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?