Saturday, June 11, 2011

LeBron James Now = Magic Johnson in 1984

(I honestly didn't want to write a Finals piece. The overanalysis of LeBron's poor play has made folks who rationally criticize him turn to defenders because people are trying to rewrite his legacy every game. It's sucked the fun out of a great series and I've actually boycotted Sportscenter and most media reports since Wednesday. But in my usual form, I decided to write something nobody has brought up to distract me from being jaded. Just real talk and hoops analysis.)

Amidst all the irrational and blustering talk about LeBron James' legacy changing game-after-game (and the overshadowing of the Dallas Mavericks playing on an incredible level since the Game 2 comeback), I want to just suggest one thing as a rational hoops fan that loves the game more than hating a player.

LeBron James is proving once again why he's more Magic than Michael. I've said it before but I realize it now watching this series. LeBron James in 2011 is Magic Johnson in 1984.

For those who don't get it, the 1984 Finals between the Lakers and Celtics has been regarded by folks as the series that helped make the NBA a success in the eyes of marketers and the general public. It was the first meeting between Magic and Larry Bird and it was a 7-game series where the Celtics won in almost dominating fashion.

If you're want further comparisons to Dallas and Miami, the Lakers won Game 1, blew Game 2 on the famous Gerald Henderson steal, blew Game 4 and a 5-point lead with a minute left (the famous Kevin McHale clothesline to Kurt Rambis) and fell short during a Game 7 rally. Up to my last point, does that sound familiar to 2011?

Let's get more familiar. In each of those games, Magic played a key role in contributing to those losses and was infamously called Tragic by Boston fans. He was labeled a choke artist and on the heels of embarrassingly swept in the 1983 NBA Finals and being accused of a coach-killer, his reputation was in tatters despite his greatness.

Heck, this was the man who had one of the greatest NBA Finals games ever. He'd already won two rings and by 24, he was the best point guard in the game who appeared in 4 NBA Finals in his first 5 seasons. His 1000-watt smile had earned him fans across the country and made him beloved in L.A. But after coming up short again, all of that didn't matter.

Gee, does that remind you of anyone? A certain Miami Heat player who has been destroyed for his fourth-quarter screw-ups and seen his legacy ripped to shreds despite being hailed for times when he's come through before. Granted Miami didn't start on the road like the Lakers did but aside from that, this is the same scenario. LeBron also doesn't have Magic's two rings at the time but he does have two MVP trophies to his name.

Let's kill the myth that LeBron James is not clutch. The reason most of us real hoops fans are upset (not Cleveland fans, not anti-LeBron fans) is because we've seen LeBron rise up before and are mystified why he's playing so passively. And not passively as in body language but passive in his play.

I'm just showing folks that what LeBron is doing has precedent. He's on a Miami Heat team that hasn't been tested since right after the All-Star break with the crying game. Name to me the last championship team that wasn't battle tested before they got a ring. Even the Heat's inspiration, the 2008 Celtics, were tested in seven games in the first two rounds and their Big 3 had suffered big losses in the postseason.

Miami breezed through Philadelphia, ran through a weakened Boston Celtics squad and overpowered a not-ready-for-prime-time Chicago Bulls squad. Then they assumed they'd beat up a Dallas team that would either be overwhelmed in the end.

I'm not making excuses, I'm giving out facts. What's happening to Miami is exactly what most of us thought would happen against Boston before the Celtics got old and traded Kendrick Perkins. What's happening to LeBron is shocking considering this is the same guy that killed the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals while destroying Derrick Rose in the worst MVP-handcuffing since Hakeem Olajuwon schooled David Robinson in the 1995 Western Conference Finals.

Should Miami lose this series, LeBron needs to study Magic. Read his book with Larry Bird and study how he soaked in all the disappointment of 1984. Magic vowed to get better and he worked hard to improve his game. LeBron needs to ask Magic directly about that summer because what happened after that summer changed the NBA title landscape. Inspired by that heartbreak, the Lakers won 3 of the next 4 titles and cemented their legacy as the team of the 80's.

Will this inspire LeBron? We know what he hasn't done (maybe more than what he has done). He has yet to make his presence felt fully in these Finals despite his triple-double in Game 5 and has become as much pitied as scorned by America. Whatever the case is, he's being tried by fire and getting burned by the pressure instead of heating up

This is his 4th straight year of staring down a disappointing playoff loss. 2008 - losing the Game 7 shootout with Paul Pierce, 2009 - getting blasted by Orlando despite his incredible scoring, 2010 - the last ride with Cleveland where despite 27 points, 19 rebounds and 10 steals (while shooting a poor 8-for-21 with 9 turnovers), he's accused of quitting.

Now, he faces a humbling defeat and for the first time in a year, he's realizing how much harder he has to work to become great. Either he finally rises up in the next game or two and becomes the player he (and the rest of us) expect him to be or like Magic Johnson 27 years ago, prepare for the longest summer of his career and use it as fuel.

Once again, the Decision is his.

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