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What Happened to LeBron James in the NBA Finals?

Lebron’s disappearing act in the 2011 NBA Finals began innocently, in game two, when he misfired on a flurry of shots late, and Dallas stormed back from a 15-point deficit in the final seven minutes to knot the series at one. After that Miami Meltdown, LeBron was never the same in the fourth quarter of the Finals. He was tentative, unsure and timid, clearly not wanting to be the one who cost his team a victory.

Sure, he had the game-winning assist in game three, but you could tell he didn’t want the ball in the clutch even then. To Lebron, the ball was a hot potato in the fourth quarter of this series, and last night, LeBron would rather shovel it to Mario Chalmers or Eddie House for a 3-pointer with Miami down seven and the season on the line. That’s staggering.

But as he went through another puzzling game Sunday — dishing repeatedly to Juwan Howard at the rim instead of taking the ball to the basket himself, passing up wide-open shots when the ball came his way, standing and watching on defense like it was a summer camp drill at times — it got more and more clear.

The big question is why. Some credit certainly goes to the Dallas zone defense, which kept LeBron out of the lane. But the bulk of LeBron’s 4th quarter struggles … are on LeBron. Mentally, he cowered like a frightened turtle in the 4th quarter against the Mavericks. What makes this so puzzling for armchair psychologists is the fact that LeBron was dominant late against the Celtics and Bulls just a few weeks ago. He was confident, aggressive and dominant in carrying the Heat to the Finals. Did that failure against the Mavs’ in game two get in his head?

For all of you that rip LeBron in the comments today, and for the next six months, here’s his message to you:

“They have to wake up and have the same life that they had before they woke up today … the same personal problems,” James said. “I’m going to continue to live the way that I want to live. … But they have to get back to the real world at some point.”

There’s nothing real about James’ world, and never has been. He’s a prisoner of a life that his sycophants and enablers and our sporting culture has created for him. He’s rich and talented and something of a tortured soul. He’s the flawed superstar for these flawed times. He’s a creation of a basketball breeding ground full of such twisted priorities and warped principles. Almost every person who’s ever had to work closely with him, who has spent significant time, who’s watched him belittle and bully people, told me they were rooting hard against him. That’s sad, and that’s something he doesn’t understand and probably never will.

Here are some people celebrating in Dallas. Sports fans in Cleveland enjoyed the schadenfreude, too.

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