June 5, 2007
The NBA Finals do not start until Thursday, but the Eastern Conference now belongs to LeBron James. And if you are the Celtics, your task just got even tougher.
There really is no way around that.
``It means that we've all got to get better,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said early last night from Orlando, Fla., speaking on behalf of the entire Eastern Conference from the NBA predraft workouts. ``I think we all knew that, and I think we all knew that LeBron was going to take off (at some point). We just didn't know when.''
We know now, of course. The whole world knows. James and the Cavaliers finally and formally knocked off the Detroit Pistons in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals last week, and it seemed as if the order of the NBA universe forever was altered. James might be a forward, but this certainly felt like a changing of the guard.
Like most people, Rivers picked the Pistons to win the series against the Cavs. Also like most, he now might be forced into forever changing his thought process. Winning is an acquired skill in the NBA, something even many of the greats learned only with time. Michael Jordan did not win a championship until his seventh season in the league. Once he got there, it was nearly impossible to unseat him.
James? He is 22, in his fourth season in the NBA. Had he gone to college, he might have been one of the many players now working out for Rivers and Danny Ainge, among others, in the American playground known as Orlando. He might also have been yet another player the Celtics missed on when the ping-pong balls came up like hard-boiled eggs in Secaucus, N.J., last month at the draft lottery.
Back in 2003, the Celtics never had a shot at LeBron James.
But going forward, he will serve as a reminder on what might have been.
``We'll see,'' Rivers said. ``You don't know now. You'll only know that later if (Greg) Oden and (Kevin) Durant turn out to be what we think they can be. . . . That's a question I can't answer yet.'' Still, going forward, there are some absolute truths that are impossible to ignore. As good as James is now, as spectacular as he has been in these playoffs, he is just starting to blossom. James' scoring this postseason is down roughly five points a game from his first postseason last year, but his assists and rebounds are up.
To wit: After scoring 48 points on 18-of-33 shooting in a historic Game 5 performance against Detroit, James took only 11 shots in Game 6. . But he had 14 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and a pair of blocks, and the message could not have been any clearer.
When you get right down to it, winning only requires whatever it takes.
``As good as he is right now, he's going to get better,'' Rivers said. ``That's why when coaches heard him getting criticized for finding the open guy (instead of shooting in a Game 1 loss), I think people were throwing things at their televisions.''
In Boston, of course, we cannot help but sit here and throw up our hands. What, exactly, are the Celtics going to do? Oden and Durant are headed for Portland and Seattle, a development that was hard enough to take. Now it just so happens that James has made the next major step in his development - perhaps the biggest one - which means the best young player in basketball is about to take over the league.
And for the Celtics, for years to come, the real problem is that he seems to have no intention of leaving the neighborhood.