Andrew Unterberger is the Last Angry Man in the crusade against LeBron James and his not-so-gradual march towards total unassailability. He’ll be checking in with us once a month this NBA season for an update on where he’s at with his LeBron hating, and how his attempts to channel all the world’s negative energy towards one generally well-meaning basketball player are progressing.
Perhaps the most complimentary thing a hater, or anyone else for that matter, can say about LeBron James is this: When you watch LeBron play, especially against a team that you’re rooting for, you always feel like he’s singularly in control of the game’s potential outcome. When he loses, it doesn’t feel like he was outsmarted, outplayed or even out-lucked — it feels like he did a cost-benefit analysis and decided that winning the game wasn’t the most important thing at this point in time. That was what always made the postseason meltdowns so incredible to us, because it still felt like he could’ve won those games if he wanted to, but decided not to for some reason, even though it’s hard to imagine what kind of a reason that could have possibly been.
LeBron James could’ve killed the Celtics yesterday afternoon. I don’t just mean he could’ve won the game against them, but I mean he could’ve finished what he started in Game 6 in Boston last year, and what he continued opening night this year in Miami, and put an end to the entire Big Three era of Boston Celtic basketball with one final dagger defeat. With Rajon Rondo out for the game, announced partway through to be undergoing season-ending ACL surgery, with the C’s reeling from an astounding six straight losses, with the team and the Garden crowd behind them so craving a win against their hated rivals that you could practically feel the blood pumping into every possession … I think one final knockout punch from LeBron in that one, and the Celtics don’t get back up.
There was minor precedent for this just a week-and-a-half ago. The Heat showed up in Los Angeles for a Thursday night showdown against the Lakers, who had just won decisively against the Cavaliers and Bucks. A win against the East-best Heat would’ve been proof that the Lakers were finally hitting their groove, and they played well enough to just about make that dream a reality. But LeBron simply wouldn’t allow it, putting up maybe his best game of the season, a 39-8-7 that left nothing to chance, powering the Heat to a 99-90 victory. The Lakers would go on to lose their next three, facing an ever-longer road back to respectability. LeBron’s killer instinct has often been called into question, but it was certainly on display that Thursday.
The Lakers may eventually recover from that loss, arguably may have already, but I don’t believe the Celtics could have come back from a loss yesterday. With Rondo looking on from the sidelines, looking like he was going to burst into tears at any second (possibly just me projecting), Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce playing their hearts out but playing tired and playing a little old, with the C’s season already dangling on the precipice … I think the crushing blow of a close loss at home to the Heat (with Ray Allen in tow) would’ve been the kill shot. And when LeBron hit that pull-up three to send the game into overtime, it seemed predestined, and almost fitting in a way. This is how it had to end.
But it didn’t happen. Despite a couple buckets that added to an already staggering stat line — 34-16-7, NBD — LeBron was largely shut down in the two overtime periods, largely thanks to the defense of Jeff Green. Watching Green play these last few years, he’s seemed like a great basketball weapon whose optimal deployment was never clear. Now we know: He was put on this earth to guard LeBron James late in close games. His combination of size, mobility, strength and length makes him uniquely qualified to defend LeBron — maybe more than anyone since prime Shawn Marion — and watching him guard No. 6 was like watching LeBron guard Kevin Durant in the Finals last year. You just couldn’t believe how human the defense was making him look.
Maybe it wasn’t just the defense though. Maybe LeBron wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the team that had provided him most of his greatest challenges over the years. Maybe he had too much professional respect for the old guys, for Rondo, for the fanbase, to annihilate them so unceremoniously, at such an emotional time. Maybe he appreciated gaining a new adversary in Green, and didn’t want to eliminate the chance of meeting him in the playoffs at some point. Maybe LeBron just needs the Celtics in his life, like Maggie Simpson needs Gerald, the Baby with the One Eyebrow. And maybe that’s why at the end of the second OT, LeBron left an ice-cold Dwyane Wade and a disbelieving, “Wait, you guys seriously want me taking this shot?” Shane Battier to decide the fate of the game, rather than try to deal the death blow himself.
It’s for the best, I’d say. The league, and LeBron’s contextual place in it, just isn’t nearly as rich without the Celtics having at least some sort of imprint on it, and while you could say that Boston’s season ended with the snapping of Rondo’s ACL, I don’t believe for a second that they’re out of it. They’re going to have to win a lot of 84-80-type games, but with an Avery Bradley/Courtney Lee backcourt, getting the “80″ part of that equation is going to be a very real possibility most nights. And if Jason Terry and Jeff Green can figure out their role in the team’s offense — and they’ll have to, now –the “84″ won’t be impossible either. There’s life yet in these Celtics, and now they have a defining win to their season as well. For that — and this is tough for a hater to say — all NBA fans owe LeBron some thanks.
I gotta dock him at least a point or two for stealing that win against the Lakers — really wanted LA to win that one — but we’ll give it back to him for his memorable tackle celebration of a fan’s halfcourt hook shot against the Pistons. Between LeBron and Russell Westbrook, soon enough no interstitial NBA entertainment will be safe from star interference. Consider yourself warned, Chinese unicycle bowl-flipping woman.
Hate Index: 2/10