NBA Finals Update

Possessed of one of the most expressive, revealing faces in the history of sports, LeBron James exudes a distinct sense of tragedy.

Are we witnessing the return of neurotic LeBron?

Image courtesy Keith Allison, via Flickr.

So far, so depressing. Each of the two games has begun with enough tight, smothering defense from the Cavs, sloppy passes from the Warriors, ill-advised flings at the basket from Curry and Thompson, and the occasional, nostalgia-inducing spectacle of LeBron barreling his way to the rim such that a Cavs victory in Oakland becomes, for a moment, a subject of viable contemplation. The execrable Kevin Love, a player who handles the ball with all the finesse of a bear fishing for salmon, makes a couple open threes from the corner. The team that held the first seed in the East all season starts to inspire confidence.

Then the intimations of collapse appear. The Warriors make a couple extra passes causing the Cavs to blow a rotation, and Andre Iguodala pitches to some Warriors no-name crouched sedulously under the hoop, alone and palely loitering, who puts up the easy lay-in. After a few of these demoralizing plays, the Warriors appear to perform the real-life equivalent of plugging the cheat code into a video game, and the three pointers begin to fly with surpassing ease—not just from Curry or Thompson, but Leandro Barbosa, Marreese Speights, the depraved Draymond Green. The blowout sets in only two thirds of the way into the game, thanks largely to the unruffled calm of the Warriors’ bench. We are seriously contemplating a series in which Shaun Livingston, who went 8 for 10 from the field in the first game, may earn the finals MVP.

This is how good and deep the Warriors are. Too bad their current fans don’t deserve them. Over the course of the playoffs, as seat prices have begun to track those of San Francisco one-bedrooms, the crowd has changed from the Oakland faithful to the inevitable assortment of tech industry sociopaths. In the late-2000s, when the team consisted of Monta Ellis and young Curry (who then bore a strong resemblance to Natalie Portman), noodling and bricking shots, Oracle Arena was the best place to watch basketball: well-attended, agreeably loud, and above all, cheap. A quick search on SeatGeek for Game 5—which probably won’t even take place—divulges tickets in the nosebleeds for about $1,147. Not surprisingly the first game of this year’s finals took place in near-silence; the team’s slogan this year, “strength in numbers,” carries the unmistakable resonance of data mining.

Grimmer than the Warriors’ gentrifying fan base has been watching LeBron James stare into the abyss of yet another finals loss—what will be his fifth, out of seven trips. Possessed of one of the most expressive, revealing faces in the history of sports, he exudes a distinct sense of tragedy. After he gets taken out in the fourth quarter along with the other starters, when the game’s fate has already been decided, LeBron still leans forward from the bench, his eyes intent and nervous, appearing to suss out something definite from the game’s remnants, biting his nails, repeatedly touching his face. Among titanic sports figures, only Serena Williams—who appears to need to fall apart on the court, listing about, turning grunts into extended groans, before finally proceeding to dismantle her opponent—so visibly derives strength from deep neurosis.

Reaching the commanding heights of sports requires unheard-of reserves of serenity, and achieving these breeds new kinds of psychopathology that one has to master in turn. But LeBron’s self-lacerating doubts have gotten the better of him before, especially in the conference semifinals loss to the Boston Celtics in 2010 and the Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011—the night before Game 5 of which he tweeted, uselessly and wrongly, “Now or never!!” (He won championships the following two years.) It was startling to watch, in those instances, a player disappear into himself when he was most needed—and it was equally gratifying to watch him put these unsettling ghosts to bed, turning in, during his championship runs, some of the best playoff games in the annals of basketball.

Are we witnessing the return of neurotic LeBron? There may be other reasons for his problems. While not playing badly, exactly, he hasn’t been playing well either—bad passes, traveling violations, slicing to the rim only to get blocked by Andrew Bogut. Some of the credit goes to Iguodala, a brilliant, infuriating defender. LeBron is also older, of course, and everyone has noticed something off in the mechanics of his jump shot.

But some of the problems are structural, and here, according to some quarters, LeBron can’t avoid blame. He has had considerable leeway in building this Cavs team, and the result speaks for itself. Harvey Araton laid out the unusually harsh indictment in the Times: LeBron forced a decent coach (David Blatt) to retire in favor of an untested one (Tyronn Lue); he lobbied for trading a potentially good young player (Andrew Wiggins) for an overrated older one bad on defense (the aforementioned Kevin Love). Unmentioned by Araton is the fact that LeBron tacitly insisted that the team keep on Tristan Thompson at the cost of a violently inflated $16.2-million-a-year contract, because Thompson and LeBron are friends and share an agent. There is also LeBron’s destructive need to have everyone be friends, as revealed when, in another one of his passive aggressive subtweets, he suggested last year to an unnamed Love that he “stop trying to find a way to FIT-OUT and just FIT-IN,” in response to the introverted Love indicating that he’d rather sit at home playing video games than hang out with the team. I’m not a video game guy, but I wouldn’t want to hang out with neurotic LeBron either.

The problem with this judgment against manager LeBron is that, of course, under NBA socialism, the players, as labor, would have total leeway in deciding who plays and what system of management and control would result. NBA utopia would look like one giant pickup league. And as it happens LeBron has been the best manager Cleveland has seen in 30 years. A terrible team when LeBron returned, and indeed a terrible team during the early LeBron years (except for LeBron), they have become quite a decent one, which nonetheless can’t beat one of the best teams in history.

It’s unlikely the Dubs will lose focus and let the Cavs have a game or two, the way the ’90s Bulls, out of sheer bloodlust, let the Sonics and Jazz take a couple, in order to make the final the evisceration that much sweeter. The series will end in Cleveland, when the cyclical reckoning for LeBron and his desperate city resumes. Dubs in 4.

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