This NBA season started with LeBron James in a happy place, a Samsung commercial showing James tooling around Miami with his boyz looking utterly content, pleased with himself and unburdened by expectations.
King James conquered the NBA’s game of thrones. And like King Joffrey, LeBron could not contain his glee. He opened the new season flouting the goodness of his life rather than touting his resolve to conquer again.
At this moment, this best-of-7 Finals series between the Heat and the Spurs is a reminder of familiar adages that apply to happiness and expectations. 1. Happiness is a journey, not a destination; 2. Happiness is based on expectations.
ESPN microphones caught San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich exhorting his team thusly: “It’s the NBA Finals; it’s supposed to be hard.”
The Spurs expected this, a knockdown, drag-out, roller-coaster series that would require Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and everyone else to search their souls and dig deeper than they ever imagined. The Heat had no such expectations. From the moment the injury-mangled Bulls upended Miami in Game 1 of an Eastern Conference semifinals series, the Heat have been caught mentally unready throughout these playoffs.
They have flirted with death. We should not be surprised. Their expectations were set at the creation of the Big Three. They predicted seven titles. They thought this whole dynasty thing would be relatively easy. It’s why they’ve struggled for three years in the postseason.
The Mavericks turned the Heat back in Year 1. The Pacers and the Celtics pushed Miami to the brink of embarrassment in Year 2. And now this.
Down 3-2 to the wily Spurs, facing elimination and chased back to King’s Landing in South Beach, it will be interesting to see if King James can rediscover the inner dark place that produced last year’s championship. Or are the Spurs and Popovich a duplicate of the Mavericks and Rick Carlisle, a group of unafraid, mature veterans with the right coach and proper strategy?
I do not know the answer. I do know what James must do Tuesday night and in a potential Game 7. He has to leave his happy place. He must mentally go to the place he went a year ago when he tired of Danny Granger’s mouth and felt desperate with the Heat behind 2-1. James dropped 40-15-9 on the Pacers and caused Larry Bird to call his team “soft.”
James must mentally go to the place he went a year ago when the Celtics took a 3-2 lead and Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo showed the Heat no respect. James fell into a trance, dropped 45-15-5 on Boston and caused Dan Le Batard and Miami media to speak in tongues.
Can Mr. Nice Guy James find that dark place again?
It’s easier to find with familiar Eastern Conference foes baiting James. Joakim Noah and the Bulls hate the Hollywood-as-hell Heat. Granger and the Pacers hate the flopping-ass Heat. Pierce and Garnett hate everyone not wearing green. The Bulls, Pacers and Celtics bring out the beast in James.
The Spurs do and say little. They don’t foul hard. They don’t talk smack. They’re extremely respectful of LeBron’s skill and intellect.
In fact, it appears they’re using LeBron’s brain against him. LeBron’s nature is to play fundamentally sound basketball. If you double him, he passes. If you put a bigger defender on him, he won’t post up. If a help defender clogs his driving lane, he’ll retreat or swing the ball.
In Game 5, Popovich played Boris Diaw for 27 minutes. He spent the majority of those minutes guarding James. Think about that. Diaw is 31 years old with a 40-year-old body. He looks like Oliver Miller’s little brother.
This was a recipe for LeBron to score 50 or 60 points. Seriously, Jordan or Kobe in their primes would’ve caused Diaw to retire at halftime. Team defense wouldn’t matter. Diaw cannot contest LeBron’s 18-foot jumper. Can’t do it. LeBron has knocked down that shot all year. Somehow, Diaw has baited LeBron into probing for penetration, which is cut off by a help defender, and then settling for a contested, fading or moving 14-footer. LeBron shot 8-of-22 and scored 25 points.
If LeBron is looking for motivation the rest of this series, there is no bigger sign of disrespect than the reigning MVP being defended by Oliver Miller’s little brother in the NBA Finals.
I’m not joking. This is unprecedented. This is Jerry Sloan putting Adam Keefe on Michael Jordan.
LeBron James fled Cleveland because he did not enjoy having to impose his will every night for the Cavaliers to have a chance at winning. He expected things to be easier in Miami. They’re not. The crown is heavy wherever its worn.