron Scott isn’t thinking about it at all.

Via Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News:

With the Lakers fielding the NBA’s second-worst record, how much effort will the franchise put in retaining its top-3 protected draft pick?

“I don’t think about that whatsoever,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said. “I probably won’t until April. That’s something I can’t control.”

The Lakers are in a precarious position. They appear likely bad enough to lose a lot of games. But will they lose enough to land in the top three? Otherwise, the Lakers owe Philadelphia their first-round pick as part of the Steve Nash trade.

“It’s impossible to think about the team, try to get our young guys better, the team better and also thinking about a pick,” Scott said. “That’s six months away and you might not even get it.”

Given Scott’s mentality, it’s not at all surprising that he isn’t thinking about the draft. But with his insistence on playing Kobe Bryant and Lou Williams more crunch-time minutes on this dismal Lakers team than D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson, it’s pretty laughable that he talks about wanting to develop their young players.

Scott may not be thinking about the draft, but with the position the franchise is in and the likelihood that they lose their pick, he should be.