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Originally published June 13, 2011 at 11:25 AM | Page modified June 14, 2011 at 12:19 PM

Danny O'Neil

LeBron James' Finals failure won't necessarily be the defining moment of his career

With LeBron James, the hyperbole always obscures the reality. The Heat's loss in the NBA Finals pointed out James' shortcomings. But he's still just 26 years old, and Miami's run as an NBA heavyweight is just starting, not ending.

Seattle Times NFL reporter

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The failure has been written in overstatement.

This is not surprising. This is LeBron James, after all, the most hyped basketball player in history, and the Miami Heat's NBA Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks in six games is the biggest disappointment of his career to date.

That James' collapse would be buried in hyperbole is perfectly appropriate. He has always been equal parts reputation and reality. That's what happens when you're a basketball player placed on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high-school junior and proclaimed "The Chosen One."

In Game 6, he was "The Frozen One." The stat sheet will show he made more shots (nine) than he missed (six), but anyone watching that game could see James shrink from the moment. With his team down in the fourth quarter, his season in the balance, he appeared to be allergic to the ball. He wanted no part of it, and a good chunk of the country pointed and laughed.

Here was the guy who took part in an hourlong TV special to announce he was heading to Miami, perhaps the most tone-deaf moment in televised sports that did not involve the voice of Tiger Woods' dead father speaking over the black-and-white image of a serial adulterer in a Nike ad.

If July was "The Decision" for LeBron James, then this series was "The Reckoning." A series that started out with the discussion of whether James had arrived as the best player in the game ended with the conclusion that he wasn't even the best player on his own team: that would be Dwyane Wade.

The Heat's loss became seen as a vindication of everything from the principle of teamwork to perseverance. The Dallas Mavericks stole the Cowboys' title as America's Team at least for this month even if was the big German, Dirk Nowitzki, leading the way.

Dallas' victory was proof that a true team can triumph over an accumulation of superior talent. Roles actually mean something in basketball, and superstars can't Super Glue themselves together and roll the ball on the floor.

Turns out winning an NBA title isn't easy. Not even if you go and stack the deck by signing up with two other All-Stars like James did in Miami with Wade and Chris Bosh.

And now, in his eighth season in the league at the ripe old age of 26, people are trying to summarize his career as someone who wasn't quite good enough to be that alpha dog in the NBA. Someone who lacks a serial killer's compulsion to finish, who shrinks from the moment instead of rising to it.

No one is writing the epitaph of his career because he could play another decade at least, but we believe we have his essence.

"Twenty-six years old, as talented of a basketball player as anyone has ever seen, and this is when the check comes due on all those millions, all those endorsements, all that fame and adulation he's received." — Dan Wetzel, http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/news?slug=dw-wetzel_lebron_james_game5_finals_struggle060811

This was a failure, a monumental one. James is one of the best all-around players in the league, and he wasn't supported by a bunch of ragtag Cavaliers — a team it should be pointed out that became the worst in the league after he left. James was flanked by two All-Stars. For the first time in his career, he was on the more talented team in a series and still lost.

James was the biggest enigma of these NBA Finals. He entered the series seemingly at his peak. He had never played better than he did in the Heat's victories over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, then he had the largest hand in Miami's dismantling of the top-seeded Bulls to reach the Finals.

But in the Finals, he got progressively worse. That was as true in the series, including a miserable eight points in Game 4, as it was in the individual games. There were times he appeared to not want the ball in the fourth quarter. Dallas' Jason Terry effectively gutted James down the stretch in Game 5.

This series put a microscope on James' shortcomings. He has neglected to develop a post-up game. He hasn't needed to because in most games, he can face the basket and drive at will. After all, this is a player who's faster than anyone as big, and stronger than anyone as fast.

But the NBA Finals aren't most games. The defense gets better, and the referees stop calling fouls just because there's contact at the rim. James was visibly frustrated by the lack of foul calls. Instead of clenching his teeth and summoning the strength to force his will upon the game, he became gun shy.

He is not the player he could be. That was shown clearly this series. He might never be the player he could be. But the desire to make this series a referendum of everything he was, is and could become is burying the reality under more hype. From the beginning, everyone was so busy predicting what he would be that it was hard to accurately evaluate what he was.

This was the most meaningful moment in James' career so far. However, that doesn't mean it will be the defining moment of a career. James is 26. Michael Jordan, who has become the bar by which everyone wants to measure James, was 28 when he played his first game in the NBA Finals. The reality is this season was the beginning of the Heat's run as a perennial playoff heavyweight, not the end.

There's no need to hyperbolize this moment. The series — and James' failure — was fascinating enough without exaggeration.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

About Danny O'Neil

Danny O'Neil will comment on issues, events and personalities in the NFL. His column will appear on Sundays during the regular season. He also posts most days on the Seahawks Blog.
doneil@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2364

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