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Steve Aschburner

LeBron James
LeBron James has scored 25 points or more in eight straight playoff games.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

Saddle up: LeBron again shoulders weighty expectations


Posted Jun 7 2012 1:58PM

BOSTON -- Doc Rivers came and went. Erik Spoelstra did likewise. A good 10-15 minutes of postseason postgame podium from the two coaches passed and, in the emotional minutes after a bitterly fought Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals in Miami Tuesday, LeBron James' name never came up. Not once.

Consider the inadvertent news blackout a compliment to James at one level -- he is one of the few players on the planet who can lead everyone in scoring (30) in a conference championship game, grab 13 rebounds and basically get ignored afterward. James has been so good, for so long, that he has earned that special level of respect: being taken for granted.

Consider it a slap, though, too, because if James had done just a little bit more, just a wee bit better, his team would have won, his contributions would have undeniable and he would have been up there on the podium himself. It's a short walk from taken for granted to rendered incidental.

Either way, James can forget about his moment below the radar lasting because, from this point forward, whatever happens or doesn't happen for the Heat in the 2012 playoffs is going to have him front and center.

Miami is into elimination territory now, its quest of an NBA title -- the first of several, we were so brazenly told -- in jeopardy for the second time in 12 months. And James is the embodiment of everything this Heat team stands for and aspires to, while toting springtime baggage that predates The Decision and is his alone.

The guy has been bumped off in Boston before, losing with Cleveland in 2008 (seven games) and in 2010 (six games, his last with the Cavaliers). James is 2-6 in elimination games overall and never has advanced once his team has been backed against this win-or-go-home wall.

"I mean, they definitely come up," James said during Miami's media availability Wednesday, when asked about the Boston setbacks. "Of course. It's human for them to come up. You got to approach [Game 6] like it's its own."

James added: "I know how much pain this team has given me over the years. ... It's only right that we will be going up there in an elimination game."

After his team's loss in Game 5, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra answered a question about forward Chris Bosh's minutes -- Bosh returned after missing nine games with an abdominal strain -- by saying he wanted to be fair to the recovering power forward. But what about fair to James? How fair is it to put the burden of this series on him?

Without him, the Heat isn't here, period. Miami is three rounds deep into a postseason that James has dominated in terms of individual performance. He is averaging 29.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.1 steals and almost 42 minutes. The league's Most Valuable Player is shooting 49.6 percent (though only 26.7 percent -- 16 of 60 -- from 3-point range). He has had nine games of 30 points or more and six double-doubles -- all of them 30/10 games. James has gone for 25 points or more in eight straight games, the longest streak in a single postseason since Kobe Bryant had eight such games in 2008.

Rivers, who has worked against James for years and has gotten another up-close-and-personal dose over the past 10 days, lavished praise on him Tuesday. He was talking about James' play in pick-and-rolls.

"LeBron's a smart basketball player," Rivers said. "When you watch him, you appreciate him more in things like that. Every once in a while, he'll set [a pick]. Nine times out of 10, he slips it. You can see that's more on his IQ than on the actual set. He's just reading situations and making it very difficult for us."

In the East finals, James numbers have gone up: 31.8 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 4.0 apg, 1.4 steals, 1.6 blocks and 45.39 minutes on average. He has hit 50 percent of his shots but has missed 16 of his 22 3-point attempts. And across five games that has Miami ahead in total points by a mere 480-478, James has missed 19 free throws.

In the 94-90 Game 5 loss Tuesday, James hit seven of his first nine shots, then went 3-of-14 chilly. He missed a 3-point attempt at 1:13, Miami down 87-85. And he was on the receiving end of Paul Pierce's game-busting 3-pointer moments later, the veteran Boston scorer dribbling right at James, sizing him up (James backed up one fatal step), getting his steps right and draining the shot.

That play absolved Pierce of a miserable shooting night and reminded so many critics of the times James hasn't made similar plays. Pierce looked surgical in his timing and impact; James again wound up looking out of synch and inadequate.

The biggest names in this series all are playing with their reputations relatively intact. The Celtics' stars -- Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo -- all have rings. So does Dwyane Wade, the cohort who never quite owns the Heat's failures the way James does. Perception matters -- Wade is seen as a clutch player, the type fans want James to be. And in fact, he has scored 81 of his 110 points in the series in the second half or overtime. The flip side, naturally, is that Wade has averaged just 5.8 points in the first half, keeping the Celtics close, giving them hope and life.

Chris Bosh hasn't won but then he's barely played for two rounds, his injury earning him a pass for a while longer. There's been grief heaped upon Spoelstra but that's different, since no one has the young Miami coach sized up for greatness unless he eventually gets there.

James? Unless things start to go right for him soon, real soon, he'll become the first three-time NBA Most Valuable Player who didn't also have at least one championship ring. Kobe Bryant is chasing Michael Jordan's legacy, Garnett has reincarnated Bill Russell lately and James is shaping up as a modern-day Elgin Baylor, possessor of pretty numbers but ultimately ringless.

None of this is new in LeBron World. The expectations and the pressure, the scrutiny and the second-guessing, all of that came with him from northern Ohio to South Beach. What, you really thought all he was bringing was his talents?

LeBron James' Stats When Facing Elimination
Date Opp. Res. MIN FGM FGA FG% 3PM 3PA 3P% FTM FTA FT% REB AST TO PTS
May 21, 2006 at DET L 46:45 11 24 45.8% 0 4 0.0% 5 8 62.5% 8 2 3 27
June 14, 2007 vs. SAS L 46:29 10 30 33.3% 2 7 28.6% 2 6 33.3% 6 10 6 24
May 16, 2008 vs. BOS W 46:39 9 23 39.1% 1 3 33.3% 13 15 86.7% 12 6 8 32
May 18, 2008 at BOS L 46:48 14 29 48.3% 3 11 27.3% 14 19 73.7% 5 6 2 45
May 28, 2009 vs. ORL W 45:30 11 24 45.8% 0 2 0.0% 15 19 78.9% 14 12 4 37
May 30, 2009 at ORL L 44:53 8 20 40.0% 2 8 25.0% 7 11 63.6% 7 7 3 25
May 13, 2010 at BOS L 46:12 8 21 38.1% 2 4 50.0% 9 12 75.0% 19 10 9 27
June 12, 2011 vs. DAL L 40:21 9 15 60.0% 2 5 40.0% 1 4 25.0% 4 6 6 21
AVERAGES 8 G 2-6 45.5 10.0 23.3 43.0% 1.5 5.5 27.3% 8.3 11.8 70.2% 9.4 7.4 5.1 29.8
Not facing elim. 100 G 64-36 43.2 9.6 20.4 46.9% 1.4 4.4 32.0% 7.7 10.2 74.7% 8.5 6.7 3.5 28.2

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

NBA.com's John Schuhmann provided statistical research.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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