It has to be said: LeBron James pulled a Dirk Nowitzki in Detroit Monday night.
The Cleveland Cavaliers superstar passed up what looked like a good chance at a game-tying layup in the final seconds of Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals against the Detroit Pistons, instead throwing a pass to a wide-open Donyell Marshall in the right corner. Marshall's 3-pointer would have given Cleveland the lead, but he missed.
The Pistons hung on to win by the decidedly Eastern Conference score of 79-76.
James, playing in the biggest game of his career so far, came up a little Dirky, a little small. He scored only 10 points in 45 minutes, though with 10 rebounds and nine assists, he almost turned in what might have been history's most empty triple-double. He took only 15 shots. Sasha Pavlovic, who let's just say is not the kind of guy who can carry a team, took 14.
LeBron's size 16s never toed the free-throw line, though that was only partly the result of his game-long passivity. The wheel of fortune in the officials' dressing room must have landed on "No foul calls on anyone guarding LeBron."
Still, that kind of output from LeBron James just can't happen. Not if the Cavaliers hope to beat the Pistons. Cleveland can't match up with Detroit, which lacks a superstar but has stars at every position, only one of whom, Chris Webber, is more reputation than performance at this stage of his career. The advantage the Cavs have is that the best player in the series, by a lot, is their guy, LeBron James.
With Detroit leading 78-76 and 12.2 seconds left, James took an inbounds pass between the circles and drove with a left-hand dribble on Tayshaun Prince. The Cavs cleared out the lane as James got a step on Prince and went down the left side of the lane.
Richard Hamilton, near the baseline on the strong side, took two slide steps toward James, but clearly wasn't quick or aggressive enough to cause James any trouble. He was already stopping short as James jumped toward the rim. Meanwhile, Rasheed Wallace, ignoring Marshall in the right corner, raced in from the weak side, but he wasn't nearly in time.
As James floated toward the basket, Wallace was still flat-footed underneath. After the game, Wallace said he'd been positioning himself for a rebound, not trying to help on defense.
The Pistons had a foul to give but later said they weren't going to risk fouling James on the drive and setting up a three-point play because he hadn't been to the line all night and was due to get a call. Nobody can read the mind of an NBA referee, but if anyone was due for a call it was James, who spent the second half getting mauled with nary a whistle in his favor.
It was clear even in real time that the Pistons were conceding James the basket -- Charles Barkley would refer to it afterward as the Red Sea parting -- but instead of finishing the play to tie the game, James dished to Marshall. He got the ball with about eight seconds to go and went straight up. The shot hit the back rim and the Pistons corralled the long-bounce rebound.
"I go for the winning play," James said after the game. "The winning play when two guys come at you and a teammate is open is to give it up. It's as simple as that."
It's not as simple as that.
There's always a logical explanation when Nowitzki passes up a big shot at a crucial moment in a huge game. He's an unselfish player, an admirable trait. He trusts his teammates. The guy was open. Donyell Marshall made six 3-pointers in Cleveland's last game.
But think of it this way: Who would the Pistons rather take the big shot with the clock running down, LeBron James or Donyell Marshall?
What it comes down to is that guys like James and Dirk Nowitzki get paid the superhuge dineros for a reason. When all the chips are in the pot, you play your best hand. When the game is on the line, you live and die with your best player, not a guy who happens to be open. Chances are, with a defense as good as Detroit's, he's open for a reason.
That's the Michael Jordan approach. Another Socratic query: Who would you rather have on your team, Michael Jordan or Dirk Nowitzki? It's a trick question, but even if Nowitzki were as good a basketball player as Jordan was, the answer would be Jordan.
It's not such a trick question with James, whose talent level is at least in the photo with Jordan's. At the same age, Jordan wasn't quite a guy they build statues of yet either, though he was getting close, just as James is.
When Magic Johnson sits in, TNT's postgame show becomes a kind of seminar on how to think like a superstar, with Magic and Barkley on either end of the panel. They made short work of LeBron.
"There's a point where you've got to decide that 'yes, I've got to get my teammates involved,'" Johnson said, referring to James' unselfish play in the first half, "and then there's a point where you've got to say, 'I've got to take this game over because I'm the best player on my team, but I'm also the best player in the building."
"LeBron should be a finisher," Barkley chimed in. "When he has a lot of assists, it looks great on the stat sheet, but if he's not finishing and he's their No. 1 assist guy, they're going to struggle."
Later, after Magic reiterated his praise of James for getting his teammates involved early and his criticism that James doesn't seem to know when it's time to take over the game, host Ernie Johnson asked if this was part of the learning process for a 22-year-old in the conference finals for the first time.
Magic: "Are we going to keep saying this?"
His point was that James is in his fourth year in the league and his second year in the playoffs. This is his fifth playoff series. He may still be developing as a player, but he should have learned how to play like a superstar by now.
"I can't speak for Magic, I can only speak for myself," Barkley said. "If I got that ball and I see the Red Sea part like that, ain't nobody in the building but me and that rim. I'm not looking for a guy over in that corner. If I've got the ball with the game on the line, I see ball, basket, nothing else."
That's how you think like a superstar. Maybe that's why Charles Barkley never won a championship. I doubt it, though, considering the guy down the row with the five rings was agreeing with him.
In the postgame locker room, Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who defended James' decision making and credited the Pistons defense with getting the ball out of his hands, said the Cavaliers weren't too choked up about the loss.
"Look, if every game on the road is going to be like that, we're going to take it," he said. "If we have a chance to win at the end of the game, that's all that counts."
Actually, all that counts is the final score, which was 79-76 Pistons. If the Cavaliers, who have to be at their best to stay with the Pistons, have a chance to win on the road, they have to win. It's too late for moral victories and learning experiences and get 'em next times.
The Cavs outplayed the Pistons for most of Game 1. Prince and Chauncey Billups both played uncharacteristically poorly. These things won't happen every night. Game 1 was a blown opportunity.
In isolation, James dishing to Marshall looks like an aggressive move, going for the 3-pointer and the win instead of the layup and the tie. But life is complicated. That pass was a symptom of James' passivity Monday night, a passivity largely responsible for the Pistons having the lead in the first place.
Whatever happened with Marshall's jumper, the Cavaliers aren't going to win this series with their superstar playing passively. They know all about that in Dallas.
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