Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, John Salley, Isiah and Co. whipped Michael Jordan into submission for three years in the playoffs before his Airness finally reached the mountaintop. This weekend the new-era Pistons let LeBron James know that the road to the brass ring is a painful one. A humbling one.
After being stymied time and again by a suffocating Pistons' defense Sunday, James shuffled back to the Cavaliers' bench, biting his lip, tears welling in his eyes. His teammates surrounded him, patting him on the back, whispering in his ear that this won't be his last time in the dance. Certainly not. His visage will be the face of the NBA playoffs for the next 10-15 years.
But first he needed to learn the lesson that all the great ones learned, except Magic, who used his rookie playoff experience to set a standard that no other first year player will ever match, playing out of position and leading his team to the crown with a dominating triple-double performance. James came as close as anyone since with his own triple-double (32/11/11) in Game 1 against the Washington Wizards. He had his Jordan over Ehlo moment when he went baseline against the Wizards to take Game 5.
Giving the Cavs their first series win since the 80s would probably have been enough, and, in fact, nobody really expected much more. Beating a similarly snake-bit franchise in the first round is one thing, but taking down the reigning conference champions in round 2 would be another. The stakes had been raised, and LeBron found out what playoff pressure against a battle-tested team was like when he went scoreless in the second half of Game 1 against the Pistons.
But instead of packing it in, as another MVP frontrunner did in Game 7 against the Suns in the first round out west, James willed his team to three consecutive victories against the Pistons. He did it with his scoring and his ball-handling, but most importantly, with his leadership. He was growing up before our eyes. And, on the verge of a 4-3 series win in Game 6, it seemed he may take the second-greatest leap of any first-time playoff baller.
The Pistons had other ideas. A champion must first take his lumps. The young warrior can not ascend to the head of the tribe at such a young age, regardless of the eventual inevitability of said ascension.
He is a phenomenal, phenomenal talent. He grew up a lot in this series. We are going to be facing him for some years to come because he's not going nowhere. He's a terrific player, he's a good dude. I'm a huge LeBron fan., but when you're playing against him,you've got to give it your all, as Pistons guard Chauncey Billupps said.
LeBron may be the future King, but for now, the biggest boys on the block reminded him that that day has not yet come. It is a lesson learned by other greats of the game. So while he is arguably the best talent in the league and should end up one day with a case full of championship trophies, that day is not yet here.
The education of LeBron James took an important step this year. He has learned lessons that will linger. Lessons that can only come from the sour taste of crushing defeat that one gets from the playoffs.
Rivalries start in the playoffs,asť James said earlier this season, and I'll tell you what, I'll be happy for it to start. I haven't been a part of the playoffs yet, but I will be this year.
And he'll be back next year. Stronger. And hungrier.
Article by Ray Franklin