From the couch: NBA superheroes fizzle

The NBA playoffs were filled with commercials for summer movies like “Green Lantern,” “Captain America: First Avenger” and “X-Men: First Class,” which is appropriate for a league built around idolatry of its superstars.

During the deciding game of the NBA Finals, however, the superheroes in action mostly stepped on their capes, leaving it to role players to save the day – and throwing the media’s chattering class into sputtering chaos.

Instead of the legendary crunch-time performances traditionally associated with future Hall of Famers, the prevailing image from Game 6 will be of LeBron James driving into the lane without a clear purpose, Dwyane Wade dribbling the ball off his foot and Dirk Nowitzki clanking jumper after first-half jumper. At the same time, guys whose names aren’t on the list of top-selling jerseys – like Mario Chalmers and tiny J.J. Barea, who looks like he could be playing in my Tuesday-night pickup game – kept making shots and plays.

In Hollywood terms – and the league very much resembles the movie business’ two-tiered star system – Game 6 didn’t follow the script. The leading men are supposed to get all the big scenes, not what’s-his-name on the Dallas bench.

This last-minute rewrite happened to follow several days of hand-wringing about James’ un-heroic disappearing act in the fourth quarter of games, and a late surge of sympathy from some sportswriters about whether it was fair to place him under the microscope in this fashion. Yet the focus on James and the Heat’s star trio – along with Wade and Chris Bosh – assembled via last summer’s free-agent derby is the natural extension of a league that has turned superstars into superheroes, where everyone else is perceived as a bit player. Hell, the Clippers’ Blake Griffin has a slow-motion ad where he jumps over a dang car.

James didn’t invent this marketing strategy, but he took it to extreme heights by turning his choice on where to play into a self-aggrandizing variety show, titled “The Decision.” And since his sole rationale for teaming with Wade and Bosh was to pursue a championship, it’s understandable – and yes, fair – for the media to pile on when Superman, Batman and Robin get punked.

Hey, live by ESPN, die by ESPN.

Given the intense focus on superheroes, the media covering the game sounded a bit flummoxed when it was all over. As an example of this absurdity, in Dallas’ last two victories sideline reporter Doris Burke peppered post-game interviewees Tyson Chandler after Jason Terry with questions about – what else? – Nowitzki.

Then again, ABC’s broadcast trio of Mike Breen, Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy were slow to notice James’ fourth-quarter passivity – making almost no mention of it until the rest of the media pounced after the pivotal fourth game. Even then, they often sounded reluctant, though Van Gundy did hit the point several times on Sunday.

“Your best players have to play their best when their best is needed,” he said more than once.

But with eventual MVP Nowitzki struggling (hitting just 9 out of 27 shots), Sunday wasn’t a night for the best players – the guys with the Nike deals and superstar labels. It was, rather, a showcase for the better team.

For the NBA, of course, the Heat’s loss sustains a great storyline – namely, whether James can finally claim the title that has thus far eluded him. Provided that the league’s labor situation doesn’t derail the season, all those questions should still be minty fresh whenever play resumes.

James was asked during the postgame press conference if it bothered him that people rooted for him to fail. “At the end of the day, all the people rooting [for] me to fail … they got to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today,” he responded, adding, “They got to get back to the real world at some point.”

Maybe so, but just as we escape into movie theaters to see the X-Men or Green Lantern triumph, people take refuge in sports. And the target James chose to put on his back sure doesn’t look like a big red “S” right now.