— You have to figure that LeBron James watched Kobe Bryant and the Lakers stink up the joint Saturday night in Oklahoma City. And you have to think that LeBron decided he wasn’t going to let that happen to Cleveland on Sunday.
The Lakers are in serious trouble in their first-round series against the Thunder. And after they got their doors blown off, they limped on home to Los Angeles to figure out what went wrong and how to make it right. A lot of it comes down to Kobe. He was strangely passive in the blow-out loss, scoring just 12 points. Afterwards, it didn’t seem to bother him.
The same thing could have happened to the Cavs if they came out against the Bulls soft and without a sense of urgency. This is where great leaders come in. They don’t let those things happen. Jordan never allowed it in Chicago. Bill Russell never let it happen in Boston.
We’ll let you draw your own conclusions as to what that means about Kobe’s leadership. We’re through talking about him for now. Our subject is LeBron, and the question before Game 4 was whether he’s the type of leader who won’t let his team suffer a let-down.
King James answered in spectacular fashion. In a game that would either give Cleveland a stranglehold on the series or put them in jeopardy, LeBron was the sort of monster that great players are supposed to be.
He scored 37, had 12 rebounds and handed out 11 assists — his fifth career playoff triple-double — and the Cavs won by 23 in Chicago. After losing Game 3 by two points, the Cavaliers took a 3-1 series lead back home.
You can make book on the Cavs closing it out in Game 5. This is what great teams do, and a great team is what the Cleveland Cavaliers intend to be. Check that. It’s what LeBron James intends them to be, and they look as if they’re willing to let him have his way.
Greatness and Cleveland are not words that are often used in the same sentence in sports stories. The city’s last championship was won by the Browns in 1964, the last NFL title of the pre-Super Bowl era. Growing up in nearby Akron, LeBron learned all about Cleveland’s sports ineptitude as a kid. Whether he intends to leave town or not after the season, you can bet he wants to be the man who ends Cleveland’s 56-year losing streak.
LeBron is 25 years old and in his seventh season. He’s learned the game from every angle, has developed his jump shot, and has learned to lead. It’s time for him to win a title.
LeBron knows that just as he knows Michael Jordan was also in his seventh season when he won the first of his six rings.
Maybe Kobe can’t be bothered to crank it up for every game — especially of a first-round series. But Kobe has four rings. It’s possible he doesn’t feel quite as driven to get more as he used to be.
But for all his physical dominance and great accomplishments, LeBron still has won nothing. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of this, especially when his sponsors are intent on convincing us that the most important thing an athlete can do isn’t to win titles but to sell shoes. It’s not how many endorsements you have, but how many rings you win.
Some would call LeBron one of the great players who ever lived. They’re jumping the gun, because in basketball, you’re not great if you don’t win a title. That’s the rule.
I didn’t make that rule, but I approve of it. It’s possible to be a great baseball player and never win a World Series because it takes more than one great player to build a championship team. The same goes for hockey and football. But in basketball, if you truly are the best player on the planet, you will win championships.
Jordan had a better side-kick in Scottie Pippen than anyone LeBron has on the Cavs. But LeBron has plenty of help. He’s got a lot of depth and some pretty good talent on the front line with Antawn Jamison, Shaquille O’Neal, Anderson Varejao, J.J. Hickson and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Mo Williams is a good scorer at guard. Sunday, Jamison scored 24 points and Williams had 19, while Shaq contributed seven rebounds in 17 minutes. Two other players scored in double figures, Hickson with 10 points and guard Anthony Parker with 12.
That’s a pretty good performance by a pretty good supporting cast. None of them are at the level of a Scottie Pippen or any of Boston’s Big Three, but they don’t have to be. They just have to do their jobs so LeBron can do his, which is to carry them all to a title.
There’s a long way to go, but Sunday’s game was a big step along the way. A loss would have made the Cavs look vulnerable and given confidence to their foes. It also would have forced them to work harder and play more games than they need to.
But LeBron wouldn’t let that happen. He came out like a man on a mission, which is what he is. Before the game, he told an ABC reporter that this was the biggest game of the season, a strange thing to call Game 4 of a first-round series.
It turned out he meant that. It turned out that he was right. It was the season’s biggest game — until the next one.