We'll never forget LeBron's 48-Point Game
Jun. 1, 2007 | feedback
Around 8:15 p.m. on the West Coast, I called a buddy who works for the Celtics and left him the following message:
"It's 91-91 and heading to overtime just wanted to say, you better hope the Cavs lose this game because there's no stopping LeBron if he pulls this off. They're gonna own the East for the next 10-12 years. We're done."
Within 35 minutes, the fork was officially shoved into the Celtics and everyone else in the East. Our worst fears had come true. LeBron decided to make LeLeap.
This wasn't just about the improbable 29-of-30 points barrage down the stretch, those two monster dunks at the end of regulation, the way he perservered despite a crummy coach and a mediocre supporting cast, how he just kept coming and coming, even how he made that game-winning layup look so damned easy. Physically, LeBron overpowered the Pistons. This was like watching a light-heavyweight battling a middleweight for eight rounds and suddenly realizing, "Wait, I have 15 pounds on this guy," then whipping the poor guy into a corner and destroying him with body punches. The enduring moment was LeBron flying down the middle for a Dr. J retro dunk and Tayshaun Prince ducking for cover like someone reacting to a fly-by from a fighter jet. The Pistons wanted no part of him. They were completely dominated. They didn't knock him down, they didn't jump in front of him for a charge hell, they were so shell-shocked by what was happening, they didn't even realize they should be throwing two guys at him.
This differed from vintage MJ simply because Jordan was never an overpowering physical presence. At 6-foot-6 and built more like a wide receiver, when Jordan took over games the recipe centered around 20-foot jumpers, slice-and-dice drives, putbacks off rebounds, turnaround fallaways, hang-in-the-air layups to draw contact, maybe even an occasional dunk on somebody's head. He compensated for his size in three ways: by maintaining a level of intensity that overwhelmed everyone else; by working his butt off defensively to get easy baskets off turnovers; and by creating an inside/outside scoring attack that answered every possible defensive strategy. And with all that said, guess what? He was still a middleweight. Isiah's Pistons gained an edge for a couple of years by knocking Jordan down every time he attacked the rim. When Riley's Knicks took this ploy to another level, the NBA overreacted and changed its contact rules, eventually leading to the wussified sport we're watching today. (Example No. 5,767: Antonio McDyess' ejection.)
This is what Bill wrote about LeBron in a column from last spring:
"At least once a game, he does something so explosive, so athletic, so incredible, you can't even believe it happened. The last time I remember feeling this way about a professional athlete was Bo Jackson, who wasn't just great
he stood out. I attended a spring training game once when Bo scored from third base on a 180-foot pop fly -- standing up. It was awesome to watch. Well, LeBron reminds me of Bo. On those plays when he says, "Screw it, I'm scoring" and heads toward the basket like a runaway freight train. He's like a young Barkley crossed with a young Shawn Kemp crossed with young Magic, but with a little Bo thrown in. Out of anyone in the league, he's the only player who can cripple the other team with one monster play.
There's a perfect example that Hollinger wrote about on Sunday, but screw it, I'm retelling the story. On Saturday afternoon, I TiVo'ed the Nets-Cavs game because the Nets had won 14 straight and officially reached "record all our games" territory. LeBron completely took over the game in the fourth, capped off by one of the most startling plays I have ever seen: Trailing in the final two minutes, LeBron seized some open space in transition and pulled the Runaway Freight Train move, careening toward the basket as one Net reached in and hacked him, followed by another Net on the other side reaching in and fouling him, and then a third guy just to make sure he wouldn't score. LeBron was cradling the ball, taking two giant steps toward the basket and absorbing those karate chops. BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. Any normal human being would have either lost the ball or lost their balance and tumbled to the ground.
Well, LeBron kept going -- almost like a tight end bouncing off three safeties in the open field. As the last guy walloped him, LeBron jumped in the air (where did he get the strength?!?!?), regained control of the ball, hung in the air, hung in the air for another split-second, gathered the ball (at this point, he was drifting under the right side of the rim), and finally unleashed a righty layup that banked in. The shot was so BLEEPING INCREDIBLE, the referee practically jumped in delight as he called the continuation foul. The Nets were done after that. He ripped their hearts out, MJ-style. Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it.
Put it this way: They won't need to change the rules to protect LeBron. If Jordan was a receiver, then LeBron is one of those scary tight ends who runs a 4.35 40, outsprints safeties and occasionally carries five tacklers into the end zone just to see if it can be done. Physically, he's the most imposing perimeter player in the history of the league. Nobody else comes close. Even last spring, when he was only 21 years old, I described a specific LeBron play in an NBA column that was unlike anything I'd ever seen (check the sidebar). For comparative purposes, the only athlete who worked was Bo Jackson. And that's been the challenge for LeBron these past 12 months -- finding his inner Bo, learning how to channel it, figuring out the right times to unleash it.
When he passed up the game-tying dunk in Game 1 for an ill-fated pass to Donyell Marshall, in retrospect that turned out to be the most important lesson of his career. He needed to take the abuse, needed to hear the questions, needed to hear everyone call him out. Both Detroit losses hardened him, leading to his transcendent Game 3 and another focused performance in Game 4. You could see him harnessing his considerable gifts. Every fledgling superduperstar needs one of these moments -- Jordan had the series-winning shot in Cleveland, Tiger had the '97 Masters, Magic had Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, Bird had the banker in Game 7 of the '81 Philly series -- when they can say to themselves, "I came through when it mattered, I can do it again." LeBron was one crowd-killing game in Detroit from pushing himself to another level, almost like someone completing a mission in "Grand Theft Auto."
Above everything else, that's why this game mattered. Down the stretch, LeBron turned into a cross between Bo and MJ -- he seized the moment, made it his own, took everyone to a higher place. As a reader named Billy Carter e-mailed me afterward, "Watching LeBron finally enabled me to understand the Pele speech that the cook gave to Louden Swain in 'Vision Quest.' When the game was over, I wanted to wrestle Chute."
Me too. Like so many other diehard fans, I watch thousands and thousands of hours of sports every year hoping something special will happen, whether it's a 60-point game in basketball, a no-hitter during a Red Sox game, a seven-run comeback in the ninth, a back-and-forth NFL game, a boxing pay-per-view or whatever else. Occasionally, it pays off. For instance, two Saturdays ago, the Pavlik-Miranda undercard of the Spinks-Taylor fight was special. Last January's Colts-Pats game was special. Every Oakland home game of the Warriors-Mavs series was special. Maybe there are degrees of the word, but still, every time we're clicking on a television or heading to a ballgame, deep down, we're hoping something special happens.
Well, Thursday night was ultra-special. Watching King James take over Game 5 and finally earn his nickname, I felt like something substantial was happening. Like my life as a basketball fan was being irrevocably altered.
Hold onto your seats, everybody it's happening! LeBron James is making the leap!
If you care about basketball, you'll remember where you watched this game 20 years from now. If you care about basketball, it meant something when Marv Albert blessed the night by calling it "one of the greatest performances in NBA playoff history." If you care about basketball, you enjoyed TNT's postgame show, when a giddy Barkley was so hyped up that he could barely sit still in his seat. If you care about basketball, this game immediately joined the Bird-Dominique Duel, The Flu Game, MJ's Last Shot, Magic's Sky Hook, McHale's Clothesline, the Sleepy Floyd Game, MJ's 63-Point Game, the Bernard-Isiah Duel, the '87 All-Star Game, the Suns-Celts Game, Bird's Steal, Havlicek's Steal, West's Half-Court Shot, the Miller/Spike Lee Game and every other classic over the years that can be described/remembered/rehashed in three or four words. We'll call this "LeBron's 48-Point Game" someday. 'Nuff said.
After it ended, I had a reader compare it to a player catching fire in the old "NBA Jam" arcade game, when every jump shot would result in the basketball being on fire. I had a Pistons fan named Duane e-mail me, "Watching LeBron's performance in Game 5 made me feel like Ron Burgundy. LBJ pooped in my refrigerator, ate the whole wheel of cheese and I'm not even mad. That was amazing." I had a reader compare LeBron's performance to the "No F-ing Way Game" in Madden, when the computer makes the executive decision, "Look, you're not winning this game." I had a reader named Justin Jacobs e-mail me, "After LeBron single-handedly beat the Pistons tonight, I looked at my 10-year-old brother and told him, 'You just bore witness to one of the greatest performances in NBA history.' You know you're seeing a great moment in sports when you're happy that your little brother was there to see it."
I don't know where we're headed with the LeBron Era -- how high he'll go, what he has in store for us down the road, even whether Game 5 will end up being an aberration along the lines of Vince Carter's 50-point game in the Philly series six years ago. But for the first time, I feel confident that we're headed for the right place. Even if that place includes Cleveland dominating the Celtics and everyone else in the East until my kids are in junior high.
(On second thought come on Detroit!)