Breathe with him
In an email issued earlier today, I typed ruefully that all I wanted out of the tonight's game was Gilbert's nominal redemption. So overpowering did LeBron appear this past weekend—and so ceaselessly inept have the Wizards been at non-transition defense—that I figured only an appearance by the Arenas we all know and love could salvage his image's stake in this series. As the public by now knows, I was instead treated to Gilbert at his gutsiest, the rebirth of the off-kilter warrior who emerged from the wreckage of last season's battle with the Bulls. During the season he may often coast on whimsy and blessing alone, but this game called us to remembrance: dude is not just a gunner, and not some stat-padding, single-minded knave plundering a weak conference. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a franchise guard who can stare down Lebron and emerge victorious—not in a shoot-out, but in a trial-by-fire recital of chutzpah.
Victory gained, but at what cost? As my Saturday ravings indicated with force immaculate, I have an immense degree of personal investment in this LeBron-as-absolute picture of the Association, perhaps as much as I've sunk into the proud ship Arenas over the years. And this game was, to put it bluntly, the worst I've ever seen him play. Or at least the least mature he's looked since the mature Bron came into focus. That preposterous block aside, he looked worse than nervous or stumbling; the man who might be the game's greatest yet came off as hoarsely cocky (late game turnovers off of no-looks, par?), lazy (rejected by the rim on a dunk?), and lacking in any of the programmatic genius of his emergence in Game 1. As far as high-concept basketball art is concerned, he might've just Reggie Bush'ed the title back to Kobe, whose cloak of silence was already a close second. He knew not himself, nor others, nor, in the least Bron move of all, what was at stake.
Of course I'm overreacting, just as I did when I assumed that his post-season career from here on out would take the form of Game 1. But while the big picture of the series might well disprove me, this has implications for the Bron of history and lore. Arenas's Game 1 blank doesn't contradict who he is, even if he had to come up major tonight to prove that he's equal parts question mark and exclamation point. The thing with LeBron is that, unlike Arenas, he's not allowed the excuse of being flawed, given to problematic impulses, or, god forbid, capable of anything less than the most universally-acclaimed solution to any given basketball problem at hand. Perhaps there will come a day when the game's great minds actually expect James to surprise them with his genius, but for now he's nothing less than the walking golden rectangle. The question is whether fans, media, and other players will admit that tonight's LeBron exists, however temporarily, within that archetype, posit it as a full-fledged alter ego with backlash in its heart, or prefer to chalk the whole thing up to Jared Jeffries's defensive prowess.
Me, I think this makes him all the more convincing; that even he can't quite handle the full scope of his powers makes his future that much more terrifying and, in a Kobe-like way, something that really belongs to him. Even if, like Bryant, it's a way he'll basically have to find himself, and only when it actually counts.