Sunday night in Portland the home crowd was treated to the annual LeBronathon. The man of the hour did not disappoint, dumping in 41 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists in a 106-94 Cavaliers defeat of the Blazers.
LeBron James, at this point in his career and life, renders the exercise of a traditional game recap pointless. To co-opt an old Nike slogan, his better is absolutely, positvely better than your better. The most perfect physical specimen to ever play the game of basketball, a focused and motivated James is without peer.
He utterly dominated the first quarter of this game, continued to dominated the second quarter, got a little bit bored in the third quarter and then dropped the hammer in the fourth quarter. While the Blazers valiantly fought back from a 17 point second half deficit to briefly tie the game, James's shadow hung over that run. These Blazers were simply not beating James.
That James is capable of producing the statistics he does while drifting for minutes at a time feels like a mirage. Whereas watching Michael Jordan in person was like a great opera -- art -- James is more like a magic show. His speed makes himself and his opponents disappear when you blink; his power threatens like an oversized sword sawing a woman in half; his courtsense is the trick where he knows which card you're holding before you even look at it; his aura all swagger, all showman, every step choreographed and precise.
James is the single must-see attraction in the NBA. Indeed, he's can't-miss, thanks to the insane number of cameras set up to capture his every move. But as high as the collective anticipation is for James every year he delivers beyond expectations time and again. Tonight, he was bigger, faster, and stronger than every before. And I write those words every time he comes here.
His first quarter was just silly: 8 for 8 from the field for 20 points. If there was a singular skill that stood out during those 12 minutes it was his ability to finish at the rim. James redefines what "finishing at the rim" means. For James, the window of opportunity to gracefully drop in a layup or dunk seems three or four times longer than the average All Star's. He rises higher, more powerfully and with more control, effortlessly flanking the rim from side to side as he waits for the most opportune moment to release the ball. Defenders go up and come down and James hovers or motors sideways or rises higher, before he inevitably finishes without a care in the world and with either hand.
To watch James on the fast break is even more preposterous. He sees planes that no one else does, as if he is the only person wearing 3 D goggles and the only person moving in fast forward.
And yet James the player could not have been more different than James the person I saw tonight . Where everything between tip and horn is so natural, everything else is so forced, so scripted. James is now approaching nearly 10 years of superstardom yet his interactions with the media trail far behind the likes of Kobe Bryant (or Brandon Roy) when it comes to comfort, depth and feel.
After the game, James made an off-color comment to a team attendant, stuttered through basic questions searching for words that he apparently doesn't have in his arsenal, addressed the media horde wearing only a towel (compared to Bryant who wore a full suit and tie to take questions on Friday night) and resorted to cliches that seemed to bore even himself.
Why? Is he simply tired of the same routine? Does he have nothing to gain from it? Is he convinced that he understands the game in ways the average writer can't? Is he simply unable to convey thoughts that matter? I don't know.
Nearly two hours before the game I caught a glimpse of a more genuine James, and it wasn't pretty. James wore headphones as he warmed up, locked in a cocoon of his own creation, heaving shot after shot. At the time, the Rose Garden was mostly empty and courtside security was not yet in place. Four teenage boys -- mostly decked in Blazers gear-- gawked as James went through his paces, ESPN cameras tracking his every move. As he worked towards the right corner, his admirers were within reach of a man whom they probably consider a superhero.
James mechanically drained his three pointers and then paused briefly as a ballboy went to retrieve a rare miss. Sensing an opportunity, one of the group reached out to James and patted him on the butt, not unlike teammates do countless times during every NBA game. Perhaps with a little more cupping action than usual but, nevertheless, an innocent gesture. The move bordered on the bizarre because it was clear the two had no prior relationship.
James wheeled, removing both his headphones instantly, clearly flummoxed that a stranger had grasped his buttocks. Upon seeing the culprit, who eyed the player with what can only be described as awe, James looked incredulous and indignant. With no other recourse available, James stopped his shooting routine, striding defiantly towards a group of his teammates that were standing near half court. A string of profanities flew from his mouth as he relayed what had just happened to his teammates, who hadn't seen it. To a man, they were equally shocked to hear of the occurrence. James continued his chest-puffing diatribe, occasionally looking back at the group of teenagers. The young men were pretending to gaze out in a different direction, pretending to be invisible. While James's teammates assured him that the kid surely didn't mean any harm and that he was probably just wishing the player well, James continued to shake his head, failing to comprehend that someone he didn't know, someone outside his circle, someone so clearly unimportant, would have the gall to touch him. Him.
Eventually, the kids slunk away. James finally popped his headphones back in and continued his warm-up routine. He either didn't notice -- or pretended not to notice -- two young writers laughing hysterically nearby.
Such is life for LeBron James in 2010.
Untouchable on the court, in more ways than one.
Random Game Notes
- Here's a picture of the shoes that LeBron was wearing during the pregame. As you surely heard on the television broadcast or noticed in the arena, he switched to two different color shoes during the game. Of course he did. In the locker room afterwards he told reporters it was the first time he had done that.
- According to ShamSports.com, by playing in his 10th game of the season tonight, Jeff Pendergraph triggered a condition in his contract that guarantees his salary for next year.
- On nights like tonight, when LaMarcus Aldridge is hitting everything he throws up (8 for 11 for 18 points), you'd love to see him get 25 shots. Instead the Blazers saw Martell Webster, Juwan Howard and Jerryd Bayless combine to shoot 8 for 24 (2 of 11 from deep). If that doesn't frustrate Aldridge, it really should.
- Steve Blake did not look particularly healthy in the 7 minutes he played in his first game back from pneumonia. Loved the fact that Blake gave it a go; loved the fact Nate McMillan parked him back on the bench when it was clear he couldn't keep up with the game's pace.
- Brandon Roy again raised his game against marquee competition, especially in the second half. As joyous as he was on Friday night after beating Bryant and the Lakers, he was equally disappointed tonight.
- The kiss heard round the world: Shaquille O'Neal was fouled during an alley oop attempt and went stumbling into the front row baseline seats where he eventually landed on Daniel Baldwin, who is related to someone that is famous. Baldwin apparently has adopted Portland as his new home and was wearing a Blazers jersey over a Nike Turtleneck. The two men smooched, much to the delight of the nearby cameras. Curious, I had to see which jersey Baldwin was wearing. Turns out it was Juwan Howard's. Of course it was.
- When the two men kissed, it was a major twitter moment. Combined the two men have 2,750,820 followers. Baldwin accounts for 510 of those.
- At the back of the pack for LeBron James' post-game comments I had a front row seat for a towel-clad Zydrunas Ilgauskas merrily lip-synching to "Rhinestone Cowboy." That image is burned into my retinas for life.
- Paul Allen was enjoying the game from his courtside seat tonight. He was looking great. Dwight Jaynes showed everyone how it's done, tracking down Allen after the game for the latest on his treatment.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
What was the difference down the stretch after you tied the game?
It comes down to making plays. I think they had about 3 offensive rebounds, we had some stops. I think there was a stop where they had 1 or 2 offensive boards in a row. And some breakdowns where we started to double-team LeBron when we could get to him. Now it's just if they miss some shots. Thought the kid Williams hit a big 3 so you're trying to force some things to happen, when you force the miss you've got to get the board and of course you've got to go down to score.
Your team played better in the second half than in the first
I thought they came out as the aggressors. LeBron was just unbelievable. You normally don't make adjustments in the first quarter. His 20 points came so fast. I think he had about 3 possessions where we didn't get in front of him and he was at the rim and then he hit some 3s and before you know it he had 20 points. We wanted to double-team but we couldn't get close to him to do that. I thought we came out the second half and played the way we played. Where we started to scrap. We got our traps going. We were able to get in transition, get some movement and get back in the game.
You doubled LeBron more in the second half?
Yeah we could get to him in the second half. I thought that first quarter he pretty much just was in an attack mode. Got to the basket. He had 2 or 3 threes at that time. Some of them were off the ball. They weren't running isolation plays for him in that first quarter he was just making shots. One thing we could have done better is get help over to him when he was penetrating.
Were you happy with the team's fight back despite the loss?
Well we didn't play to stay close. I thought the second half we had a better half. The first half I thought they came out like a team that had dropped one and had respect for what we had done. They came in here ready to play and jumped on us right away. We didn't give in the second half and got ourselves back in the ballgame with an opportunity to win it. And then it comes down to making some plays. I thought Varejao was huge coming in off the bench. Their bench was really good with Williams and Varejao getting offensive boards and knocking down shots.
We know that he now is in a posit ion where he has to be that guy is establishing us in that post. Both he and Brandon are the guys that we were going to start the season playing through. And we're certainly going to play through now. We need him more than ever on the defensive end of the floor. Being without the center. He's a big key to what we want to do.
Talked to him about not being in the all star game and his role?
Yeah, I've had conversations basically about where we are. It's changed. At the beginning of the year it was something different, what we were looking for from him. When Greg goes out it changes it again. And now when Joel is out he's playing a lot of center for us. Even though some teams are matching up at the 4 he's gotta be the guy that defends the basket. It's changed in a sense for him. So yes there's been conversations with him.
Struggle to find second scorer tonight?
Well, you know, a lot of those guys are getting shots off of Brandon's double teams. When we've been able to make those shots then we had shots at winning the game. I thought Brandon was able to make some shots, when they're committing 2 [players to Brandon], the rest of the guys have to make shots.
A lot of minutes for your starters? Is that getting to be a concern?
That's what was working pretty much. Well, you know, of course there's a concern but these are the guys we have. To give us the best chance to win you try to give them a rest and when you feel that game is close or about to get out of reach you've got to go with the guys that are going to give you a chance. That's forcing us to have to play guys a little longer and if our guys can come in. Tonight Bayless didn't have his eyes. Blake is coming off of pneumonia so our bench wasn't as good as they've been. It was just the situation we're in.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter