Four days later, people are still debating where LeBron James' 25 straight points to end Game 5 ranks on the NBA's list of all-time best finishes. The only point worth adding is this: Whoever has James' ear between now and Thursday can serve the King best by reminding him that better be just the beginning.
James better have a few more games like that in him, and we're not talking during the course of his career, but over the next two weeks. Otherwise, this will be remembered as the NBA finals that he got close enough to see his reflection in the Larry O'Brien Trophy - and not much else.
It's easy to forget how tricky it can be for even the brightest young star to trace a learning curve that reaches the top without a single dip, maybe because Miami's Dwyane Wade did it only last year.
James, to his credit, didn't need reminding.
He recently described climbing over the Pistons and out of the Eastern Conference in just his second try as ``another chapter in my book, I guess.'' But James also understands he won't write that happy ending without help. The tough part will be deciding how much to accept.
``If I get double-teamed and the game is close, I'm going to pass it again,'' James said, despite catching flak for doing just that at the start of the Detroit series. ``If we make the shot, I'm on top of the world. If not, then I'm under a lot of trees and leaves. It's fine with me. I'll take the criticism that comes with it.
``I'm the leader of this team.''
There's a nice bit of symmetry in having the Spurs stand between James and that shiny piece of hardware he wants so much. The Cavaliers have modeled themselves as the Spurs of the East, and two of their chief decision-makers, coach Mike Brown and GM Danny Ferry, actually did their management training in San Antonio. But the sharing arrangement, not to mention a real resemblance, pretty much ends there.
The only coronation the Spurs plan on attending anytime soon is their own. They can grab their fourth championship since 1999, a run of titles that might finally garner San Antonio and reluctant superstar Tim Duncan the respect and recognition that has so far consistently lagged behind their accomplishments.
boasted a deep and better-than-average supporting cast.
As that series stretched out toward Game 7, the NBA's promotional tagline for the series, ``Where Legends Are Born,'' began to sound like a dare.
Duncan responded with 25 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and three assists. Nearly all the numbers flowed easily from the Spurs game plan, except for a stretch late in the third quarter when Duncan scored nearly half his total and grabbed the game by the throat. In a hallway afterward, former teammate David Robinson savored the win and that third-quarter as much as any of Duncan's then-teammates.
``Some people talked about Tim like a dog. The way that man has performed over the years, I don't understand that,'' said Robinson, who partnered Duncan for two of San Antonio's titles. ``For him to dig down tonight and show everybody what he's made of is just awesome, unbelievable. He settled it the best way.''
Unfortunately, James doesn't have Robinson, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker or even Robert Horry to take over the show long enough to catch his breath. And unlike Wade, Shaquille O'Neal won't be there to cover his back.
If James is going to win a championship this year, he's going to have to do it the same way he just sent Detroit packing: largely on his own.
The 25 points in a row that closed out Game 5 was part of a 48-point night that got most of the attention. But James' performances on either side of that game were almost as good. He averaged 33 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. James can't afford much slippage if Cleveland is going to have a chance.
So Spurs coach Gregg Popovich wasn't exaggerating when he said, ``Pick a problem, we have it, with LeBron. He's fantastic in every way so, pick any aspect of the game, he's a problem.''
But more telling was something that Duncan said a little later. ``You have to respect someone like that and focus a little more of the attention toward him.
``But they're going to need a team to beat us,'' he added, ``LeBron's not going to do it by himself.''
Not yet, anyway.
Spurs in five.
---
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org
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