Posted: Sunday April 23, 2006 6:10PM; Updated: Monday April 24, 2006 11:24AM
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It's the playoff debut of the prodigy turned cottage industry turned MVP candidate, Mr. LeBron James himself. Countless DVRs whirl to life, thousands of teenagers settle into thousands of couches, headbands tilted just so. Today, at least, James' Nike billboard -- the one hung 40 feet high across the street from the Quicken Arena in Cleveland -- is indeed true:
WE ARE ALL WITNESSES.
Starting with the first quarter, we pick up analysis of the game, provided not from the arena (for that, see my peer Chris Mannix), but from a remove, with the mellifluous voice of Hubie Brown as accompaniment.
9:22: James scores his first two postseason points by bullrushing to the hoop, warding off Brendan Haywood and banking the ball home. (One could argue that no one in the league since Karl Malone is as good at taking contact, not altering course and finishing.) The Wizards are going to have to do one of three things: react quicker on the help side, take a charge or foul James harder. Other than Michael Ruffin, however, they lack anyone proficient in this lost art.
6:53:Zydrunas Ilgauskas feeds Larry Hughes, who misses a jumper. This leads Hubie into a mini-diatribe, which can be summed up thusly: More Z. This is a common theme in talking to scouts, beat writers and coaches about the Cavs. The guy is 7-foot-3, he has one of the nicer touches for a big man in the league, and when he does miss, he's adept at grabbing his own misses (probably that 7-3 thing). Anyway, if Cleveland is to advance in these playoffs, they'll need to feed Ilgauskas regularly.
5:45: A loose balloon drifts onto the court and James corrals it. Apparently, this type of attention to civic duty is to be rewarded: The crowd starts chanting "M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!" The man can do no wrong. This type of deification is the norm in Cleveland. When I spoke to James recently for an SI story, he addressed it by saying, "I'm not a superhero. I'm a human being just like everybody else." This sounds good, but it didn't strike me as entirely genuine. First, because in present-day America, he is as close as we get to a superhero. Second, he is remarkably self-assured for a 21-year-old, and fully aware of his capabilities (he says he doesn't even worry about his primary defender because he assumes he'll beat him). It also doesn't help when he says things like, after a Chicago game in which his headband was knocked off, "It's like my cape. Knock a superhero's cape off and you know he gets very angry."
5:08: The Cavs try a 2-3 zone. If they're wise, they won't try it again. After a poor rotation, Gilbert Arenas is left wide open -- playing H-O-R-S-E open -- for a three. He misses. During the ensuing timeout, we get our first shot of James chewing his nails. The over/under on TV shots of nail-chewing: the guess here is 7. It's not clear which is more peculiar: James' habit of biting his nails or television's fixation with showing it. One wonders where producers would draw the line. If James had a habit of, say, sniffing his armpits before he came out of every timeout, would TNT and ABC feel compelled to show it? At the same time, James knows the nails have become a spectacle, but hasn't been able to quit the habit (he says he's working on it). So James will chew and we will watch.
3:55: Classic Z, a tip-in from two feet (Z doesn't do follow-dunks). It allows for a close-up shot of the big man, who appears to have a ferret clinging to his face, so bushy is his beard. Beards are the theme for the Cavs: In addition to Z, Drew Gooden is sporting his usual Shel Silverstein look, and James has grown out a beard so that instead of looking old enough to be Eric Snow's older brother, he now looks like Snow's father. It is always interesting to me the ways that NBA teams try to show solidarity entering the playoffs. The most unfortunate instance came some years ago when the Pacers all shaved their heads. This look worked better for Reggie Miller than for Chris Mullin, if I remember correctly. The concept seems to be: We are united in our ugliness. Only, as with the Pacers and the Cavs, inevitably some people (Ilgauskas, Mullin) shoulder a larger load of the ugliness.
1:59: James head fakes, then steps back and hits a three. This is the big improvement in his game this year. Rarely do young players, especially those like James who can rely on their athleticism, improve their shooting so dramatically. Michael Jordan never became a good three-point shooter; Kobe Bryant shot 26.7 percent from three-point land in his third year in the league. LeBron in this, his third season, shot 33.5 percent. What's more, he can get the shot off the dribble. The danger, of course, is if he relies on it too much at the detriment of driving to the hole; Hughes told me that if he has one piece of advice for James, it's "don't settle for the fadeaway, even if you know you can get it off."