Saturday, 11 June 2011

LeBron on the brink of proving America right

“This is a big game, probably the biggest game of my life… not probably, it is.”

That was LeBron James’ own declaration on Thursday ahead of Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

Unfortunately for James a 112-103 defeat to the Dallas Mavericks saw his Miami Heat fall 3-2 behind in the best-of-seven game series. The year-long referendum on his decision to swap Cleveland for South Beach just one game away from a definitive result.

Over the past week every aspect of LeBron’s game and psyche has been broken down, analysed, dissected and torn apart by the feeding pack of American sports radio hacks. On the one hand it has been the epitome of media overreaction, on the other it has been an entirely predictable reaction of James’ own making.

When the 25-year-old organised a prime-time TV show to tell the world he would be “taking his talents to South Beach” to team up with fellow All-Stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh last July, he instantly made himself a target to be shot at. And he has been, most notably in Cleveland, but all over the country in visiting arenas, on radio shows, blogs and twitter, it has become a national obsession to have a go at the man who was once the most loved player in the league.

Yet, when he and his teammates defied all the venom to make it to the finals, redemption was within touching distance. LeBron had always defended his move to Miami on the grounds that it was the best way for him to win championships and this was it. Or so it seemed.

The only remaining obstacle was a 7ft tall German who despite being a 10 time All-Star had always had to fight the choker tag. Dirk Nowitzki had managed to quieten those doubters just by dragging his Dallas side to the finals, but as the lone star on a veteran team it was assumed that Dallas wouldn’t be able to live with the athletic triumvirate of James, Wade and Bosh.

For the first 90 minutes of the series they couldn’t. With seven minutes to go in Game 2 Miami were cruising to a 2-0 lead until a Nowitzki inspired comeback sent Dallas home for the next three games on level terms.

When the Heat, led by Wade, responded in Game 3, LeBron laughed off suggestions by one journalist that he was “shrinking” when it really mattered. There was no such humour after Game 4 when James’ astonishing performance got the whole country talking.

However, it wasn’t the kind of wonderment they had been expecting. James disappeared. Hiding in corners, disengaged and ineffective, he had confirmed all his critics’ greatest suspicion that when it came to the crunch this was still Wade’s team and that LeBron, the supposed best player in the world, would defer.

It was an ironic turn of events given that only a few weeks ago James had claimed another principal reason for his need to leave Cleveland had been “to team up with some guys that would never die down in the moment”. Now he was the corpse on court.

Dallas’ DeShawn Stevenson claimed that LeBron had “checked out”, ESPN’s Bill Simmons declared it as “LeBrowndon Part II” – after an equally inept performance had seen his Cavaliers beaten by the Boston Celtics in last year’s playoffs.

Roll on the biggest game of his life on Thursday night and James was beaten again. On a personal level he was fractionally better – his 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists not the embarrassment of his playoff career low eight points in Game 4 – but he was still not the dominant force that saw him become a national obsession and subsequent villain.

Game 5 was the biggest of his career, Game 6 and its one last shot at redemption now dwarves that by comparison. If LeBron doesn’t become LeBron on Sunday, America will rejoice in a collective shower of schadenfreude and salute the German with his maiden championship.

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