When LeBron James plays like a mere mortal, he draws criticism as a player overhyped, washed or lacking in a certain je ne sais quoi that the greatest players had. When LeBron plays like a god, as he did in Monday's Game 5, the complainants take a new tact: why can't he play like that all the time?
Is that a fair question to ask? When LeBron has a 41-16-7-3-3 masterpiece of a night, facing elimination on foreign soil, is it fair to wonder why he ever goes for 21-7-4 on 35-percent shooting? Is it fair to ask why he is ever less than incredible in an important game?
Is it fair to ask the sun why we ever have cloudy days?
Sometimes it appears great athletes can exert their wills on demand. This leads us to believe outside factors are irrelevant. This is not the case. When LeBron pops up for 41 points in a critical game, it's not because James has "manned up" (whatever that means) or become angry. It's because the conditions have aligned to make it possible, and because the right number of the right kind of shots have fallen.
The bulbous rebound, steal and block numbers speak more to the potential for increased effort. They also speak to the absence of a certain strong rebounder, ball-handler and playmaker: Draymond Green. They speak to the injury absence of Andrew Bogut. The box score speaks to the Cavaliers' decision to go straight down the throats of a disarmed Warriors defense with heavy doses of Kyrie Irving and LeBron.
There's also the matter of LeBron being thoroughly pissed off by the hypocritical insults levied by the Warriors in recent days. Emotions are human, and despite what is sometimes believed, LeBron is human. Mental acuity, focus and effort are variable factors in performance. Those obviously seemed pegged in Game 5, but they alone are not enough. Witness the 2015 finals between these very teams, where LeBron offered perhaps his greatest individual performance ever and fell short. The other team was too good. Context matters.
Every result is replete with context, but so many times we strip out all the inputs to derive the barest conclusion. This results in an absurd escalation of demands, usually based only on the biases of those who drive the discourse. LeBron is averaging roughly 28-9-7 in the playoffs for his career. Only a couple of players (Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Jerry West and Kevin Durant) score more than James in the postseason; none of them provide as much elsewhere in the box score. There's a strong argument that LeBron is the second-best individual performer in NBA playoff history, behind only Jordan.
Why can't he always play like he did on Monday? Because the way he always plays is already better than just about anyone who has ever played basketball. When you average 28-9-7 at the highest levels of the sport, sometimes you'll do better than that (see: Game 5) and sometimes you'll do worse (see: earlier this series). If LeBron managed to average 41 for a series, people would find a way to criticize the loss in which he scored 30. There's so little acknowledgment that what he's already doing is almost unprecedented, and that leads to outsized expectations with no bearing in reality.
Do you know that Jordan didn't always play like that, either? It's been so long, perhaps we've forgotten. MJ once dropped 55-8-4 in the finals (Game 4, 1993). He also went 6-of-19 in a close-out game against Seattle in 1996, and 5-of-19 in Game 6 of that series (still won by the Bulls). But because Jordan was 6-0 in the finals for his career and LeBron is 2-4, we drop all the relevant context. Because Kobe has five rings and LeBron just two, we ignore that Bryant, in winning that last ring, shot 40 percent for the series with as many turnovers as assists. We ignore that Kobe went 6-of-24 in Game 7 of those 2010 finals.
We do a disservice to ourselves and future generations of basketball fans when we shed context for convenience. We do a disservice to the contemporary fandom when we respond to greatness with heightened demands. If your response to an epic game like the one LeBron just had is a criticism of LeBron's usual efforts, please share what would satisfy you and then ask yourself whether that is remotely feasible.
Similarly, if your response to Stephen Curry's tough night is a thesis on why Curry isn't deserving of his reputation -- never mind the tough defensive assignment in Kyrie and the double- and triple-teams Cleveland sends at Steph -- ask yourself how you expect Curry to play at his worst and whether that's reasonable. If you're honest with yourself, you just might realize you're asking for the impossible. You're asking these players to do things no athlete has ever done: be better than great every game, no matter the circumstances.
If you're waiting for LeBron, Curry or anyone else to achieve unreachable standards every night, you're never going to be satisfied.
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