Time for LeBron, Heat to show true selves

BY foxsports • June 6, 2012

They play for everything now.

The Miami Heat, down 3-2 in the NBA
Eastern Conference finals to the Boston Celtics and facing elimination
Thursday night, have two games to salvage everything: Erik Spoelstra’s
job. LeBron James’ reputation. Dwyane Wade’s pride. Pat Riley’s supposed
all-time free-agency coup. The Big Three itself.

The time for
self-delusion is over. Stop screaming LeBron is clutch because his stats
are eye-popping. Stop saying Spoelstra, a very bright basketball man
unable to stick with a single rotation for more than 24 hours, knows
what he’s doing.

Stop saying talk of the Heat’s collapsibility is
a malicious illusion — an unholy lie — pulled from thin air by
senseless haters.

Stop pretending all that goes wrong doesn’t go
wrong and that all the obvious weaknesses LeBron and the Heat too often
put on display don’t actually exist.

These protestations are as
stupid, senseless and off-base as those who say LeBron James is a bad
guy or a bad basketball player. He’s neither. He’s a complicated human
being, maybe the most complicated in sports. Nuance defines him more
than the absolutist rhetoric from those who love and loathe him.

In
a game and a series with few certainties, there are a few things we
know for sure: We know LeBron is the most talented basketball player on
earth, and when he is great, he is unlike any player before him. We know
that very often LeBron doesn’t play well enough late in big games —
that there is a tension, a passivity, that takes hold of his superior
talent and diminishes it. We know LeBron has the talent to overcome
that, and we know LeBron hasn’t overcome it yet.

These are also
facts: Spoelstra is over his head. Wade plays the same position as
LeBron and has not found a way to change his game enough to make it
work. The Celtics are tougher and grittier than Miami but no longer more
talented. The Big Three are on the verge of becoming the biggest, most
over-celebrated airball in NBA history.

We know those things, but there’s no telling what comes next. No one knows that.

The
Heat can win the next two games, and if that happens I will not be
surprised. But the Heat can also lose Game 6 on Thursday night, or they
could win Game 6 and then lose Game 7 at home. This is a team capable of
long runs, both great and awful, and it is hard to know whether the
dominant team or the diminished team will arrive in Boston in an effort
to keep its season going.

The Heat play for survival now. They
play for redemption. They play for pride. And they play, as they did in
the Finals last year, to offer an answer to another argument that has
helped define this NBA season.

The Big Three’s Miami alliance
created a schism among NBA fans that has carried through to this season.
On the one side are those who still believe fervently in the Heat’s —
and in LeBron’s — unfettered greatness. This group sees any
contradiction to its view or criticism of LeBron as an act of hatred and
ignorance.

On the other side are those, including myself, who
believe in LeBron’s greatness and the Heat’s potential — but believe
just as strongly that there are some missing pieces that jeopardize the
potential and talent.

Something is missing in LeBron, something
that manifests itself most strongly and most often in those big moments
that stats can’t pinpoint. Those moments in sports when the air changes
and the heart speeds up and, even watching at home, there’s a thickness
in your throat and both fear and elation as you lean toward the TV and
hold your breath.

Call it pressure, call them big moments, call
it the time for being clutch, call it whatever you want. Whatever it is,
LeBron struggles in it. Apply the same litmus test as Supreme Court
Justice Potter Stewart offered for obscenity 48 years ago: “I shall not
today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be
embraced within that shorthand description … and perhaps I could never
succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”

So
do I. I know it when I see it when LeBron does not stand up straight in
the face of special moments. And so does LeBron. And so do the Heat.
When those moments come, too often LeBron and his team see it, they feel
it and retreat from it.

So it was even more galling that I
bought into the idea that all this swirling dysfunction was behind them.
I bought in even more — saw, as we do with LeBron, what I wanted to see
even more strongly — when the Heat jumped to a 2-0 series lead. I
believed. They were in charge, they had it sewn up, they had expertly
beaten back all the doubt that surfaced early in the Pacers series and
again in Game 2 of the conference finals when Boston pushed its way to
overtime.

This was the Heat team the believers saw, and for a
moment, I saw it, too: Four straight games of beauty, of Wade and LeBron
in harmonic tandem, a team that would take all comers, at last the
fulfillment of all the hype and promise the Big Three had been expected
to deliver last year.

The believers were right. For five games.

Then
came the other Heat team, the one pragmatists saw, the one I wrote
about and criticized all last season: the Heat team that loses its edge,
that suddenly drops three straight games of a series it has control
over, the team that features a three-time MVP who down the stretch of a
critical Game 5 on his home turf Tuesday night does so little that in
the end I can only feel hoodwinked.

So which Heat team is real
and lasting? And which LeBron James — which part of him, the greatness
we celebrate or the shortcomings we argue over — will win out against
the other?

One side can point to LeBron James’ 30 points and 13
rebounds in Game 5 to plead a case. The other side can note that LeBron,
in the final 7 minutes, 30 seconds of the game, was 1-for-4.

Or that he said this afterward: “We played good enough to give ourselves a chance to win. That’s all you can ask for.”

That’s all you can ask for?

How
about asking for a win? How about asking for your star, your MVP, to
take more than four shots in the final eight minutes of a close game? Or
that he hit more than one? How about asking that, if all this criticism
is just the haters, that the Heat go out there and actually get it
done?

I have my own guesses about which version of the Heat and
of LeBron James is real. I have suspicions. So do you. So do folks on
both sides of the LeBron James-Miami Heat divide. Deep down, we all know
the Heat are good enough to win the next two games and we all know they
can be weak enough to lose over and over.

Suspicions are fine. Guesses are good. Arguing over sports is a part of the pastime.

But
answers are finally coming. In Game 6, and in Game 7, if they make it
that far, the Heat will play to let us know who they really are.

You
can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or
email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.


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