NBA Finals: LeBron James Isn't the First to Shrink in the Finals

Evan BarnesContributor IIIJune 12, 2011

LeBron James has played below his standards in the NBA Finals but he's not the only superstar in NBA history to do so.
LeBron James has played below his standards in the NBA Finals but he's not the only superstar in NBA history to do so.Chris Chambers/Getty Images

Amidst all the irrational and blustering talk about LeBron James' legacy changing game-by-game and the overshadowing of the Dallas Mavericks' incredible play since their Game 2 comeback, I just want to suggest one point as a rational hoops fan who loves the game more than hating a player.

LeBron James is proving again why he's more Magic than Michael. I've said it before and I realize it now watching this series: LeBron James is in 2011 what Magic Johnson was in 1984.

For those who don't get the comparison, the 1984 Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics is regarded as the series that helped make the NBA a success in the eyes of marketers and the general public. It was the first meeting between Magic and Larry Bird, and it was a 7-game series that the Celtics won in almost dominating fashion.

For further comparison to the 2011 Finals, notice that in 1984, the Lakers won Game 1, blew Game 2 on the famous Gerald Henderson steal, blew 5-point lead with a minute to go in Game 4 (the famous Kevin McHale clothesline to Kurt Rambis), and fell short during a Game 7 rally. Up to my last point, does that sound at all similar to what has unfolded in 2011?

Let's take this a step further. Magic was key in contributing to each of the Lakers' losses and was infamously called Tragic by Boston fans. He was also labeled a choke artist on the heels of the team's embarrassing sweep in the 1983 NBA Finals and was being accused of a "coach-killer". All told, his reputation was in tatters despite his greatness.

His 1000-watt smile had also earned him fans in L.A. and across the country. But after coming up short again, none of that mattered.

Gee, does that remind you of anyone? A certain Miami Heat player who has been destroyed for his fourth-quarter screw-ups and seen his legacy ripped to shreds despite being hailed for the times he's come through before. Granted, Miami didn't start on the road like the Lakers did, but aside from that, this is the same scenario. LeBron also doesn't have the two rings Magic had at the time, but he does have two MVP trophies to his name.

Let's kill the myth that LeBron James is not clutch—the truth is he's not fully developed in the clutch as a consistent killer. The reason most of us real hoops fans are upset (not Cleveland fans or anti-LeBron fans) is because we've seen LeBron rise up before and are mystified as to why he's suddenly playing so passively. Maybe it's because he and the Heat are finally getting the challenge many of us thought they'd get.

Name to me the last championship team that wasn't battle-tested before they got a ring. Even the Heat's inspiration, the 2008 Celtics, were tested in seven games in the first two rounds, and their Big 3 had suffered big losses in the postseason.

Miami breezed through 76ers">76ers">Philadelphia, ran through a weakened Boston Celtics squad and overpowered a not-ready-for-prime-time Chicago Bulls squad. They then assumed they would beat up a Dallas team that would in the end be overwhelmed.

I'm not making excuses; I'm just stating facts. What's happening to Miami is exactly what most of us thought would happen against Boston before the Celtics got old and traded Kendrick Perkins. What's happening to LeBron is shocking, considering this is the same guy that killed the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals while destroying Derrick Rose in the worst MVP-handcuffing since Hakeem Olajuwon schooled David Robinson in the 1995 Western Conference Finals.

Should Miami lose this series, LeBron needs to study Magic. Read his book with Larry Bird and study how he soaked in all the disappointment from 1984. Magic vowed to get better and he worked hard to improve his game.

In fact, LeBron needs to ask Magic directly about that summer because what followed changed the NBA title landscape. Inspired by that heartbreak, the Lakers won 3 of the next 4 titles and cemented their legacy as the team of the 80's.

Will this inspire LeBron? We know what he hasn't done (maybe more than what he has done). He has yet to make his presence felt fully in these Finals despite his triple-double in Game 5 and has become as much pitied as scorned by America. Whatever the case is, he's being tried by fire and getting burned by the pressure rather than heating up

Now, he faces a humbling defeat and for the first time in a year, realizes how much harder he has to work to become great. Either he finally rises up in the next game or two and becomes the player he (and the rest of us) expect him to be, or like Magic Johnson 27 years ago, must prepare for the longest summer of his career and, hopefully, use it as fuel.

Once again, the decision is his. He's not the first or the last to suffer on the big stage and he can prove that like Magic or even Michael Jordan pre-1991, those poor performances were the start of something great.