Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Quiet King

I have to get this part out first: There's no right way to say this, but... Lebron James didn't even play that well tonight. The King went off for 52 points, 11 assists, and 10 rebounds in a 107-102 victory by the Cleveland Cavaliers over the New York Knicks - and he could have done much, much better (as could have the Cavs). Does anyone realize how scary that is?

From my decent seats in Section 320, I spent the night alternating between oohing and aahing like the rest of Madison Square Garden, and muttering about the poor shot selection and ball movement of the Cavs, especially Lebron - and so did all the people around me, most of whom were Cavs fans. [Interestingly, I'd say there were a few thousand Cavs fans in the Garden tonight - enough that you really heard it when the Cavs were hitting shots, and I don't mean Lebron.]

Part of what is so fascinating about Lebron James is that he doesn't force shots in the typical sense, which makes it difficult to criticize him when he misses shots. Anyone looking at the particular shot would argue that the clock was winding down, nobody else was really open, and he got it off cleanly; and all of those would be true. When teams play tighter defense or double-team Lebron, he almost always swings it to the open man for a clean shot - and that's how he had 11 assists, with a few more blown on a missed Ben Wallace dunk or a couple wide open threes that didn't fall.

But when you sit there watching the game, you wonder why a player who moves so well without the ball in his hands is so rarely deferring to one of his (talented) point guards to start the set. Yes, there are times where he does this, often leading to a great look for him or a good open look for someone else, while keeping the rest of the team moving and involved. But much of the time, he's clearly taking the initiative and starting with the ball on the wing or at the top of the key, spending a good 8-12 seconds gauging where he can attack the player defending him by using a number of foot stabs to test the player's reactions (and those of his teammates coming to help). It is most similar to a quarterback calling out signals and sending players in motion to see if they can figure out how best to attack the defense, except just like when the QB too often gets stuck with a choice they don't like because the play clock has run down, Lebron is forced to take a long jumper because he wouldn't have enough time to drive and either shoot or kick and let the ball swing around to the open man. As Lebron gets more and more comfortable driving and forcing defenses to react to him consistently, or better, deferring to the guards to open up space for him, he will become an even greater force - and that's just scary.

(I can't believe I just spent three paragraphs criticizing one of the more incredible individual performances a person will ever see.)

All that said: Tonight's performance by Lebron James was one of the most incredible things I've ever witnessed (no pun intended). Yes, I happened to be surrounded by many Cavs fans, and yes, people often ooh and aah at amazing performances of opposing superstars. Sure, people cheered Kobe two nights ago. But this was something different. A couple of months ago, when Lebron last visited the Garden, amidst much greater 2010 hype, the place was electric about Lebron, going crazy every time he touched the ball and openly cheering when he made a great play. This time, the crowd was much less interested in wooing Lebron, and as it was a very close game, they were rooting hard for the Knicks. The Garden was actually pretty loud when the Knicks fought back and took the lead. But every time the arena would start to rock, Lebron would do something that would not just quiet the crowd as so often happens when a run is stopped. He'd electrify the crowd into being quiet. You'd hear screaming after another Al Harrington make followed by booming chants of "DE-FENSE! DE-FENSE" followed by an audible "ohmygoshWOOOOW" - and then silence. Just to finish it off, you've never seen a place get so excited when a player on the other team gets his 10th rebound in the last 3 seconds of the game while falling out of bounds.

What is particularly ironic about the last paragraph is that while he was electrifying, it was also a "quiet" 50. Except for a string of shots in the first quarter, there was no time where he drained shots in a way that you would jump up every time he took a jumper, like what happens when Kobe is on fire. You'd be electrified by something in the split-second after it happened, but you didn't feel that pumping right before he'd go up for each shot. In that sense, it was a "quiet" 52.

Lebron made shots that were difficult to understand how he even got to - one second he's 8 feet away from the hoop, one guy all over him and another in front, and the next second he's falling past the hoop, the ball rolling in from the rim, a whistle blowing, and the Knicks players looking on in wonderment. His early alley-oop was on a full-speed, 90-degree left hand turn toward the basket followed by a straight up 36+ inch vertical and then a power slam downward with both hands, all with someone pushing against his body on the left side. Sure, we've seen him do it dozens of times - and I still can't figure out how it's physically possible. After having been beaten on defense twice, and seemingly a third time, he not only caught up to Wilson Chandler but completely stuffed a reverse layup. And in what might just be a beautiful example of how aware Lebron is, the Knicks hit a shot with 3.7 seconds left in the first half to pull within three. Lebron looks at the clock, motions for Gibson to inbound the ball to him on the run, and turns to start running up the court, with about enough time for a pull-up three. A split-second later he fires a dart to Ben Wallace on the far baseline, who gets an easy lay-in right before the buzzer.

Lebron James is a frighteningly amazing basketball player. What is especially scary is to think that he had 52-10-11 on a night where he honestly just did not play his best game. I sat there during the game wondering just what his numbers would be in a game like tonight's if he drove a little more, if his jumper were a little better, if Delonte West were helping spread the floor a little more. We're talking about a guy who just turned 24 years old, and he is capable of improving on his game to a point where he would have 70-15-15 in a game like tonight's. He is a mind-boggling wonder.

52-10-11. I still can't believe it. I'm just shaking my head... Wow.