Why LeBron James refuses to always play like he did in Game 5
As spectacular as LeBron James' thrilling Game 5 performance was, there was something rather maddening about the whole thing. You could hear it in the chorus of basketball fans crying out with one specific question:
Why doesn't LeBron always play like this?
The short answer is simple: He's smarter than all of us.
It's not that people expect James to put up 41 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists every night; it's more about the way that LeBron filled up the box score in one of the biggest games of his career. He attacked the rim with a vengeance, made quick decisions, and punished mismatches.
But that's not how he typically plays these days, which is absolutely infuriating. We've watched LeBron give away multiple title chances with seemingly passive play and a lack of that oh-so-important killer instinct that guys like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan so famously had in abundance.
LeBron, though, has always been more Magic Johnson than Jordan. He'd rather seek the path of least resistance in an effort to find the "best" shot for his team than force the issue and take the onus on himself to either win or lose a game. That's his entire basketball philosophy:
Without an ounce of hyperbole, James might be the smartest basketball player we've seen in at least the past 20 years. What fans interpret as LeBron being passive on the perimeter is anything but a player paralyzed by fear; faced with the kind of buzzsaw defense the Golden State Warriors play, for example, James turns into a supercomputer. He reads every action and tries to predict what comes next.
He's a student of the game. LeBron knows how the league has evolved, that the elimination of the illegal defense rule changed the way a superstar must play in the modern era. He understands that a player can just as easily shoot his team out of a series as win one with hero ball, because the opposing defense is always lurking with multiple help defenders in position before our fabled hero even catches the ball.
(Point of fact: While Kobe banged his head against the wall as an isolation-heavy player until his last days, Jordan wouldn't have been the same killer we lionize if he had played today. He would have passed more and shot less. That's how you win in today's game -- not through individual heroics, but with a holistic team effort.)
LeBron knows this better than anyone. He tried for years during his first Cleveland stint to be the alpha dog who carried his team to a championship. And all he got for his efforts was a crushing sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in 2007 (the 22-year-old LeBron's fifth year in the league, mind you; Jordan didn't make his first Finals until he was a 28-year-old in his seventh season).
He saw in Miami what a team can accomplish when it's a cohesive unit. And he will go down swinging for the rest of his career fighting that good fight. He's not tempted by the glory that comes with taking every shot in the clutch, because that's just not how this works in the modern NBA. Even Jordan passed, and he did so multiple times.
In fact, that "passive" strategy was the game LeBron played for most of the first quarter in Game 5. By our count, there were at least three times he expertly pulled multiple defenders in his direction before he even caught the ball, positioned himself perfectly 12 feet from the basket, forced a hard double (or triple) team, then threw one of the most amazing passes you'll ever see to a wide-open shooter.
It's not LeBron's fault that J.R. Smith is doing what he does in the Finals, regressing to a replacement-level player on the biggest stage, and it's not LeBron's fault that Kevin Love is a broken shell of a basketball player -- beyond the fact that LeBron brought Love to Cleveland, of course. Still, he's going to trust in his teammates and their particular skills until he has no other option.
So when that strategy clearly wasn't working in Game 5, LeBron switched gears. He picked a different tactic that he believed would help his team win, finally putting his head down and going to the rim.
Of course he did! One of the best defenders in the league was next door taking in a baseball game and being serenaded with MVP chants. When circumstances change -- like Draymond Green getting suspended -- you change with them. Andre Iguodala gets all of the credit for "shutting down" LeBron in two straight Finals, but that's a simplistic view of things. It's the combined efforts of Iguodala on the ball and Green rotating on the backline that creates such a daunting roadblock for the King. There's not a better tandem in the league for defending LeBron and what he does, and he knows it. Take away either of the primary components, however, and LeBron will change course.
Again, none of this makes LeBron's uneven play any less frustrating. We can't see the game the way he does or know what he knows. What we can do, however, is sit on our couches and scream at the TV that he needs to take over the game. Then, when he does, we grin in smug satisfaction, knowing that if only we were LeBron, we'd be 7-for-7 in the Finals.
And in so doing, we ignore that James still did things his way late into Game 5. As Kyrie Irving caught fire, LeBron on several possessions drifted to the corner, sucking Golden State's defense in his direction and giving his point guard room to cook. Only James could emulate Stephen Curry's off-ball gravity while channeling Michael Jordan.
We'll remember Monday night as one of James' greatest games, as we should. But to hold it as a shining example of what LeBron needs to do in every big game is a fool's conclusion.