HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — So what’s after “now” and “never?”
In its own way, much more the crucible than a seventh game could ever be.
Once The Finals get to Game 7, the intense, smothering pressure is back on both teams, the glaring spotlight as potentially blinding for anyone who stares into the moment rather than just plays.
Now LeBron James finds himself dangling over the edge of the cliff for the first time in these “it’s-all-about-us” playoffs.
Never will King James and the Heat live down this monumental flop no matter how many future championships — “not five, not six, not seven…” — are out there over the horizon.
Pull it off and he rides into glory. Come up short and anything that comes later will look like a limousine with a license plate reading: 2LTL2L8.
This is the platform that James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh put themselves on ever since that night last summer when they danced and celebrated amid the smoke and noise on the stage.
But nobody set themselves up more than James, who put himself on the dissecting table with the nationally-televised “Decision” and brought the basketball world to this point with what was previously believed impossible– delivering an unsatisfying triple-double of 17 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds.
That’s because when the game was on the line Thursday night, James evaporated in the final six minutes, missing two of his three shots, had no rebounds, no assists and a turnover.
“Only two free throws,” said Chris Webber on NBA TV’s GameTime last night. That’s not as aggressive as he should have been, especially with Wade hurt.”
“Never got into the full attack mode,” said Kevin McHale.
Our man Mike Wise of the Washington Post discusses the fascination with LeBron as the vise turns tighter and the stakes get higher:
Either way, an intense fascination continues, a curiosity that draws parallels to Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Mike Tyson in their primes, a burning to see what happens next to the fabulously talented, if flawed, supernova.
Will he rise up from the first back-to-back postseason losses of his team’s season? Or crash and burn on the account of great expectation, ego or both?
Really, what’s behind the psychology of a two-time MVP taking one shot in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the NBA Finals and making just 1 of 4 in the final 12 minutes of Game 5?
Did he “check out” as DeShawn Stevenson suggested? Was his fear-of-failure quotient so high he needed to let someone else decide the game? Or did he resort to the facilitating point guard he always wanted to be and forget how big, strong and skilled he is as a scorer?
“It’s Now or Never,” he tweeted to his followers, almost impossibly heaping more pressure on himself than all of his detractors and the Miami Heat’s’s bewildered fans.
The truth is that the Heat are hardly in unprecedented territory as they go home needing back-to-back wins to claim their title. Since the NBA switched to the 2-3-2 format for The Finals in 1985, only three teams — the 1988 Lakers, the 1994 Rockets and the 2010 Lakers — have returned home trailing 3-2 and defended their turf to claim the title.
The connecting thread, of course, is that each of those teams was led by an undisputed alpha dog that simply would not, could not, shrink from the moment. Nobody was ever going to find Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon or Kobe Bryant standing on the perimeter rather than going to the basket to score a bucket, draw a foul or do something.
Johnson’s Lakers had to withstand one of the greatest individual efforts in NBA history in Game 6 when Isiah Thomas sprained his ankle, then limped back onto the floor 35 seconds later and pumped in a Finals record 25 points (of his game high 43) in the third quarter.
Olajuwon’s Rockets were barely clinging to a one-point lead over the Knicks in the final minute of Game 6 when John Starks came wide open on the left wing and launched one more jumper. But Olajuwon got there in time to get the tip of one finger on the ball and preserved the win.
When Kendrick Perkins went down in the first quarter with torn knee ligaments, Bryant and the Lakers wasted no time seizing the opportunity and thumped the Celtics to get themselves to Game 7.
So it can be done. It has been done.
Now it’s LeBron’s turn.
Never a better opportunity.