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LeBron in the Last Minute

Is James simply following the narrative? (US Presswire)

Here is today’s question: Do some people start to believe the narrative that others create for them? I ask this because we hear an awful lot in sports about “proving everybody wrong” and “playing for respect,” and such things. I believe there are some athletes who do feed off this kind of negative energy. Tom Brady seems to be one of those guys who needs the doubters; he seemed to use that low draft pick thing to spark his fury and brilliance. Albert Pujols seems to one of those guys too; he has had nothing but success in the major leagues (at least until the start this year) and yet has never stopped pointing to those who doubted him along the way.

I would say the clearest example is Michael Jordan, of course. He needed those doubters so badly that he sort of invented the whole “I got cut from my high school basketball team” narrative to keep him angry and hungry and edgy.

There’s a story a friend told me about Jordan, I probably won’t get all the details right, so I’ll keep it general. The story was about how a player lit him up for a bunch of points in a game. After the game, Jordan grumbled angrily about how the other guy trash-talked him all night, and how the next game Jordan would personally make sure that guy suffered. Well, the next game happened, and sure enough Jordan scored like 40 and held the guy to something like 2-of-17 shooting, blocked a few of his shots, kind of humiliated him.

After that game, my friend went over to the other guy and found that he was a pretty good sport about it all. “I guess I had it coming,” he said laughing. But then, quietly, he said something else: “You know, I never said a single word to Jordan in that last game. Not one word.”

“Really? So why did Jordan say that?”

The guy shrugged and said: “I guess he needs it.”

So, yes, some athletes and business people and strivers from all walks of life do seem to use the detractors, the insults, the fury to fuel their coal-burning fires. But you know what? Some people don’t run on coal. Some people run on inspiration. When Tiger Woods came back from his brief sabbatical, a lot of people seemed to think that the tabloid articles and rotten things everybody was saying about him would inflame his golfing brilliance and take him to a new level.

I never thought so. I never thought that Tiger Woods was built that way. Nobody had ever doubted Tiger Woods his entire life — that was part of his magic. He was infused with his father’s ambitions and his own genius for the game and a line of success unparalleled in golf history. He won three straight U.S. Amateurs, making every absurd putt that was necessary along the way. He turned pro and won a tournament immediately. His first professional major, the Masters, he won by the largest margin in the history of big-time golf. He was invincible. He did not just want the important putts to drop, he expected them to drop. What else could they do? He was Tiger Woods.

So when things started to go bad — with his health, with his knees, with his private life, with his golf swing, with his putter — I did not see how that would or could spur him on. He did not know how to play the bad guy. More — and this was a bit surprising, based on his own public persona — he absolutely did not want to play the bad guy. He did not want to PLAY the good guy either, with all the autographs and smiles and interviews and tips of the cap that go with it. But I think he really wanted to BE the good guy anyway. I will never forget how worried he acted before his first tournament back, worried that people would boo him. Michael Jordan, I believe, would feed off those boos. Tiger Woods would not.

All of which, of course, brings us to LeBron. On Tuesday night, LeBron James added another chapter to his enigmatic pressure-moment persona. There is no better basketball player on planet earth. James in 2011-12 was staggeringly good. Though the numbers at this point have become mind-numbing (28 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals, 1 block, a career high 53% from the floor, a career-high 36% from three-point range, etc.) the larger point is that James in many ways is better than he has ever been. Nobody can do all the things he does on a basketball court. He’s Oscar Robertson, only at 6-foot-8. He’s Magic Johnson, only a better scorer and a lockdown defensive player. He’s … well, you quickly run out of comparisons.

And James is great, very often, in the big moments. How could he not be? Remember John Updike’s brilliant line about Ted Williams’ clutch play: “For Williams to have distributed all his hits so they did nobody else any good would constitute a feat of placement unparalleled in the annals of selfishness.” And so it is for LeBron: He’s unstoppable on the move, he’s absurdly strong, he is about as good a passer as anyone in the game, he attacks the offensive glass, and he has a beautiful touch. For him to be all those things and also fail in all the big moments is a physical impossibility. So, yes, he’s been great in the big moments. He carried a motley cast of Cleveland characters to the NBA Finals. And last year — under the searing heat he had created with his ill-advised “Decision” — he led Miami to the NBA Finals.

Yet … there have been several big moments when he did fail. We don’t need to go over them yet again, but here are only three just as a quick reminder:

• There was the disastrous playoff game against Boston, the one Cleveland had to win, when he played dreadfully and moped afterward that people expected too much from him.

• There was the playoff clinching loss against Boston, when he led his team into quit-mode in the final 90 seconds.

• There was Game 6 of last year’s NBA Finals, when it seemed clear and unmistakable that James was running away from the ball.

On Tuesday, with the Heat playing Indiana at home, LeBron’s last minute was staggering. He went up soft for a shot (LeBron? Going soft?) and had it rejected. He missed two free throws with the Heat down by one. And on the final play of the game, with Miami needing a three-pointer, James’s role was to set a screen for Mario Chalmers, who missed the shot. LeBron James: Pick-setter. And now that series is tied 1-1 and heading back to Indiana.

And so, I get back to the question: Do some people simply start to believe the narrative about themselves? The narrative about LeBron James, more and more, is becoming that he shrinks from the big moment. Whether this is fair or not is not my point here — you can decide that for yourself. My point is: Once that’s become the thing that people are saying about you, does that penetrate who you are? Does the prophecy self-fulfill? If you call someone a tomato enough times, will he or she begin to turn red?

I often think about Marty Schottenheimer. He was an excellent football coach who had no idea at the beginning that his career would be defined by big-game failure. How could he know that? He unquestionably thought: I’ll build very good teams, we’ll go to the Super Bowl, we’ll win the Super Bowl. Then he built very good teams in Cleveland, and they lost one game after John Elway drove the team 98 yards, and lost another when Earnest Byner fumbled as he went into the end zone. He went to Kansas City, and built very good teams there too, playoff teams every year, twice they had the best record in the AFC, and both times they lost the first home playoff game — once when his kicker missed a bunch of field goals. He went to San Diego and built very good teams and lost playoff heartbreakers again, one of those when one of his defensive players would not just go down after making an interception.

And so, people think of Marty Schottenheimer as a guy whose teams choke in the biggest moments … and the record does seem to back that up. That became his inescapable persona. But my question is: At some point, did Marty Schottenheimer start to believe that he was jinxed? I have every reason to believe he did, because I saw Marty in some private moments, when he was at a loss, when he wondered if he had something missing in himself. What does that sort of doubt do to someone? Did Marty Schottenheimer, based on his own doubts, create some of his own football catastrophes?

LeBron’s failure in the big moment on Tuesday might not mean anything in the big picture. The Chicago Bulls, who I think were the best team in the NBA, are out of the playoffs because of a couple of staggering injuries. There are other good teams, but I don’t think there is a team out there that matches up with the Heat over seven games (though the loss of Chris Bosh could alter that judgment a bit*). The Pacers are tough and they really were in position to win Game 1 for a long time too, so they could pull the upset here. But it would be a major upset.

*After the game, Steve Kerr — who I think is a good announcer — said: “The thing everyone will be talking about this game is the absence of Chris Bosh.” And I thought: “What did he just say? Did he just say that in a game where LeBron missed two big free throws, got the biggest shot of the game blocked in his face and did not take the last shot, the thing people will talk about is the absence of Chris Bosh?”

I mean, yes, the absence of Bosh is a very real story for, like, Erik Spoelstra and particularly involved Heat fans … but just about everyone else knows this NBA playoffs is a referendum on LeBron, right? Every NBA playoffs will be a referendum on LeBron until he wins it. That’s the price of being one of the greatest players in the history of the game who left his hometown team in a prime-time special, created an All-Star team in Miami and immediately promised to win, like 217 NBA championships.

At this point, any Heat loss would be a major upset — at least in the minds of the “Oh, it’s the playoffs, I’ll pay attention” NBA fans. It isn’t just pressure that LeBron James is facing. It’s that sort of destiny-based compression where only a championship is good enough, and even a championship will leave people shrugging and saying, “Yeah, it’s about time.”

When faced with that kind of skepticism and cynicism, where does the star turn? Jordan turned inward, to fury. Kobe Bryant, I believe, turns to fury. Tom Brady turns to fury. What about LeBron? What was going on for him in that last minute on Tuesday? Were those two missed free throws simply a function of exhaustion and the simple mechanical failures that happen to even the greatest players? Was that blocked shot simply a great defensive play that he could not have avoided? Did he want to take that last shot but accepted his coach’s theory that with the defense geared toward him, the better play was to have the team’s pseudo-three-point specialist, Chalmers, take it?

Or does LeBron James — deep down — wonder if those critics and cynics and backseat drivers might just be a little bit right about him?

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38 Responses to LeBron in the Last Minute

  1. Mike Bennett says:

    You may be onto something here. Particularly for a player whose game is built on being, to a pretty decent extent, on being selfish.

    One other thing — even with Bosh, I don’t think Miami is a lock to win it all (and not just because they may to struggle to beat the Pacers). Miami’s comical lack of depth means they don’t match up well with Oklahoma City, which has their own Big Three and is clearly better 4-12. And the 3-point shooting Spurs hit the Heat where they are most vulnerable. I’d favor either over Miami in the Finals.

  2. Peg says:

    This LeBron narrative is no different than every other recent narrative that has preceded it. First it was A-Rod and the Yankees. Then it was Peyton and the Colts. Superstars who shrink in the moment and can’t win a championship. It’s a fun narrative until the championship happens, and then it’s over and we move on to the next guy. I expect LeBron to have a similar career to Peyton. Lots of playoff failures, 1 or 2 championships, and a legacy that says “one of the best ever, not quite nearly THE best”.

    • adam says:

      Good point, but I think there’s a big difference in basketball. A-Rod is going to bat once every 9 times no matter what. Peyton is going to be passing no matter what. But LeBron can choose to defer the big shots to other players.

  3. mtshaffer says:

    It was LaBradford Smith of the Bullets who was Jordan’s whipping boy.

  4. Phila says:

    Joe, i am huge fan of your baseball writing- have been a loyal follower since 2010.

    But please don’t opine on basketball. the “points” you make.. you sound like the basketball version of a RBI-enthusiast.

  5. Mike Mayer says:

    In my experience watching LeBron, there is no doubt that he is constantly aware of what people think of him and say about him. And he’s never shown any desire to prove people wrong, he just wants everyone to love him.

  6. stephen says:

    I hate LeBron as much as the next non-Heat fan (with his flopping and near-constant complaining/whining to the officials), but his last shot last night was hardly “soft”. It’s the kind of shot he takes all the time and either makes or draws a foul (or both); the rejection was a result of some excellent help defense by Indiana (I think it was Paul George but I can’t remember).

  7. Jeff says:

    I think all of us, no matter what our profession, have a tendency to live up or down to other people’s expectations. The tendency can be overcome, but it’s not easy.

  8. Have to agree with commenter phila above: if you’re going to be critical of traditional, commonly held misconceptions about value, production, and clutch performance in baseball, I think you should hold yourself to the same standard in other sports. It seems like you’ve decided to promote the narrative that Lebron James is an exceptionally talented athlete who fails at critical times, then chosen anecdotes that support that narrative. Do you not accuse Jack-Morris-to-the-Hall supporters of similar delusions from cherry-picked stats? I’ll admit to being a casual basketball observer at best, but for every “Lebron failed his team in the clutch” story over the past four or five years, I can recall a “Lebron single-handedly outscored the opposing team in the 4th quarter” story. If the Heat go on to win a championship this year, does that nullify the narrative?

    • adam says:

      Interesting, I interpreted the post very differently than you. I read it as “there is a narrative that LeBron fails in the clutch, and whether fair or not will LeBron start believing in it”. Joe specifically left it to us to decide whether the narrative is true or not, and mentioned that there are cases of LeBron having both great success and spectacular failure. I though Joe was very balanced.

    • Nick says:

      baseball and basketball are very different in this regard, mind you

  9. adam says:

    Steve Kerr was dead wrong. On Inside the NBA after the second game they spent quite a bit talking LeBron, specifically about a play near the end of the game where the play was likely to Battier for a 3, the play broke, and LeBron deferred to Wade who missed a layup (I think).

    Shaq and Kenny blamed LeBron for not taking over, Barkley blamed Spoelstra for not calling a play to begin with. It was a fascinating discussion, especially when Shaq talked about what to do inn general when a play is broken (you’d think that gets discussed a lot, but I don’t recall ever hearing it before).

    • Phila says:

      This comment has been removed by the author.

    • Phila says:

      As a loyal reader of Joe, I’ve read every baseball article he wrote in this blog. He’s my favorite baseball writer hands down.

      I understand Joe’s main point in this post. But as Bennett Adams points out above, Joe unintentionally sounds like a basketball version of a RBA enthusiast, a fictional person he has been “bashing” in every single baseball stat article he wrote in this blog.

      So I hope he sticks to what he’s good at and avoid throwing out opinions on a subject he does not really have an expert understanding of. He is one of the most widely read/influential sportswriters in the country after all.

      You also, sound like the basketball version of a RBI-enthusiast. So allow me to introduce you to some “Bill James like” articles of basketball.

    • adam says:

      I’m not sure how I sound like the basketball equivalent of an RBI enthusiast. The grantland article broke the play down in a similar way to Charles & company last night (different plays though). So did the SI article you cited. I do agree with the latter half of the SI article that suggested that LeBron does not HAVE to take the final shot; the point is to get the best shot possible. If LeBron always has to take the last shot that really means LeBron should take every shot when he’s in the game, and we all know that would mean he takes a bunch of bad shots.

      But I also believe LeBron shying away from the spotlight is a real and measurable effect.

      In any case I believe Joe’s main point was not to debate LeBron’s crunch-time woes (real or imagined) but to pose the question of whether he may start to believe the narrative.

      Also, I agree with BigBoss below – the reason for the block and free throw misses was because he was crazy tired. I wonder if that would lead him to pass up shots also.

    • ARon23 says:

      I feel like you should just stop paying for Joe’s blogs on basketball.

  10. BIGBOSS says:

    Some could take my analysis either way, I thought James was gased in the final minutes of Game 2 and on the play where his shot was blocked and missed two important free throws, it was like he couldn’t lift going up at that instance; he . Also, Indiana slowed the game down, significantly for Miami. Probably another reason other players couldn’t get involved. No matter what, LeBron has to win to prove the doubters wrong, or else the cynics will say otherwise.

  11. Dinky says:

    “But I think he really wanted to BE the guy guy anyway” guy guy s/b good guy

    LeBron James is not Magic Johnson only a better scorer and lockdown defensive player. You wrote about players like Brady and Kobe turning to fury for inspiration. Johnson turned to joy. I’ve seen a few others who struck me that way (Gretzky and Ernie Banks come to mind). The thing is, joy is infectious; it can lift an entire team. James never passed like Johnson (almost nobody passed like Johnson) and what earned Johnson his reputation, more than anything else, was scoring 40 points against the Sixers in the NBA finals his rookie season with Kareem Abdul Jabbar on the bench. When the games meant the most, Magic enjoyed them the most, and his team followed him.

    LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world, today. He may be better than Johnson was. But he’s not better than Johnson was at leading his team to championships, or scaring his team to championships like Jordan or Kobe. That’s one element. It’s not like James disappears in the playoffs; that’s as bum a rap as A-Rod has (nobody who OPSes .884 in 299 postseason plate appearances is a choker; that’s an OPS completely in line with his career and the fact that every pitcher you face in October is good enough to pitch for a playoff team). But James doesn’t get better in October, so he’ll need a supporting cast to win.

    Heck, if I’m picking heaven’s team to play bball, James might be my second pick (behind only Wilt) because I know that I’ll be able to get Jordan or West or Magic or Havlicek, somebody else to be clutch, with my fourth or fifth pick. And if I want my team to play well enough in the first three quarters to give it a chance to win in the fourth quarter, James is on a very short list of guys that good. I’ll take world class for three quarters over world class for the fourth quarter if I have somebody else to be world class in the fourth. And if West gets double teamed in the fourth, leaving LeBron open, LeBron will knock down that open shot. He’s not bad with the game on the line. He just doesn’t get better with the game on the line.

    • Mark says:

      So what you are saying is the best player in the NBA does NOT get better when the game is on the line? Doesn’t that quality (getting better..) separate the superstar from your average good player?

    • adam says:

      Just my opinion, but I don’t think any players get better when the game is one the line (with one exception, see below). Jordan for example, was just as awesome at the end of games as he was during the rest of the game. The real question (according to the narrative) is whether LeBron gets WORSE at crunch time.

      The one exception I can think of is Robert Horry. I suspect he just didn’t give a crap about much of anything until the playoffs. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe he had tons of game winning shots in the regular season but no one ever talked about them.

  12. jkak says:

    So the nba lockout/strike ended???

  13. Mark Daniel says:

    Narratives absolutely do affect performance. And it doesn’t take years for self-doubt to settle in. There are research studies that confirm this. The one that comes to mind is one where school kids were separated by gender and then given a test. Just before the test, one of the groups was told their group usually did worse on the exam. For example, the girls were told, “Girls do worse on this exam.”
    And the girls, on average, did worse. When boys were told they usually do worse, they did do worse. When they weren’t told anything, both groups had equal scores. One of the interesting side notes of this study was that there was a small minority of students in the worse performing group that did better than most of the students in the better performing group, as if they raised their performance after the slight. This, it appears from this example that some people are motivated by slights, but not many, at least in the general population.

  14. I think the bigger myth/narrative is that Lebron is a lockdown defender. Lockdown defenders, who genuinely play hard, don’t finish with 0 fouls and lose their men for wide open lay-ups a la Lebron.

  15. adam says:

    A general comment on the “RBI enthusiast” tangent. Baseball and basketball are very different in the situations we’re discussing here. A baseball late-close-game at-bat is fundamentally the same as any other at-bat and independent of what your teammates are doing.

    In basketball the play calling and team play affects everything. For better or worse, teams DO play the last plays of close games differently – and I suspect it’s for worse; I remember reading analysis of this that indicated teams do much in those situations which is not a surprise if you feel obligated to have a certain player take the shot.

    Anyway there are several valid things to debate from last night: did LeBron choke? Was he just gassed? Was Spoelstra’s play calling to blame? If so, should LeBron have ignored the play calling? Did they handle things correctly when the play broke down?

    The Chuck/Kenny/Shaq analysis is very real and valid. This is not Joe Morgan telling us that OBP doesn’t matter. It’s much more analogous to Joe Morgan describing how he could tell when a pickoff was coming.

    Finally, the basketball analysis is a separate question from whether people are influenced by narratives – Joe could have easily built the article around Marty S’s coaching.

    Good discussion today.

  16. drunyon says:

    “There are other good teams, but I don’t think there is a team out there that matches up with the Heat over seven games (though the loss of Chris Bosh could alter that judgment a bit*)”

    Come on Joe… you should know better than to say that. The Spurs are 26-2 in their last 28 games. When their 3 stars are on the court together, they outscore the other team by over 17 points per 48 minutes, a point differential which would make them by far the best team in NBA history. I realize everyone else will overlook the Spurs, but you should know better.

    Most advanced models had the Spurs as the heavy favorite going into the playoffs; one model by a professional gambler even had them as a favorite against the FIELD (and that was before Rose’s injury).

  17. drunyon says:

    “There are other good teams, but I don’t think there is a team out there that matches up with the Heat over seven games (though the loss of Chris Bosh could alter that judgment a bit*)”

    Come on Joe… you should know better than to say that. The Spurs are 26-2 in their last 28 games. When their 3 stars are on the court together, they outscore the other team by over 17 points per 48 minutes, a point differential which would make them by far the best team in NBA history. I realize everyone else will overlook the Spurs, but you should know better.

    Most advanced models had the Spurs as the heavy favorite going into the playoffs; one model by a professional gambler even had them as a favorite against the FIELD (and that was before Rose’s injury).

  18. MHW says:

    Joe, this kind of veers off-topic, but do you think Michael Jordan really “made up” getting cut from his high school team. I read the Thomas Lake article as well, and it seems to me that not making the varsity after trying out for it is the equivalent to getting cut, especially for Michael Jordan. I think at most the idea that MJ made up getting cut is a semantic one.

  19. Steve Buffum says:

    Um … where is the deserved derision in these comments for Dwyane Wade missing a layup (created by LeBron) and generally acting like a punk after not getting the foul calls he thought 2006 would carry over for him? Spoelstra set up a play for his best 3-point shooter, LeBron gave superhuman effort and was gassed … what’s Wade’s excuse?

    I don’t think Wade *is* a punk: he’s thoughtful, articulate, and everything you say you want about an athlete off the court in the community. Which is why it’s that much more disappointing when he ACTS like a punk on the floor.

    • adam says:

      I think that because of “The Decision” LeBron has become the villain in many people’s minds, so Wade usually gets a pass.

      LeBron is also the Heat’s best player. When a team loses, especially a game in which they are expected to win, their best player tends to get the blame. Which is odd when you think about it.

    • ARon23 says:

      Thats about right, the consensus is that LBJ is the best player on the planet. So even if Wade is top 10, he isn’t going to get any blame (unless he really doesn’t show up) and would only get the credit if they won because he was greater than James was terrible.
      Fair or not, it is James’s team

    • adam says:

      There’s another reason I thought of. LeBron is probably the most talented athlete ever in the NBA. He was the most hyped high school player ever and probably viewed as the biggest draft lottery prize ever. And he lived up to it; he’s won 3 MVPs already and he’s only 27.

      Because of that, any way in which he falls short can be viewed as not meeting his potential and expectations. Failures at end of games (whether perceived or real) is one thing that stands out; the other I remember him taking criticism for was lack of low post game.

  20. all based on 1-on-1 moves off the tight dribble guard. LeBron’s a 10 when it comes to the loose dribble guard and also in transition but he doesn’t get his shoulders by defenders in tight 1-on-1 situations. He’s a good ballhandler too but isn’t crossing anyone over in the final seconds. Maybe that’s due to a lack of confidence, maybe not. But the go low and come up like a force off the cross move almost always works for him

  21. akno21 says:

    Chalmers is about a 2 percent better 3-point shooter than James (why the Heat didn’t run a play for Mike Miller, who’s far and away their best 3-point shooter, I don’t know), and he got a good look at the basket. That’s all you can ask for. Should LeBron have taken a double-teamed 3-pointer, when he’s a slightly worse 3-point shooter than Chalmers anyway, just because he’s LeBron and IT’S THE ONLY ARGUMENT I NEED, SEAN? A 3-point attempt late in the game is still just a 3-point attempt; I want a guy who’s open and a guy who’s pretty good at shooting them. The Heat got that. I just don’t understand how Joe can simultaneously cite (correctly) all the reasons LeBron’s already one of the best basketball players of all time yet go into Bill Simmons-like psycho-babble about whether LeBron’s “driven” the way he assumes Kobe or Brady or Jordan are? How does he think LeBron got that good in the first place? Sheer talent’s a lot of it, but a) I think Michael Jordan was pretty damn talented, too and b) LeBron just posted one of the greatest seasons in NBA history; that doesn’t just “happen” because you’ve got good genes. There are plenty of basketball reasons why the Heat lost this game (most of them relating to players other than LeBron James, frankly); let’s talk about those.

    • Scotty says:

      Hey akno21, I agree with what you are saying about Lebron and him being driven. Me and my buddies just created a website called We asked a question about Lebron, and if he will ever get a ring. Post some reasons, and most of all have fun!

  22. Adam says:

    The idea that one player should every try to go outside the offense and go one on five in a big situation is just absurd, and has been shown statistically to not work as well as just running the offense and looking for the open man. Mario Chalmers may not be a better overall player than LeBron (or even especially close), but he is a better three point shooter. He also got a wide open look. That’s the right play.

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