LeBron James had one of the best playoff performances in NBA history in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons on Thursday. In the double overtime thriller, LeBron scored 48 points and almost singlehandedly willed the Cavs to victory. He scored his team's final 25 points and 29 out of his team's last 30. Not only was LeBron solid throughout the entire game, but he seemed to get stronger as the game went on. He hit big shot after big shot, each one more difficult and seemingly impossible than the next. He dribbled around defenders, split double teams, drove the lane, jumped over forwards and centers, and threw down dunks so ferocious that it was surprising to see the rim still attached to the basket.
And somehow LeBron is only 22 years old.
But you've heard all of this before, though, right? LeBron is supposed to "save" the NBA or whatever that means. He's supposed to be the next Michael Jordan, even though so many before have been compared to the NBA's greatest player. Kobe Bryant is supposed to be Jordan, Dwayne Wade is supposed to be Jordan, and even the artist formerly known as Isiah Rider was supposed to be Jordan (that worked out well.) I don't watch basketball games hoping to see LeBron turn into Jordan. There was only one, and there will only ever be just one MJ.
But where do these ideas come from? I don't think they come from basketball fans. Usually when fans are sitting at home watching games, they just want to see something amazing happen. They want to see something exciting, and they want to see some kind of superhuman performance that they'll remember for a long time. LeBron's performance wasn't the greatest of all time, but how could it have been? In an era where it's easier to say something sucks rather than how great it is, is it really even possible to say that LeBron's 48-point Game 5 was the best single-game feat ever? Probably not.
A lot of these ideas and interpretations come from the 24-hour sports world of today -- namely ESPN. Throughout any day of the week, anything and everything from the sports world is endlessly dissected, and that's not a bad thing necessarily. But each act or performance is compared to anything else that has ever been done before, and often analysts and commentators search for connections that just aren't there. If a basketball player has an amazing game in the playoffs, then maybe, just maybe, he'll keep playing that well and morph into Magic Johnson or MJ. The same is true for every other sport.
The point, for me at least, is that it doesn't matter who LeBron could be down the road or who he could possibly play like -- no one has ever had the kind of physical ability matched with talent that LeBron has. And that's hard to say because I'm not a big LeBron fan (liking the Wizards and all.) When LeBron went flying through the air twice in a row late in the 4th quarter to throw down monster dunks over the Pistons, I wasn't sitting there thinking of something else he could do or trying to compare him to another player. I was in shock; LeBron made those plays look so easy. When LeBron hit one fade-away jumper after another, I couldn't turn away from the TV. It didn't matter what people had done before him or where it ranked as an all-time performance because all that mattered was the moment. Whether or not it was the best was irrelevant, but remembering all the big shots and remembering the overall feeling of the entire game is what's important.
With all of that said now, LeBron's job isn't done yet. The Cavs are expected to finish out the series at home and beat the Pistons in Game 6. They have all of the momentum, and they aren't really the underdog anymore. Detroit will probably have some new schemes ready for how to defend LeBron, since no one else on the Cavs really even needed to do anything in either of the OT periods since LeBron was on fire. Or maybe they won't be prepared since Flip Saunders is their coach.
I know that it's tough to defend someone as strong, quick, and athletic as LeBron James, but the Pistons looked almost scared of him as the game wore on. When LeBron threw down one of his dunks in the 4th quarter, Jason Maxiel had the unfortunate task of guarding him one-on-one after a switch. Why didn't the Pistons send an extra defender? All LeBron had to do was make one quick move and he was in the lane, and no one can stop him when he gets that deep in the paint anyway.
I would try and explain the reasons why the Pistons need to foul him harder and slam him to the ground a couple times, but apparently that's not the way the NBA works anymore. After seeing Antonio McDyess given a Flagrant-2 foul for his hard foul on Anderson Varejao and thereby ejected from the game, I'm not sure if it's possible to send a message in the league without getting severely penalized for it. If McDyess had committed that same foul on LeBron, he probably would be been suspended at least 1 game if not more, but since it was on Varejao, he was only given the flagrant (Varejao flops around all over the court anyway.)
Still, the Pistons need to find a way to funnel LeBron so that he can't get into the paint so easily. They need to mix their defenses and double him as much as possible. Even when they switched to a zone defense in the 2nd half for a stretch, the Cavs found it difficult to get an open shot -- the same thing happened when the Pistons set up a halfcourt trap that caused a Sasha Pavlovic turnover. They need to make the other players on the Cavs take big shots when the game's on the line. And if they don't, it'll be a Spurs-Cavs NBA Finals.
A couple more points:
- Seriously, what exactly is Drew Gooden trying to do with that patch of hair on the back of his head/neck? I don't know what that is, but it's just so odd-looking and extremely distracting. I propose that he should just play defense while facing the basket -- I'd never be able to hit a jump shot with that crazy hair patch facing me. He's been spending too much time with Scot Pollard. Or maybe it was this Scot Pollard. Either way, I'm scared.
- Shouldn't the Cavs just let LeBron James coach the team? Have you ever paid attention to their huddle when TNT or ESPN decides to stay at the game during a quick timeout? LeBron just yells instructions to everyone and Mike Brown just stands beside him nodding his head. I wonder if the Cavs locker room is just like the Mud Dogs' locker room in The Waterboy during their final game. Coach Kline: "Does anybody have any ideas?"
- If the Spurs don't destroy either team that comes out of the East, I will be completely surprised. The only thing that would change my mind is if Manu Ginobili actually admitted to committing a foul during the Finals at any point. Then, I'd be worried for them.