CP3's star shines brighter than LeBron's

BY foxsports • January 12, 2012

Question one: Is LeBron
James — and by extension his team — still plagued with an ability to
cough away close games when the pressure mounts and the klieg lights
grow brighter?

Wednesday’s dose of clarity: Sure seems like it.

Question
two: Are the Clippers — still adjusting to one another, still in the
shadow of the Lakers, still, well, the Clippers — actually moving into
the realm of the league’s elite teams?

The answer: Yes.

Do
not let these things get lost in the drama of the night — in a great
game, in Chris Paul’s 27-point performance, in a phenomenal defensive
battle, in the fact the Heat are still 8-3 or the Clippers are just 5-3.

Despite
shooting 37 percent from the field in the first half and having only
one offensive scheme, called “Thank God For Chris Paul,” the Clippers
underscored their rise with the win as much as the Heat’s remaining
Achilles’ heel.

Make no mistake: Miami remains the best team in
the league, just as LeBron, who led the Heat with 23 points, remains the
best player in the regular season (and in fourth quarters that don’t
require any response to pressure). But it’s the question of his nearly
inarguable weakness — the one that cost him a championship in June —
that will stick with the Chosen One and his chosen team until they win a
championship.

It’s hard to know if the Finals debacle was able to
reach and really teach LeBron, or if it’s just more scar tissue atop a
mental wound that will continue to plague key moments of his career. But
the evidence of the past two games is not so good for Heat fans.

First
the Heat coughed up a 17-point third-quarter lead to the middling
Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night, thanks in large part to LeBron
taking just one shot and having zero rebounds and zero assists in the
fourth quarter. The same disappearing act that cost his team a
championship last summer.

On Wednesday, to be fair, LeBron stepped up and tried. That is very good news. The bad news is he couldn’t get it done.

LeBron
was 0 for 3 in overtime with no points. He had eight points despite
1-of-3 shooting in the fourth quarter because he made six free throws.
But two of his four missed free throws came with the game on the line
and Miami scrapping for survival.

He summoned only enough to get
the Heat to an overtime he would play no part in, and so the LeBron
conundrum continues: His line on the night was 23 points, 13 rebounds
and seven assists — great numbers. And his impact was great enough to
look good on paper, bad enough to contribute to the loss.

“That’s great, compelling, playoff basketball in early January,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward.

Exactly. It was a lot like playoff basketball, and LeBron seemed a lot like the guy who still can’t handle it.

And
then — no joke — he said this afterward: “Last night we weren’t
satisfied with the way we lost. Tonight — when you play that game
possession after possession, we played Miami Heat basketball, defended,
gave ourselves a chance to win — we can be satisfied. We don’t like to
lose but we’re not going to hang our heads about this one.”

Satisfied? Seriously, dude?

Kobe
Bryant would not be satisfied. Kobe would hang his head. Same goes for
Derrick Rose, Dirk Nowitzki and any other mega-talent on a team with
championship expectations.

Satisfied?

Remember June, LeBron. Remember the pain. Let it guide you. Let it never allow you to be satisfied with a night like this again.

Hopefully
LeBron wakes up one of these days — like, today — and understands he’s
not playing for the Philadelphia 76ers or the Memphis Grizzlies or, yes,
the Cleveland Cavaliers. He plays for the Heat, they of the Big Three,
they of championship dreams and stunning talent, and so losing like this
should never, ever be satisfying.

On the other side of this
thing was a Clippers team that was the Heat’s opposite in most every
way. They are not yet in sync, as the Heat seem to be despite the loss
(their issues no longer involve learning to play together), a fact made
clear by an offense that was more black hole than well-oiled machine.
They still are finding their way, still awkward at times, and they
looked overmatched by the Heat — wholly outclassed — the entire first
half.

And they had Paul, who on Wednesday night was the
anti-LeBron — taking his team on his shoulders, wanting the ball,
hitting those shots, turning his line of 27 points, 11 assists and six
rebounds into victory.

“He was unbelievable,” said Clippers
forward Blake Griffin, who accounted for 20 points and 12 rebounds. “He
is so tough to guard because you never know what he’s going to do. He
can hit that jumper or get to the rim, shoot a floater or pass it — and
that is why he is the best.”

When LeBron took the ball, the air got claustrophobic with tension. When Paul took the ball, it got electric with expectation.

CP3 has the power to turn his team — and a very nice roster — into a wildly dangerous force come playoff time.

How
dangerous? More clarity on that, and on Miami, will come soon. The
Clippers play the Lakers on Saturday, and the Heat’s next four are at
Denver and then home against the Spurs, Lakers and Sixers.

There’s
still a long way to go, and it’s still possible what happened in June
can reach LeBron, and teach LeBron, in a way nothing has before. I’m
just less certain of it after Wednesday’s game.

And, in the same
way, I stand by the fact that the Clippers could give the Lakers a run
for their money this season as the best team in Los Angeles. They were
gritty, tough and fearless against the best team in the league. And they
have a star who is a winner and a closer with a killer instinct and the
ability to create his own shot or a good one for a teammate.

If
CP3 keeps taking over games and flashing the kind of magic he did
Wednesday at Staples Center — and if LeBron keeps shrinking in moments
that demand he rises — we’ll have more answers to the compelling
questions that will shape the future of the NBA by this time next year.


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