Whatever unfoldsover the next two weeks in the NBA's championship series, which was scheduledto begin on Thursday at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, we are--make nomistake--beholding the LeBron Finals. Not since 1998, when Michael Jordancleverly nudged aside Utah Jazz forward Bryon Russell to hit the jump shot thatgave his Chicago Bulls their sixth and last title, has the NBA had such asingular, celestial focus for its climactic event.
The San AntonioSpurs, seeking their fourth championship in nine years, are heavily favored toprevail against LeBron James's Cleveland Cavaliers (sidebar, page 42), butthat's merely a subplot. Right now, with the memory of James's immortal Game 5performance in the Eastern Conference finals still fresh in the mind, the storyline is about the young King who has finally shown he deserves to wear acrown.
Yes, we areofficially in the LeBron era, past the post-Jordan interregnum during which theleague hoped--though could not be certain--that James would one day arrivefront and center in the Finals. The variegated talents James displayed againstthe Detroit Pistons may even extend to the draft on June 28. Won't the PortlandTrail Blazers, who have the top pick, be more tempted to take 6'9" Texasforward Kevin Durant, a skinnier version of James but a version nonetheless,rather than Ohio State center Greg Oden? Could a 7-footer possibly supply thesame entertainment dollar as an out-on-the-floor all-arounder? More to thepoint, will a pivotman, even a shot-changing stalwart like Oden, wield as muchinfluence on a game as a swingman √† la James?
In eliminating thePistons in a 98--82 rout last Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena, James followedup his Game 5 heroics (already a YouTube megahit) with a performance that canbe summarized in one word: mature. The tendency for James, as for most22-year-old superstars, would have been to come out at home and try todemonstrate that his feat of scoring 29 of his team's last 30 points was only awarmup. But he didn't. His shot wasn't falling, and Detroit, being disinclinedto submit to public embarrassment once again, threw waves of defenders at him.Through it all, James stayed calm and focused, qualities that were amplified asthe supposedly savvy Pistons imploded. James played the role of facilitator torookie Daniel (Boobie) Gibson, who had a career-high 31 points and hit all fiveof his three-pointers in a nerveless display that Cleveland coach Mike Browncalled "LeBronesque." It wasn't that good, but we now have an adjectiveto describe contemporary playoff brilliance.
In fact,Cleveland's Game 6 victory despite James's modest stat line (20 points on just3-of-11 shooting, 14 rebounds, eight assists) was the worst news the Spurscould have received out of the Eastern finals. You mean, the Cavs can still beformidable even if LeBron is merely average instead of superhuman? "If youguys remember when I was in New York," James said after the game, referringto draft day in 2003, "I said I was going to light up Cleveland like it wasVegas." LeBron may have been iridescent on Saturday, but in a strictlyelectric sense he should spend some of his $90 million in Nike endorsementmoney to put a team of engineers on standby at his old-before-its-time arena.Malfunctions forced a 21-minute delay before the second quarter because neithershot clock in the 13-year-old Q was working.
But James was on aroll. "I'm going to be a G.M. someday," he said. Considering theturnaround he pulled off against Detroit, who can doubt him? Rarely if everhave teams exchanged identities so dramatically in midseries. The Pistons wonthe first two games by matching 79--76 scores with a casualness that suggesteda sweep. The Cavaliers' 88--82 win in Game 3 at home was considered the gimme.Cleveland did it again in Game 4, 91--87, before the playoffs' defining moment:last Thursday's double-overtime thriller at The Palace of Auburn Hills. It wasthen that the LeBron legend--jump-started when he was a 15-year-old manchild ina St. Vincent--St. Mary High uniform in Akron--was validated.
The suddenness ofJames's ascent as a playoff hero was astounding. Before the world championshipsin Japan last summer, the Team USA coaching staff was disappointed in James'seffort and his inability to function offensively unless he had the ball. Thecoaches would have made LeBron the first cut after his lackadaisical initialweek of practice were it not for the massive public relations fallout thatwould have resulted from the axing of the league's most globally marketedplayer. During his 27.3-point, 6.7-rebound, 6.0-assist regular season, therewas a general yawning acceptance of James's talent but not really anappreciation. He dropped from All-NBA first team to second team, and sometimesseemed oddly disconnected from his fellow Cavs on the court.
Even two shortweeks ago the public was defining James by his flaws. He didn't take the bigshots--witness his pass-off to forward Donyell Marshall in the waning secondsof the Game 1 loss. (Marshall missed a three from the corner.) He didn'tcomplete the big plays--witness the layup James missed late in Game 2. Helooked so tentative at times, and his team looked so uncomfortable trying toback him, that it hardly seemed as if he was speeding along a learning curve.Perhaps it was just simple humiliation.
That was all beforeGame 5.
You probably knowthe cold, hard facts. James had 48 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Heplayed 50 of the 58 minutes. He scored the Cavs' final 25 points, including allof their 18 points in the two overtimes of a 109--107 win. The Pistons,normally angry and arrogant, gently succumbed, as though hypnotized by James'sbrilliance. He started the series as tyro but in that game became tutor, in theprocess accomplishing the unthinkable: He made Eastern Conference basketballwatchable and lifted the hopes of a city desperate for a winner in this, theCavaliers' 37th season.
James also vaultedright over the crucial steps that another number 23 had to take, one that mostpundits saw as obligatory. It took Jordan three painful years of playoff lossesbefore he emerged from the shadow of the glowering Pistons--James did it in hissecond try.
How to explain Game5 in basketball terms? Certainly Detroit was complicit. Known for their abilityto change defenses on the fly, the Pistons seemed confused about what schemethey were playing. Sometimes, they had two defenders on James and neitherstopped him; sometimes, after he (almost inevitably) sped by a single perimeterdefender, no one picked him up. James came close to being a one-man team: TheCavs had only one assist in the game's final 22 minutes and just 13 for thegame.
But the only realexplanation is that the 6'8", 240-pound James unleashed everything that wasalready in his arsenal. He can break down defenses off the dribble, and if hegets near the basket, he will power-dunk on anyone's cabeza. He is a threat inthe open floor. Watching him take off on a one-man fast break is breathtaking:He accelerates, accelerates even more, gets his defender turned around and thendoes that cabeza thing. Take a charge at your peril.
He can shootstandstill jumpers from the perimeter and absurd fadeaways that areunblockable. He has a decent midrange game--witness his 16-footer from theright wing with the shot clock winding down in the last minute that proved tobe the key basket in Game 3. He can post up and take advantage of his superiorsize at the small forward position, and he can nail jumpers off curls andpin-downs (though he does need to improve in that area). And most of all he isa willing and able passer, irrefutably in the league of Magic Johnson and LarryBird. As good as James is going to the basket and firing from the outside, somedefenses are hesitant to load up because they know when they do, he will findthe open man.
James's Game 5performance initiated an instant debate, rare in the NBA: Where to rank it inthe pantheon of sterling one-man shows? It automatically falls belowmasterpieces that occurred in the Finals, such as Magic Johnson's 42-point,15-rebound, seven-assist series-clincher in 1980 or Jordan's 45-point effort in'98, which he capped with the jumper that dumped the Jazz. But it surpassesJordan's 63-point blitzkrieg in Boston Garden in '86, if only because the Bullslost that game and the Cavs won this one.
"That was thesingle best game I've ever seen at this level in this atmosphere, handsdown," said Brown. There were various other tributes offered (none by thesulky Pistons), but to a Cleveland sports public starved for success, the onlyfitting benediction would have been the one pronounced by Secretary of WarEdwin Stanton as he stood over the dying body of Abraham Lincoln: "Now hebelongs to the ages." Some believe that Stanton said "the angels."As far as Cleveland fans are concerned, LeBron belongs to them, too.
The cavs won 17games before James's arrival in 2003 and 35, 42 and 50 in the seasons thatfollowed. When the team broke a huddle early this season, James suddenlyyelled, "One, two, three ... championship!" instead of the defense thathad always followed. It took Brown aback, but James kept saying it, and now,suddenly, it doesn't sound so absurd. Whatever happens in the Finals, James hasmade Clevelanders forget the Drive and the Fumble, the most egregious chokejobs by their beloved NFL Browns. It is not outlandish to claim that James isthe most beloved Cleveland athlete since Jim Brown--and one more integratedinto the civic fabric, hailing as he does from Akron, 30 miles south.
So far he hasn'thad a major public-relations slipup. There have been persistent reports thatJames doesn't agree with Mike Brown's offensive strategy, but perhaps bothcoach and superstar learned a little during the conference finals. No one issuggesting that James doesn't have a monumental ego--the franchise runs onLeBron Standard Time--but unlike Jordan, who had a wink-wink way of holdinghimself above his fellow Bulls even as he presented himself as one of the guys,James seems to authentically like his teammates. He identified Gibson as "asecond-round steal" (the Texas product was drafted 42nd) and bonded withhim immediately. James always encouraged Gibson to shoot, aiding and abettinghis development behind starter Larry Hughes, who was largely ineffectiveagainst Detroit because of a partially torn plantar fascia in his left foot.Before Game 6, James approached Gibson and told him that he expected to bedouble- and triple-teamed, "so get that gun and get it locked and loadedand just shoot it." NBA officials might have preferred a differentmetaphor, but there you are.
And when the gameended, James ran to 7'3" Zydrunas Ilgauskas at center court and theyembraced joyously. It was a gracious gesture by James, for two more differentplayers could hardly be found: the one a magnificent, seemingly indestructiblephysical force of 22, the other an oft-injured, lumbering plugger who came toCleveland in '96 and played in only four playoff games before James arrived."Z has been through a lot, been through losing seasons, year after yearafter year," said James, "and I promised him when I got drafted, I wasgoing to try to change it."
In the finalanalysis the Pistons couldn't do anything but come apart as the Cavs and theirleader grew up in the cauldron of the conference finals. Detroit forwardRasheed Wallace--increasingly insufferable as he tuned out coach Flip Saunders,hollered at his teammates and griped at refs like a Shakespeareanshrew--committed a brainless sixth foul with 7:44 left in Game 6, drew twotechnicals and was ejected. One couldn't help but think that marked an end ofan era for these Pistons, who have made five straight conference finals but wononly one title (in 2004).
Even if it may notyet be the Age of the Cavaliers, James, at least, seems prepared for the momentand the Spurs. The future of the East now runs through Cleveland, and Clevelandis ruled by a King.
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In eliminating the Pistons in a 98--82 rout lastSaturday in Cleveland, James followed up his Game 5 heroics with a performancethat can be summarized in one word: MATURE.
Before Game 6, James approached Gibson and told him thathe expected to be double- and triple-teamed, "so get that gun locked andloaded and JUST SHOOT IT."
James can break down defenses off the dribble, and if hegets near the basket, he will POWER-DUNK on anyone's cabeza. Take a charge atyour peril.
James is the MOST BELOVED CLEVELAND ATHLETE since JimBrown, and one more integrated into the civic fabric, hailing as he does fromAkron.
If there's one certainty about this Finals, it's that San Antonio, which eventhe √ºberconfident LeBron James calls "the premier team in our league"and "the big bad wolf of the West," will not self-destruct like Detroitdid. Furthermore, the Spurs have had more than enough time to devise a plan tocurtail James. The Cavaliers must now find a way to get past a highly evolvedgroup of veterans with a more sophisticated offense than the Pistons'--not tomention a more positive team chemistry.
Cleveland did winboth of its games against the Spurs this season, 88--81 in San Antonio lastNov. 3 and 82--78 at home on Jan. 2. Those W's might give the Cavs a smallmeasure of confidence, but that's the extent of their significance.
SI picked thebrains of coaches and scouts in each conference to rate the positional matchupson a 10-point-must system.
Bruce Bowen(left), the league's premier perimeter defender, will start on LeBron James(right) and get help from teammates. Bowen will make James work, but most ofthe hand checks and knee bumps that he uses to frustrate other players will notdeter James. "And after what LeBron's been through against Detroit,"says one Western coach, "Bruce won't get into his head, either."Moreover, says an Eastern scout, "You can bet LeBron will be getting lotsof calls in the Finals."
James, a so-soon-the-ball defender, will be able to roam and help off Bowen, who isineffective when he puts the ball on the floor. But LeBron won't be able tostray too far: Bowen is deadly from the left corner, where he has hit bigthrees under championship pressure.
Score: Cavaliers10, Spurs 7
Hanging in James'slocker at the Q is a photo of him dunking over Tim Duncan (left) last November.It's a nice motivational pick-me-up for James, but one thing the Finals isdefinitely not is a one-on-one matchup between the respective superstars. SanAntonio wants to keep Duncan out of foul trouble and will do anything to keephim from getting isolated on James.
Drew Gooden(right), who was effective as a spot-up shooter against Detroit, and AndersonVarej√£o, the curly-maned energy machine, are nice complementary players. ButDuncan is a first-ballot Hall of Famer "who is playing at a downright scarylevel right now," says an Eastern scout.
Score: Spurs 10,Cavaliers 7
Watching ZydrunasIlgauskas (right) execute his deliberate step-through move, which ends with anawkward one-handed release, can be painful. But Z is effective with it, and histouch from 17 feet in is as good as any big man's in the game.
Fabricio Oberto(left) has been one of the postseason's revelations, hitting 66.7% of his shotsand turning the pivot position, often an afterthought in San Antonio's attack,into a viable force. Both he and Francisco Elson are runners who contribute tothe Spurs' underrated fast break. "Oberto's an active guy who finds holesand always keeps moving," says an Eastern scout. "His energy offsetswhat Cleveland gets out of Varej√£o."
Score: Spurs 10,Cavaliers 9
Larry Hughes willprobably start--the Cavs praised his willingness to play through pain andaccept a lesser role against Detroit--but Daniel Gibson (right) will getsignificant minutes. He will also come back to earth. The rookie's red-hotshooting got the attention of the Spurs, who close out at the three-point lineas well as any team in recent history.
Defensively,Gibson doesn't have the quickness to stay in front of Tony Parker (left), andat 6'2" he won't bother Parker's increasingly accurate jump shot either."Point guard defense wasn't a huge factor against Detroit because ChaunceyBillups is not a blow-by guy," says a Western assistant. "But Parker isas quick as they come, and he presents a whole new set of problems."
Score: Spurs 10,Cavaliers 7
Sasha Pavlovic(right), in his fourth season, looked shaky in the latter part of the Pistonsseries; the Spurs, on the other hand, have two seasoned pros. "They try toget [Michael] Finley off early to reduce the attention on Duncan," says anEastern scout, "and if he starts hitting threes out of the box, you're inbig, big trouble."
Then again, you'rein even bigger, bigger trouble when San Antonio goes to the bench for ManuGinóbili (left), a sixth man in title only. "He puts you on your heelsright away, and his passing is a very underrated part of his game," says aWestern coach.
Score: Spurs 10,Cavaliers 6
Mike Brown (right)spent three years working under Gregg Popovich (left) and was on the bench whenSan Antonio won the title in 2003. The 37-year-old is an exceedingly polite andpleasant gentleman who will doubtless give props to Pop for developing him as acoach. And Pop will graciously talk about Brown's intelligence and knack forworking with players ... and then he'll go out and coach the pants off hisprotégé.
The Spurs' abilityto change defenses from possession to possession will assuredly befuddle Brown,a defensive specialist. Popovich will also deploy his superior bench to maximumeffect. "Mike is in over his head in this one," says an Easternassistant, "but I'm not sure who wouldn't be."
Score: Spurs 10,Cavaliers 7
That adds up toSpurs 57, Cavaliers 46--or, in more relevant terms, Spurs in five. Butremember: Most experts had a similarly dim view of Cleveland's prospectsagainst the Pistons. As long as the Cavaliers have LeBron, they still have apuncher's chance.
Photographs by John Biever
STORMING THE PALACE James's Game 5 heroics included this jumper--his 15th and 16th straight points--with the shot clock winding down in the first overtime.
Photographs by John Biever
DRIVE TIME Criticized for being too passive in Games 1 and 2, a more aggressive James got to the line 51 times in Cleveland's four wins.
Photographs by John Biever
BOOBIE TRAP Damon Jones was only too happy to offer a helping hand to rookie Gibson, who sprung for 31 points in Game 6.
FLYOVER ZONE Jordan was sent home three times before getting past the Pistons; James soared past Detroit on his second try.
CAVALIERS CAKEWALK Teammates like Varej√£o (right) picked up James, who had a poor shooting night in the decisive Game 6.
SAM FORENCICH/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
ROCKY WIDNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
DAVID LIAM KYLE/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
WELL IN HAND The Spurs' Big Three ofDuncan (21), Ginóbili (20) and Parker gives them more than enough firepower towin a fourth championship.