Two days ago we witnessed one of the greatest playoff performances of all time. LeBron James single handedly beat the Boston Celtics. They couldn’t stop him. They couldn’t even contain him. He was able to do whatever he wanted and the most impressive part of the performance is that Boston was playing good defense. They were on him. Hands in his face, bodying him, staying with him step for step. And he was still burning them.
This was a LeBron I don’t think we’ve ever seen. He’s always been a great player, but we’ve never seen him as this unstoppable force. When he stepped foot on the court Thursday he was different. He had a different look to him – ‘The Look.’ The look on his face, which didn’t leave until about midway through the fourth quarter, was sullen, removed and pouty. (Side note: will we see this from him more? Will it rise to the level of The Manning Face?) I’ve seen some describe LeBron’s look Thursday night as emotionless. I didn’t see it as that. To me, it seemed more like an act. “I’m going to have this look on my face the whole game as a statement.” It struck me that way because you could see him make an effort to keep the look on his face. He’d drive the lane and get fouled, face contorting, as always players typically do in that situation. As soon as the whistle blew, you could see him consciously make the effort to put that look back on his face. To me, it didn’t seem emotionless, it seemed more pouty.
I don’t know if that was LeBron’s effort to look intense or if it was the result of being beaten down for the past two days by fans and media (didn’t help him that after Kevin Durant closed out San Antonio some were now saying he jumped past LeBron as best in the league and has undoubtedly been the best player in the playoffs). But either way, it didn’t strike me as genuine. Some players have an intense look to them that is transparent and honest. You can tell that they’re intense in all facets of their lives – Michael Jordan had that, Kobe has that, even Kevin Garnett has that look. LeBron never has. He’s a little more happy go lucky. Not to say he doesn’t take the game seriously – he does – but he likes to have fun while he’s playing. He’s never had that stone cold vibe to him like Michael or Kobe. And that’s fine. Everyone is their own man and succeeds in his own way. Magic Johnson didn’t strike me as being a stone cold killer either and he succeeded without it.
Now, if ‘the look’ was the result of two days of intense criticism and scrutiny, that seems more plausible than the sudden emergence of high intensity, but as I mentioned earlier, it was visible that there was effort to keep ‘the look.’ If it was a beaten down LeBron, he never would’ve come out of that mode and there were moments you could see he did.
Moving beyond the look on LeBron’s face, there was something more important about his performance Thursday night: now we’ve seen he can do it… After that game, I was asking, “where has this been before?” The guy’s always been great, but not dominating at such a high level. What happened? He destroyed one of the NBA’s best defensive teams. The rest of his team was flat and offered little help. Wade has been stymied and frustrated by Boston’s double teams the whole series and he didn’t have a good game. Bosh might as well have not been there. The cast of supporting players filled their roles, but did nothing spectacular. LeBron forced a game 7, the Heat didn’t.
He had some great games in Cleveland, some really great games. He led a cast of misfits to the NBA Finals, but I don’t recall seeing anything like Thursday night from him before. I’m trying to keep perspective and not get caught up in the moment, but I don’t ever recall being as impressed with LeBron as I was Thursday night. Had we seen this side of him before, we could be looking at him as the greatest player ever right now. Should he have broken out ‘the look’ before? Has he been coasting, somewhat wasting this insane amount of talent that emerged Thursday night which we haven’t seen anything like since Jordan? The answer is of course no, LeBron is no coaster, he exerts tons of effort, but after such an astonishing performance, I know there were people asking that.
Heading into tonight’s game 7 I have to wonder what we’ll see from LeBron. He’s now shown us he has it in him to just completely and utterly dominate a game. That also means we’re now going to expect it since we know he can do it. So tonight will we see the return of ‘the look’? Can LeBron give us those performances consistently? Or did ‘the look’ set such astronomical expectations that he can only disappoint? After all, most people have now already put the Heat in the Finals against the Thunder. We’ll see tonight. I, for one, don’t envy the position LeBron is in…