NBA column: King misplaces crown when Cavs need him most
By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Columnist
It's a good thing LeBron James will change the number on the back of his jersey from 23 to 6 next season, if only because wherever he winds up, it will be one less reminder of the player he will never be.
The comparisons to Michael Jordan were overblown long before now. James' listless performance in the Cavs' Game 5 loss to the Celtics at home was simply confirmation of that.
He may be the NBA prototype for the rest of this century: a RoboCop physique, already possessed with 22nd-Century skills. But unless or until he develops a killer instinct, James doesn't belong in the same sentence with the guy who dominated basketball at the end of the last one.
Jordan had plenty of tough shooting nights, even in the playoffs, but every time it happened, he made sure everyone else on the other team had a worse one. If it meant playing blistering defense, he did. If it required collaring every important rebound and loose ball, he did that, too.
Scaring his teammates enough to raise their own games? Jordan did that, anyway, because he didn't know any other way to play.
Contrast that with how James played Tuesday night. After talking about how important it was to set the tone and then lobbying to defend Boston's emerging superstar, Rajon Rondo, James launched four shots in the first half and made zero.
He didn't make a field goal until almost the midpoint of the third quarter, and by then the outcome was practically assured. James finished with 15 points, on 3-of-14 shooting and didn't shut down anyone.
"I play according to the game and see how it's flowing and we had a great flow," he said afterward, explaining the disappearing act in the opening half. "I wasn't able to get anything offensively going for myself, but I was still able to do some other things — get some rebounds, get some assists and get some guys going early on the game."
Kobe Bryant, the other guy who's been hemmed in by comparisons to Jordan, disappears some nights, too. But he does it willfully. He can't scare his teammates the way Jordan did, but he's not above reminding them what the consequences are if they won't step up.
Yet Bryant won't stand by idly while an important game slides down the drain. He's too selfish that way. James just did.
"It's unlike him," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said afterward. "He had an off-night tonight, which is abnormal.
"He'll be ready to go," Brown added a moment later, "in Game 6."
Don't bet on it.
Some of the Cleveland fans who hadn't already bolted the arena booed James when he walked off the floor with four minutes left. He took the Cavs to the finals in his fourth season, but got swept and promised to use the experience as a lesson. The only thing James appears to have learned, though, is how to lose the games that matter most.
He is still only 25, which might explain the lack of urgency. Most of his career is still in front of him, including free agency and suitors lined up in every town with enough cap room to convince his agent, Leon Rose, to take a call. But the very same things that make James so appealing off the court — a quick smile, level head, easygoing demeanor — seem to holding back his progress on it.
Remember what happened last season, after the Magic abruptly ended what was widely billed as the king's coronation. After the Cavs lost, James rushed toward the exit without shaking hands with any of the Orlando players. A day later, instead of apologizing, his explanation was more awkward still.
"It's hard for me to congratulate somebody after you just lose to them," he said back at the team's practice facility in Cleveland. "I mean, I'm a winner.
"I'm a competitor," James added. "That's what I do."
But he's still not a winner, and based on his leadership in this series, still only so much of a competitor.
The Lakers, too, seemed to be sleepwalking their way through these playoffs, especially in the first round against a younger, seemingly hungrier Oklahoma City squad. Then Bryant, who like James has been forced to play through a nagging injury, took over and tore up both the Thunder and then the Jazz, scoring at least 30 points in his past five games.
James shrugged off a question in the interview room afterward about whether the Cavs lack of an "identity" was the reason for their wildly uneven play in the series.
"I don't feel like it's an identity thing," he said, "just a consistency thing."
But consistency comes when people know what's expected of them, and James' supporting cast is finding it hard to figure out what their roles are when the star of the show is still trying to decide what his is going to be.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org