Judgment Day

Installment #3 of 4 in FD’s ongoing inner struggle with Lebron. By way of introduction, let me say that my allegiance is firmly with Arenas, that I condemn Bron-worship in all its ugly forms, and that my visceral reaction to The Shot was (and continues to be) a middling clod of boredom and discontent. Thus the following should not be taken as lustful enthusiasm, but an earnest attempt to reflect on what was, at the absolute least, the game winning shot in an otherwise incredible game 5.

In the universe of memorable shots, the playoff game-winner is unique in that its purpose is to make history, not defy it. It is the one moment in any game where avant-garde aesthetics give way to SportsCentury conservatism: the only shot that you remember precisely because you’re expecting to. The set-up is more football than basketball. The preceding huddle, the frenzied play-calling, the palpable cessation of motion and time – all are meant to impress upon us a distinctly Legends-of-the-Gridiron suspense. Nowhere is this truer than in the execution itself. Vick out of the pocket may be Jordan ‘round the rim, but Jordan in the playoffs is all Montana-to-Rice. And just like the latter, we know what the play will look like long before it’s even made. We know because we’ve seen it before.

Check the archives: Of the 6 game-winning shots that Jordan netted in his playoff years, every single one was a jumper, usually from about 15 feet out. Likewise, Kobe has made 3 game winners, all with that exact same weapon and range. (note: this doesn’t count fortuitous put-backs and other second-hand winners, which I think everyone can agree is a different beast entirely).

Now Lebron has scored his first two playoff-game winners, and what do you know….
Lay-ups. Both of them.

The first one we’ve all already dismissed as traveling. The second, while clearly legit, seemed so unconvincing to our eyes that we’ve already begun to repress it. It had to be the defense, or luck, or some agency other than Lebron himself that allowed him to get to the rim. Look at today’s professional wisdom-spinning and you’ll find this same logic around almost every corner– less an honest attempt at understanding than the frantic imperative to explain away. Put simply, getting to the rim at the buzzer just felt too easy – and after all, why shouldn’t it: that’s not how game winners are supposed to be scored.

If Lebron wasn’t responsible, then who was?
SI’s Marty Burns faults Eddie Jordan, who;
“…never should have set up his D on the final play to let LeBron catch the inbounds pass heading TOWARD the basket”, and who apparently “(forgot) to tell Antawn Jamison to defend the baseline".
[Burns must have missed Jamison’s own post-game testimony that: "We set it up that we didn't want the ball go to the baseline, period…We wanted it to go to the top of the key”.]

Chris Sheridan's explanatory labors prove even more creative: looking deep into the Wizard’s collective unconscious, he finds those most prevalent of pro-athlete neuroses, timidity and fear.
“The Wizards were not scared of James, mind you. At least not any more scared than they should have been. But they were afraid of the referees…That small seed of doubt in Haywood's mind, along with Jamison's caution-fueled decision to set up his defensive position a half-foot from where he should have, gave James both the ball and the opening he needed.”

Of course, the majority of commentators simply blame it on the defense: just as the refs handed Bron his Game 3 layup, Haywood and Jamison handed him this one. This will surely go down as the conventional wisdom, and maybe it should. After watching the tape two dozen times, I honestly can’t decide whether James was allowed the shot he wanted, or whether he in fact created it. As much as we like to fetishize statistical objectivity and the infallible pronouncements of the sport-fan gut, at the end of the day, it’s always a matter of interpretation whether any given shot is worth remembering. And this is precisely the point. Because someday in the distant or not-to-distant playoff future, Lebron is going to get to the baseline, tip-toe around 2 defenders, and spin in the air for a game-winning lay-up at the buzzer. Only this time, he’ll start from the top of the key, the inbound pass will be terrible, and the defenders will be Pistons. What if it still looks and feels too easy? Will we continue to ask who or what “allowed” it to happen?

This may sound trite, but there comes a point where you have to ignore how you feel about a player and honestly try to figure out what the fuck he’s doing and how the fuck he’s doing it. Whatever we want to say about last night, Lebron raises the specter of this challenge more than anyone has before. Until Bron (or the Rosebowl, depending on your perspective), taking it to the rim at the end of the big game was like running in from the 30 at the end of the big game. Hardly impossible in the second quarter, but when the season’s on the line and everyone knows where the ball is going, even superstar QBs are wise enough not to go the whole way by foot. This isn’t to say that Jordan or Kobe couldn’t go to the basket for those shots – of course they could. They just chose not to (9 of 9 times), because as good as they are at going to the rim, their execution rarely betrays the ruthless premeditation that one both wants and expects out of the Last Big Shot. Better to shake free like on one else can and pull up for the open J. But as shoals pointed out below, Bron seems capable of getting to the rim not just whenever he wants, but also wherever and however he wants. Look close and you can actually see him plotting. As a consequence, part of understanding how he does it – when he does it – becomes a matter of understanding Lebron, not as mere physical force, but as a thinking, creative agent: someone whose shots we just might not "get" the first time around.

It is therefore doubly-unfortunate that sports fans (and I include myself here) possess such unsurpassed hostility towards anything but a from-the-gut hermeneutics of greatness. Maybe because its physical, or because its so damm entertaining, or because so many black people do it, but while we speak freely of a player’s “brilliance” and “beauty”, we categorically ignore the questions of thought and agency, without which comparable enjoyments – of paintings, novels, what have you – would seem downright unimaginable (or at the very least, dim). Even if Jamison did screw up, or Haywood was afraid, is anyone honestly willing to say that Lebron got to the rim through no intention of his own? Is “not wearing a size 18 shoe” really the most we’re willing to give him?


The Mighty MJD’s "What Lebron Did Last Night is the best ‘close reading’ of the final play I've come across, and he makes a very persuasive case against the Wizards’ defense. His take on Jamison is particularly hard to deny. Though I’m not sure how Ruffin or anyone else could have hoped to “push him back towards half-court”, given how fast and strong Lebron was already moving when he caught the ball. Its also worth keeping in mind that this all went down in 3.6 seconds, and that Bron’s mastery of space (however discounted) may well be exceeded by his mastery of time. But as I said before, the story of what happened is, in the last analysis, just that: a story. What’s weird about this series (and this playoffs) is how two or more radically different stories can so easily coexist (see ‘the anxiety of DLIC’, below).

But one thing that seems fairly certain about The Shot is that Bron decided to do what he did. And whether or not the defense ended up helping him– this obviously wasn’t something he had counted on. With less than 4 seconds left he decided to go to the rim, just like he decided to go to the rim in Game 3. He’s made two more game winning lay-ups in the playoffs than Michael and Kobe combined. And I have absolute confidence that he’ll try to do it again (and again, and again) in the future. All I’m saying is, if the layups keep falling

is it inevitable?


At 5/04/2006 10:15 PM, Blogger The Cavalier said...

Bron doesn't get as much credit for his mental game as he should, as much as people praise his mental game. He sees what the defense is giving him several layers thick before they're doing it, and uses it. Why does he get brought down for that?

Would Kobe have tried to take that baseline? It's a question to ask and wonder about. I don't think any less of him, but Kobe wouldn't even have tried it. Maybe that just makes Bron crazy, though. Who knows.

At 5/04/2006 10:36 PM, Anonymous aug said...

I've been saying this about lebron for the past few years. I keep saying, it seems more like a league conspiracy for lebron to be the next big thing. It doesn't seem like his skills are as good as they are. He just can't be as good as he is now and will be in the future. It seems sometimes that he gets to the basket with such ease, that it has to be a stern master plan. How can it not? Not just this game, but all the regular season games. He gets to the rim way too easily as if the other players were moving out of the way just enough to let him go by without him knowing about it. His shot doesn't seem that good, but i'll be damned if it doesn't go in 50% of the time. I'm not ready to accept lebron, and i'm going to still insist that it's a conspiracy. The only question for me is if lebron is in on the scandal, or if he's none the wiser and living in his own little truman show.

At 5/04/2006 11:16 PM, Blogger SilverBird5000 said...


well put. I think these suspicions are widely, widely shared around the league, and I think this has a lot to do with how Bron's big moments so far have been received.
when you think about it, the most dangerous threat to the NBA-sacred isn't lax defense or bad officiating. These things can be easily remedied. The most dangerous threat to this sport or any other is the fix - the idea that someone besides the players themselves is backstage pulling the strings. Not a season went by in my childhood that my uncle Marty - an angry and dyspeptic man who never met a conspiracy he didn't like - wouldn't remind me that my beloved Leage was in fact an insidious, predetermined collusion that no amount of contingency or prayer could ever shake. I think that one reason Lebron scares people is that, in those increasingly frequent moments when he controls over the game, its the closest we come to the sense of an outright rigging. After all, there are only 3 ways he could get to the basket that easy.
1) the defenders moved to the wrong place
2) he moved the defenders to the wrong place
3) someone paid the defenders to move to the wrong place.

There might be a moral difference between (2) and (3), but there's also something very similar about them. And this scares the shit out of us.

I absolutely agree. Kobe just wouldn't take that shot. Jordan wouldn't take that shot. And yet Bron feels ok about going to the rim to win the game. Its flat-out unprecedented.
You know, I've heard NO ONE raise the possibility that, since no player has ever been crazy enough to drive for a lay-up at the buzzer, it may have been kind of reasonable for Jamison et. al. to be looking for the jumper.

At 5/04/2006 11:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

T-Mac drove for a lay-up at the buzzer to beat the Lakers last year. I think it might actually be the killer instinct of Kobe and Jordan and co to drive for the lay-up every time, but they don't do it because they don't face the washington wizards under playoff reffing every time they have a chance for a game winner.

At 5/05/2006 1:09 AM, Anonymous aug said...


I see what you're saying. The officiating in the playoffs this year have been a bit odd. It seems they're calling a lot more in the final minutes of games than in past years. The cavs-wiz series has been a free throw shooting contest down the stretch. Not to mention anthony johnson in game 1 of that series(by the way, what the hell happened to him? he is way too old and chubby to explode like tonight, and still lose. he my friends, is an example of a vet). I can't remember any recent playoffs with so many calls down the stretch. Non calls, like in the suns-lakers series are the norm. The nba doesn't like to bail teams out. The lebron non call was a different monster. The play before he had, in the heat of the moment, what i thought was a travel, then came back and had a really obvious one. Was it the refs trying to go back and reestablish the playoff norm, or simply letting lebron get one step closer to the title as part of the master plan? Don't think stern would let lebron win the title yet. He's going to slowly work his way there, but believe you me, in 2 seasons or so, the revolution will be here...and it WILL be televised.

At 5/05/2006 1:39 AM, Anonymous Mr. Six said...

I just finished reading through all of the LBJ commentary and have just two thoughts to add to all of the spot-on observations:

1. Watch the replay again and look at (I think) Marshall's hands. He cleverly shoved Ruffin off-stride at a point when the refs couldn't see.

2. Regardless of that slight advantage, the question is whehter Antawn faile to rotate or LBJ is so quick that the rotation couldn't come fast enough, no matter who it was. We may never know the answer to that question, but we get another 15 years of data to find out.

Unrelated, but has anyone else noticed Odom actually looking like a basketball player in the playoffs? If only I were as optimistic for him as I am for the King.

At 5/05/2006 2:22 AM, Blogger SilverBird5000 said...

It occurs to me that, in going through the basketball-reference data for Kobe's game-winners, I left out the one he hit 6 days ago against the Suns. That too was a jump shot.

As for Anon's point...I find it very, very hard to believe that in every one the 10 situations where Kobe and Jordan hit game winning shots, the defenses and reffing were significantly harder than what Bron has faced against the Wizards. I left the spread sheet at my office with all the opponents, but I know that several of them were 5th-seed or lower. I happen to think its a matter of style, not "killer instinct" (Kobe and MJ have Bron beat in that dept. a thousand fold). But all this will soon be settled regardless. Its only a matter of time before Bron faces a 1st rate defense. If he starts shooting jumpers at the end of the game, I'll be in error. But if he keeps going to the rim and scoring, its going to be hard to ignore.

At 5/05/2006 2:25 AM, Blogger SilverBird5000 said...

thanks for pointing that out. I hadn't noticed Marshall's shove.
Also, as you can probably tell from the post, I am in full agreement with #2.

At 5/05/2006 2:27 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

re: kobe vs. lebron. tell me kobe's three's at the end of tonight weren't the epitome of the metaphysical fix the bird is talking about. but yet oddly taken for granted.

re: odom and lebron. somehow, i think lebron has liberated odom. he no longer has to wrestle with the possibility that he might be the next magic, because lebron already is. now he's free to embrace his wobbly imperfection, smile more in playoff contests than anyone except for arenas, and be elusive and slippery instead of haphazard and enigmatic. he's finally figured out how to make others as confused by his play as he seems to be, which is when things get dangerous.

At 5/05/2006 2:28 AM, Anonymous Micah said...

All I can say is, I get pretty chilly in the spine when I see those "We are all witnesses" billboards for the Lebron campaign. The current Omen remake billboards ("The signs are all around you") are in a similar vein (in their intent, at least): We know we're not prepared for what is about to happen next, but we've got a clue that it might be fucked and crazy, so we need to stick around and watch.

At 5/05/2006 2:33 AM, Anonymous Harold Miner, Esq. said...

Silverbird, I liked your quick comparison to the Rose Bowl. Lebron's layup and Vince Young's Rose Bowl-winning scamper strike me as very similar -- they both had a strange sense of inevitability and ease (despite the tremendous athleticism and creativity involved).

At 5/05/2006 2:41 AM, Anonymous White People Don't Know said...

aug's comments and the responses are flat perfect. i didn't realize it before hand, but that's exactly how i feel—like that commercial where lebron nails the 90 footers has taken over reality, and i'm sitting on my couch trying to spot the photoshop. i am just not ready for lebron to have a jumpshot, so even when he is nailing threes right and left, i can't admit that he can shoot. where did his shot come from?

did anyone else see anthony johnson's postgame? his team just got eliminated and his season ended, and that neckless motherfucker was beaming. i have never seen an nba player so unable to contain his joy at his own performance, and in a loss! it was endearing.

At 5/05/2006 2:46 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

"i have never scored this many points at any level of organized basketball"

At 5/05/2006 9:43 AM, Blogger Brown Recluse, Esq. said...

mr. six, i noticed that donyell fouled ruffin, too. i couldn't tell if he pushed him or held his arm or his jersey. after watching it over and over, i think that he held his arm for a split second, which is what allowed lebron to catch the ball where and how he did. but, lebron still had to make that drive and lay up. or, as silverbird would say, he had to see what the defense was giving him and DECIDE to make that drive and lay up. in an instant. he is a basketball savant.

At 5/05/2006 3:22 PM, Blogger BenSchwarmer said...

"elusive and slippery instead of haphazard and enigmatic"

Perfectly stated. If Marion is checking Kobe, why isn't the ball in Odom's hands in the post? Especially when TT has 5...

At 5/06/2006 6:31 PM, Anonymous Mr. Six said...

And he did exactly the same thing again with 1:30 left in regulation of game 6 last night. The case for bad Wiz defense on the original lay-up just took one in the gut.


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