The Miami Heat did not lose Thursday night because of LeBron James.
But they didn’t win because of him either.
That is ultimately the challenge that lies before him — he cannot be merely good, not if he is to meet the expectations put upon him, ones he encouraged and welcomed — he needs to be legendary. And he has been nothing of the sort.
A lot of factors went into Dallas taking a 3-2 lead in the NBA finals, a lot of reasons the Heat lost — Miami’s slower rotations defensively early that let Dallas get into a shooting rhythm, Dallas then hitting 13-of-19 from three, and Dallas executed better in the fourth quarter. Again.
Those are not on LeBron, those are on the Miami Heat.
LeBron had a good game, he had an unassuming triple double if that is possible (17 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists). He tried to be more aggressive but Dallas continued to keep a defensive focus on him and so he made the basketball play every high school coach calls for and passed to the open man.
But we expect more from LeBron.
He is the best player walking the planet earth right now. The most gifted. With that we expect him not to be good in big games, we expect him to absolutely dominate. To impose his will and lead his team to victory. When Dwyane Wade got injured we expected LeBron to take over, to dominate the game in a way we have come to expect superstars to do.
He did not.
LeBron is being measured against our expectations of him, against the memories left us by other greats. That is a nearly impossible standard to live up to, but that is the price of his incredible gifts.
Right now, all great players are measured against Michael Jordan. A guy who, when faced with a team floundering in the finals, took over to put on heroic performances. In the last two seasons Kobe Bryant, though not as great or efficient a player as Jordan, tried to fulfill that archetype by getting angry, playing through pain and willing his team to rings.
In Game 5, LeBron fell well short of that standard. He was not angry dominant. And fair or not, that is the standard he will be measured against.
That can change. His legacy is far from defined. There are two more chances this season (if the Heat are to win) where he could prove greatness and lead his team to a comeback victory and a ring. Beyond that, right now we are at the midpoint of LeBron’s NBA career and to say that this series will define how we think of him in a decade is ridiculous.
But today, right now, LeBron James has not lived up to the expectations before him.
What makes a great dramatic hero — from great literature to a comic book hero — is a person who must grow, be better than even they thought they could be to overcome a resilient and seemingly unstoppable opponent. They must pass a challenge even greater than they expected. That is where LeBron James finds himself heading into Game 6. The chance to become greater than he had expected and to fulfill the destiny that has seemingly been before him since he was a high school sophomore. It’s not really fair to put all that on him, but he has never shrunk from welcoming that challenge. By going to Miami, he invited it.
We’ll see Sunday if right now he is capable of living up to that.
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