In Game 7 the 1965 Eastern Division Finals (the equivalent now would be the Eastern Conference Finals), the Philadelphia 76ers were inbounding the ball from underneath the basket while facing a one-point deficit with five seconds left on the game clock. 76ers head coach Dolph Schayes called for Wilt Chamberlain to get the ball but the star center declined for fear of getting fouled. Indeed, with the opportunity to beat Russell’s Celtics falling square on his shoulders, Chamberlain said thanks, but no thanks.
Philadelphia instead set up another play, which resulted in a turnover and the Celtics then made their way to the NBA Finals where they won their eighth NBA title.
Fast forward to the 2011 NBA Finals and it’s almost as if the ghost of Chamberlain came back to inhabit one of the NBA’s marquee stars. While Dwyane Wade did his best Bill Russell impersonation, leaving it all on the line in trying to help the Miami Heat win a title; LeBron James instead seemed quite content with just being at the Finals.
To paint the story of James’ based simply on these Finals would be unfair given what he did in the previous rounds. He played amazingly well against the Philadelphia 76ers and then rose to the challenge when he faced off against a familiar foe in the Boston Celtics. He made all the plays needed at the time to help push his team to the next round.
Once the Heat entered the conference finals, James displayed all of his basketball gifts as he completely neutralized the league MVP all the while playing his stellar brand of basketball. Some fans and media members began to wonder if the Maurice Podoloff trophy had been awarded to the wrong player. One could argue that this was LeBron James at the peak of his powers.
And then, the month of June rolled around and all of those previous moments were forgotten.
Dwyane Wade who had looked either injured or out of gas in the Chicago series, regained his form and played like the 2006 Finals MVP all over again. He willed himself to the basket, gave up his body for the team and routinely challenged bigger players at the rim in a display of heart and leadership not seen from a shooting guard since, well you know who.
LeBron James on the other hand started off the championship round playing well but then progressively began to disappear with each subsequent game. By the end of Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra probably should have contacted Horatio Caine (character portrayed by David Caruso on CSI: Miami) to help them piece together what sequence of events led to LeBron James’ disappearing act.
He stopped driving to the basket, routinely deferred to his teammates and basically stopped looking to shoot the ball. All of a sudden, it seemed as though the NBA Finals had morphed into preseason as the Heat’s star forward looked like he was going through the motions. He failed to attack the boards, gave a lackluster effort on defense and was quite content with watching his teammates decide the game.
The biggest indictment on James’ performance in these playoffs: he seemed to care more about winning the 2011 All-Star Game than he did these Finals. His triple-double in the midseason classic was legendary. He put on a show with his overall talent by being everywhere on the court. He rebounded and got out on the break, he dished to teammates, he tried to chase down players for blocks and scored late.
In the 2011 All-Star Game, LeBron played like a man among boys. In the Finals? He played like one of the boys.
LeBron James’ performance against the Dallas Mavericks brought back memories of Chamberlain’s performance in Game 7 the 1968 Eastern Division Finals, where he took a mere two shots after halftime. But then again, Wilt was the same man who once said: “I think there are more important things than winning. I think you have to learn how to lose, too.”
And although the former two-time league MVP never uttered such words, his play against Dallas certainly seemed to fall in line with that quote.
Winning a title certainly is difficult and only a few great players get the chance to actually hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. And yet, the Akron native seemed poised to capture his first ever championship with the way he played in previous playoff rounds.
Time and time again, when things got tough for the Heat, LeBron James did his best to bail his team out. But once the Finals arrived, it’s as if he capitulated. Perhaps five years from now someone will write a fabulous book on the events that transpired in the last two years, detailing exactly what it is that occurred to the superstar. But for the time being we are left wonder how things fell apart so quickly for the self-proclaimed king, and if winning is truly his number one priority.
It is far too early in James’ career to characterize him as the next Wilt, but then again, look at his statement from last season after Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Celtics: “I spoil a lot of people with my play. When you have a bad game here or there, you have three bad games in a seven-year career, then um it’s easy to point that out…”
Chamberlainism at its finest.