Nobody will weep for a 27-year-old international icon who has already collected more than $92 million in salary, but LeBron James has long been placed in an unfair position. He was expected to achieve greatness right away, and every failure was taken not as a growing pain but as a mark against his character.
In the NBA Finals, James could look across at 23-year-old Kevin Durant and say, "Welcome to my life, buddy."
In the aftermath of the Miami Heat's 91-85 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 3 on Sunday, the doubts that have defined James' march toward immortality began to seep into the conversation about Durant. Never mind that this is Durant and the Thunder's first trip to the NBA Finals and that their oldest core player, defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha, is only 28.
Yet while the Thunder's early- and late-game struggles in this series should not be taken as an ingrained, incurable flaw in their DNA, the slip-ups have revealed a temporary trait that could still prevent them from winning the championship this year: youth. Time does not always cure the shanks in the clutch — ask Sergio Garcia — but without the lessons of those costly mishits, it can be difficult to know how to approach a situation in which everything rides on one shot.
The Thunder are getting their lessons now. Durant probably figured out that he should not make a belated attempt to draw a charge when James is rumbling toward the hoop, especially when Durant already has four fouls. Russell Westbrook has shown more growth during these playoffs than any other Oklahoma City player, but even he ran off the rails at a crucial time in the second half. James Harden, who is due for free agency next summer, may have learned in Game 3's disastrous third quarter that life is a lot tougher as the head honcho than as a sixth man extraordinaire.
Fighting through these rookie mistakes (and most of the Thunder are rookies when it comes to the Finals) are doubly difficult when the veterans who were expected to carry the youngsters through the bumps are just as unreliable. Derek Fisher committed an unforgivable shooting foul on a 3-point attempt by James Jones, and Kendrick Perkins has played valiantly yet inconsistently in the bad matchups presented for him by the Heat. Fisher and Perkins have made such errors before, when they were younger men getting their first tastes of Finals hoops. For the most part, they leaned on the experience of their veteran teammates and learned from those miscues in future playoff runs.
Westbrook shows signs of learning one of those valuable lessons. In the late rounds of the playoffs, every game can ride on a single possession, heightening the importance of protecting the ball. Once again, Westbrook was a protective force with the ball in Game 3, committing only two turnovers while scoring 19 points on 8-for-18 shooting. He is still attacking as relentlessly as ever, and now he throws away the ball far less often.
There is still a long way to go with Westbrook, as there is with most of his teammates. But Westbrook has seemed to be the quickest study over the last year and a half, and for the Thunder to come away with the title this year, his teammates will need to learn at the same accelerated pace.
Patience could be needed, though. James, after all, is still learning five years after his first shot in the Finals.