CLEVELAND – As everything plays out as a struggle for Kobe Bryant(notes) – his spotty teammates and tenacious Western Conference tormentors and Lakers godfather speaking blasphemy – the most monumental uncertainty for LeBron James(notes) has been picking out trick shots with the post-practice cameras rolling.
Hmmm. Let's see. Behind the backboard, 20 feet? On his fanny, 3-pointer?
They all fall for LeBron James. Everything he tries works. These playoffs have been so easy for him. No drama. No challenges. He picked up his MVP trophy at his old high school, insisted that everyone knows how he hated to talk about himself, and then talked forever about … himself. They just cheered him louder.
Here comes Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday Orlando and Cleveland and everyone wonders: Does LeBron ever stop smiling on his way to the NBA Finals?
Boston loses Kevin Garnett(notes), and Orlando loses Jameer Nelson(notes), and no one in the Eastern Conference gets a complete crack at these Cleveland Cavaliers. They pounded the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks in eight bludgeoning games, and the most stress that 'Bron's had came from bowling with teammates inside his mansion.
When David Stern was probed about his personal fears of an NBA Finals without LeBron, the league's emperor sniffed, "You mean as opposed to Dwight Howard(notes), Carmelo Anthony(notes) or Kobe Bryant? None. We have nothing but stars. We should be called NBS instead of NBA…"
As much as it had to pain Kobe to hear the man who made him a Laker, Jerry West, say that James has surpassed him, he had to also loathe Stern clumping him with Howard and Anthony. What happened to Kobe's name in the breath with Michael and Magic? It's odd, but somehow the pressure has turned to Bryant and maybe that shouldn't be the case. After all, he has the three championships. Of course, he's 30, lost his MVP and there's some wonder about how much longer he can play at the peak of his talent.
LeBron and Kobe are doing a run of commercials for Nike together, and two puppets play out Kobe teasing LeBron about the three rings in his display. You have to wonder if Kobe would've done those ads without the freedom to tweak LeBron that way, to use those characters to say something that he doesn't dare himself: How does LeBron surpass me as the planet's best player without a ring?
There's a part of the tormented Bryant that must take a look to the Eastern Conference finals, see James, 24, and Howard, 23, and wonder if life would've been easier had his relentlessly fierce and unforgiving disposition been tempered with a touch of their frivolity. Bryant would've never made believe he was shooting photos of his teammates in warm-ups or worn a Superman's cape and made himself a prop in a dunk contest. Kobe hates that stuff and always will.
For James and Howard, the decade's preps-to-pros phenoms, everything comes without the anguish and angst that accompanies Bryant. He goes to such great lengths to distance himself from this younger generation, forever calling himself an "Eighties baby." He longs for those days when no one was a buddy and everyone an enemy. He had trouble hanging out with the kids on Team USA in the Olympics, mostly disappearing on his own.
Poor Kobe allowed himself to be the subject of Spike Lee's documentary, and somehow believed it would portray him well to the public. Lee clearly gave him free run to shape the infomercial how Bryant saw fit, and still it turned out terribly for Bryant. He was self-absorbed and overbearing and the public witnessed what a nightmare Kobe could be as a teammate. Phil Jackson couldn't finish a sentence without Bryant interrupting him.
That's the problem for Bryant. James has shown himself to be a more natural leader, a more blending force for his team. He's grown into the job far sooner than Bryant ever did in the pros. Everyone sees the way these Cavs react to LeBron, and no one doubts the legitimacy for an instant. LeBron doesn't need Spike to show everyone.
So, James comes up with the craziest H-O-R-S-E shots, always caught on camera, but those aren't his best tricks. No, LeBron James arrives in the conference finals with no championships, and yet somehow has thrust the pressure of this postseason onto Kobe Bryant. Whoever thought he'd hit that one?