Outside of the folks in Orlando, maybe Charles Barkley and I were the only people who thought the Orlando Magic would beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA's Eastern Conference finals. I'm not some kind of NBA clairvoyant--far from it. But I do know a good team when I see one, and I know that a good team always beats a good individual come playoff time. Sure, a great player and decent supporting cast can win you tons of games in the regular season and help you roll over some less adequate postseason opponents. But when it counts, usually in a conference finals or NBA finals, an individual isn't going to win you games. That's doubly true when that individual (yes, we're talking about LeBron James) and his team are just a terrible matchup for the opponent. Let's look at a couple of the reasons why the Cavs lost:
- No one can guard Dwight Howard. He's too fast and strong for the slow-footed Zydrunas Ilgauskus. He's too powerful for the overrated and foul-prone Anderson Varejao. He's too big for Joe Smith. And he's just better in every area than an aging Ben Wallace. So the Cavs have to double him in the post, which leads to point No. 2 ...
- The Magic have too many outside shooting threats. Rafer Alston, Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkuglo, Courtney Lee and Mickael Pietrus can all nail the 3-pointer, and they did it with alarming accuracy and consistency through six games.
- The Magic's entire lineup is simply bigger than the Cavs. They have major size advantages, which allow them to pass over defenders or shoot over defenders.
- Defensively, the Magic allowed LeBron to do what he wanted. The Magic forced LeBron to take all the shots and single-handedly win the game. He couldn't. (Although, Pietrus did an excellent job defending LeBron, despite LeBron's output.)
- LeBron James still cannot play defense. I don't want to hear about his improved defensive abilities this season. But if you watched this series closely, you'll notice LeBron running around everywhere and simply losing his man. Why did Pietrus outscore the entire Cavs bench for the whole series? Because LeBron lost sight of him.
And, quite frankly, in a decisive Game 6, LeBron disappeared. He scored 13 points in the first quarter than just 12 the rest of the way. That's not how a superstar is supposed to play. (See Howard's 40 points for an example of how a superstar should play.) Granted, he was tired. Through five previous games, he had to carry his entire team for 44 minutes a game. But still, the Cavs dispatched their first two opponents in four-game sweeps, so LeBron should've had plenty of time to rest up for this one. And the amount of minutes he was playing in the Magic series is directly attributable to his head coach, Mike Brown, who didn't do nearly enough to make sure his superstar player got some rest, at least. (I know James won Coach of the Year, and rightly so, but I've always found him overrated. Like Doug Collins in Chicago during Michael Jordan's early years, I think Mike Brown is soon removed from the Cavs bench.)
After the game, you could tell LeBron was frustrated. And he should be. His team won 66 regular season games, went 8-0 in the first two rounds of the playoffs, then fumbled away an opportunity to go to the Finals. But that still doesn't excuse some of his behavior during the series or after the game. (Full disclosure: I'm not fan of LeBron James. I can't stand him as a person, and I don't really care to watch him on the floor. I won't ever deny the fact that he's a great player. I'm not Skip Bayliss. But I don't like him, and I'm not afraid to say it. I am an NBA fan who doesn't have an affinity for LeBron James. I think that's OK.) LeBron is still a child in many ways, and his petty actions were plain for everyone to see. He thought he deserved a chance to play in the finals. Nothing is owed to him, no matter what the Nike commercials may have you believe. You want to know what I WITNESSED. I WITNESSED a sophomoric, bratty, petulant, self-absorbed kid take a loss in an absolutely abhorrent way.
- During the series, he kept saying that HE was ready to play and that HE would come out strong and perform at a high level. In essence, he was telling people he had faith in himself, but he had none in his teammates. And this, my friends, is why he is NOT a better teammate than some other guys in this league, like Kobe Bryant. Yeah, LeBron did that fake picture garbage before games and everyone said the Cavs looked like a cohesive unit. The players all loved each other. But it's easy to buddy-buddy when you win 66 games. How does your superstar react when he loses a few games or when adversity strikes him and his team? In the case of LeBron James, runs away from his teammates and secludes himself. Classy.
- After the Game 6 win, did LeBron hang around for a couple of minutes and wish congratulations to any of the Magic players, particularly his Olympic teammate Dwight Howard? Nope. He walked off the court, sulking like a child.
- Also after the game, LeBron showered, got dressed and walked to the team bus without saying a word to anyone. As the leader of a team, he is responsible for standing up and talking to reporters. He needed to man up in that instance and be the face of the franchise. But, again, like a child, he took his ball and went home.
- His histroinics on the floor are abominable. And that's not just something that he started during this series. He's been doing it his whole career. He checks his forehead, forearms, face, etc., for cuts every time he's fouled. He complains when other teams try to foul him to stop him from dunking, yet he tells his teammates to foul Howard to stop him from dunking. He rolls on the floor and throws his arms in the air when he doesn't get a call. He bites his nails on the bench. He takes fake pictures of his teammates. (Guess what, it's not about team unity. It's still all about him.) I'm tired of it.
- He's all about him. The chalk toss before the game, which isn't even his invention. The fake picture, which I already mentioned. The mugging for the camera. The scowls. How about his reaction after the game-winning shot he nailed in Game 2 against the Magic. Sure, it was a big shot and a huge win. But he and his teammates acted like they had just won the NBA championship. Get real, folks.
Now, will LeBron James ever win a championship? Absolutely. He'll probably win a two or three of them. And he may even leave the game as the best player ever to play in the NBA. (But I still think he needs to equal or surpass Jordan's six championships to be in that conversation.) But he still has some serious growing up to do. We tend to forget that he's just 24 years old, and while he's accomplished a lot in his short time in the league, he's still a kid. I hope, for his sake, the maturation process, not as a player but as a person, begins in haste. Otherwise, we'll have to deal with his sulky, ungracious behavior for many years to come.