Once again, the fickle forces of fate have had their impact and the plans of the NBA Playoffs have been changed unexpectedly. David Stern has seen his conspiracies to have LeBron James and Kobe Bryant meet in the finals frustrated.
After a shaky start the Lakers finally righted the ship and won the Western Conference Championship series against the Nuggets in 6 games. They will move on to the NBA Finals as everyone expected. But they struggled early and if a few things had gone differently the outcome would have been much different. They have been exposed as mere mortals who can be beat which can only lend encouragement to their Finals opponent.
The Lakers dealt with the adversity thanks to that intangible aspect known as experience. Kobe and Coach Jackson have been there and done that. There was never a sense of panic despite some poor performances overall.
However, on the other coast things weren't going as expected.
The fans and the media's eagerly anticipated Finals meeting between the Lakers and the Cavs came to an abrupt ending with a shocking upset as the Cavs lost the Eastern Conference Finals to the Orlando Magic. The NBA's dream matchup between the King and the Kobe is on hold until at least next season.
The Cleveland Cavaliers won 66 regular season games...best in the league. They coasted through the last weeks of the season in an awesome display of power and momentum. They were practically unbeatable at home losing only twice. Even then the second loss was a gimme as a result of a decision to rest the starters... and they still almost won.
They swept both the teams they faced in the playoffs winning by an average in the double digits. They were a juggernaut hell-bent on reaching the finals and winning a title.
So what happened? In a word, Karma. And as far as I see it, it was the Cavaliers fans fault.
Cavs fans were nearly delusional when it came to their belief in the team's destiny. Their expectations going into the playoffs were sky high. As far as the fans were concerned the Cavs place in the NBA Finals was all but assured. The other playoff series were assumed to be a mere formality. Fans and people in the know kept pointing to the regular season record as a clear indication of the Cavs superiority. They were arrogant and dismissive of any other team's chances. Once the Celtics were eliminated, the Cavs path to the Finals was considered a cakewalk.
No one seemed too concerned that the Magic had actually won the regular season series against the Cavs. Lost in their exuberance was the fact that the Magic had won 10 of the previous 14 games between the two. That was the past... the playoffs would be different.
And they were...
Over-confidence is a seriously negative force in sports. The Cavs fans made over-confidence seem almost reserved when it came to their expectations. Cavs fans were unabashedly confident of a Cavs championship. The word arrogant would still be an understatement when describing their attitude. That level of arrogance is the sort of "support" that can actually do a team more harm than good.
Arrogance leads to unrealistic expectations. It often goes hand-in-hand with underestimating an opponent. The subliminal message sent to the team from all concerned was that nothing less than a championship would be accepted by the fans and the media. Anything less would be seen as failure. It's a case where the fans weren't expecting a championship... they were demanding one... or else.
Believe me, the pressure that kind of expectation places on the team is very real and very negative.
The fans and the media adulation had reached a height of frenzy which, should the Cavs fail, meant their plunge into sports despair would be deeper and more painful than most. When the end came the crash could be felt around the NBA. Fans in Cleveland learned the hard way that a great regular season really doesn't mean a whole lot.
As is often the case, the finger pointing is beginning and blame is being served up in heaping helpings all around. Suddenly, despite having won an impressive 66 games, something most teams only dream of, the Cavs fans have decided that LBJ needs more help. It was the rest of the team that came up short. It wasn't James' fault. Look at the numbers he put up during the series they'll say and it's clear he did all he could do.
But those same numbers may just explain why the Cavs lost as a team despite James' superb performance. Maybe James tried too hard. Maybe the rest of the team leaned too heavily on him. Look closely at critical points during the games and you could see the rest of the Cavs becoming as much spectators as the fans in the stands. At times it seemed that LeBron was the only guy on the Cavs doing anything.
It's the same fault that was placed on Kobe in past years; one guy trying to do too much.
Media pundits were raving about the way LBJ carried the team in game 5. Often he was playing 5 on 1 at the end of the game. "Willing his team to victory" was the phrase of the day. He was playing great... incredible even. But I didn't see it as a good thing at all. All it reminded me was of the two games when Michael Jordan scored more than 50 points in two playoff games against the Celtics in his early years. The Bulls lost both games.
LBJ is still learning the lessons that so many stars before him had to learn. He is acquiring the one thing that every player needs that talent can't replace... experience. I don't care how great LBJ is as an individual... he isn't going to win a title alone. Teams win titles. LBJ and the rest of the Cavs learned that lesson the hard way. And it will be a help in the years to come.
Hopefully the Cavs fans will learn something as well. Regardless of the loss, the city of Cleveland has a winner when it comes to the Cavs. They got a great season and came as close as most teams get in any given year no matter how much talent they have. They should be proud... not disappointed in the effort the Cavs gave.
The Cavs are a great team NOW! They learned a lot this year. The experience they gained this season is as important as any player's talent. Breaking up the team... making trades in a panic... focusing on what went wrong... all these are the worst things they can do. Now is the time to remember the good things that they will take from the season. A tweak here... an adjustment there... a small change in the roster... just one more guy... and things might turn out different next year.
I believe in Karma when it comes to sports. It's what bonds a team and its fans. It is how they connect and share in the experience of winning and losing. It plays a big part in every team's success. Contributing to the team's karma is how fans can influence a team and put their stamp on their team's performance. The arrogant, negative karma the Cavs fans projected played a big part in the loss.
I feel genuinely bad for LeBron. He has been christened King James by fans and the media. That's a title that no one should have to bear. It's a crown that sits uneasy on his head. I'm sure that LeBron will always feel he is a pretender to the throne until he can bring a title to the people that support him.
I can imagine how disappointed the fans in Cleveland are. I can't imagine how disappointed LBJ must feel knowing he let all those fans down. If he's the kind of class guy I think he is, failing to deliver what his fans expected weighs on him far more than losing the series.
But I'm putting the blame for that on the Cavs fans.