Serial choking is a tough rap to beat in any court, let alone one as widely televised and discerning as the Eastern Conference Finals of the NBA. It’s a lawless land, like the Old West; a sort of backwards and upside down world with an Alice-through-the-looking-glass spin where rules are more akin to recommendations then set in stone things and the judge, jury and executioner are a rabid brood of bloodthirsty fans who howl and scream at the moon sometimes for ten nights at a time. It’s no place to panic or ponder or plan your next move; it’s no place to be repeatedly caught with your pants down, honing a rep as someone who routinely shits the bed.
It’s The Edge and it’s something most good men can learn and most bad men are born with; it’s a raw killer instinct to drive nine times out of ten to the rim in a series-clinching game. It’s what made men like Michael so fun to watch and why they call Kobe a killer or a cobra or a Black Mamba lying in wait in the weeds for whatever young buck comes past with a wild and free Hoop Dream of making it big. It’s learning how to be the badger backed into the corner and come out on top; it’s learning to scrape and claw for every last point and make the naysayers kneel…
And it’s lacking in LeBron James, who is nothing if not a choke artist. His teams were previously 1-6 when facing elimination, now 2-6, and they’ve never won a series on the brink. From 2005-2007, LeBron and his cohorts were outscored in elimination games 259-235; during that span, he left 40 points on the table in missed shots and had five turnovers in the fourth quarter alone. He couldn’t close.
It went from bad to worse. From 2008-2011 he disappeared from the fourth quarter of the same games completely, his name barely registering on the stat sheet, a point here or there but otherwise a ghost, cueing up only on occasion: an over-the-glass shot or a costly turnover. Something stopped ticking when the pressure was on; be it the Celtics, the Spurs or the Magic, LeBron James had honed a habit of checking out, of mailing it in when the games mattered most.
Which, as we said, is a difficult thing to shake. Think Bill Buckner in ’86, Scott Norwood in ’91, Andrés Escobar in ’94 and a whole slew of Red Sox and Cubs. Buckner and Norwood had modest careers in their own right but will never be remembered for anything more than one ball that sailed wide of the uprights and another that went right through. Escobar was a brilliant soccer mind whose mistake cost him substantially more than a game and the Cubs are still without a World Series, going on 104 years’ worth of doom and gloom and disappointment.
They are what we call the goats of this sporting life and LeBron James is one more fouled-up throwaway game away from becoming a permanent member and maybe a ranking chair of the club. He put up 45 points last night to salvage what remains of his reputation as basketball’s crown prince, but not even a repeat performance in Game 7 could whitewash these postseason walls. LeBron needs a ring, and like it or not he has another Game 7 to play against Boston and then at least four more against a very good Oklahoma City club with their own crown prince and the NBA’s scoring champion. He’s got at least two elimination games to go to a title, to win to make us forget. The only worry now is that the way he went about getting there might be hard to forgive.