Cavaliers VS. Hawks GAME 1 * TONIGHT, 8 P.M. * THE Q * TNT; AM/1100 History is LeBron James' opponent now, as much as the Celtics, the Magic, the Hawks or the Lakers. History is going to be tough.
That is not meant as disrespect to the Hawks, who are the Cavaliers' opponents in the next game, which finally arrives tonight. Atlanta will be a stiffer test than the Miami Heat would have been. But history has been unkind to the NBA's Most Valuable Players in this decade.
Only one regular-season MVP, Tim Duncan of San Antonio in the 2002-03 season, has led his team to the NBA title in the same year since this century's first full season. He did so by coming close to an unprecedented NBA Finals quadruple double with 20 points, 18 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocked shots in closing out the Nets.
No MVP award has ever felt as hollow as the 2006-07 bauble that was given to Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki in mid-May, long after Golden State, which had won 42 games to Dallas' 67, ousted the Mavericks in the first round. Nowitzki, who seemed convinced the rim was toxic and the paint a minefield, took potshot 3-pointers and went 2-for-13 in the elimination game.
Duncan on one hand, Nowitzki on the other.
James is the league's newly minted MVP. He is also the rare young player who can talk knowledgeably about Bill Russell, "Pistol" Pete Maravich, Magic Johnson and Julius Erving. To him, history is not something you watch on ESPN Classic. It is something you make.
The playoffs exaggerate everything because so many crucial plays are compressed into so little time. Every play can become part of the lore: Michael Jordan holding his follow-through after pushing Bryon Russell down and hitting the last shot he ever should have taken;
Dr. J's Great Leap Forward (and Also Behind The Backboard); Magic Johnson's baby hook; Larry Bird's steal. Every flaw can be remembered, too: John Starks' 2-for-18 seventh game.
And with league MVPs, so much more is expected. Duncan here, Nowitzki there.
Sports Illustrated put James on the cover in February with the title, "The Power of LeBron." He had too much vim for the SI jinx to hex him. He sure won't be Nowitzki because he can't be intimidated and is in the paint more than an artist at an easel. He is still developing, adding a jump hook, a fadeaway and a classic Brad Daugherty hook. He will need everything because the Cavs will not be favored by the national media should they face the Lakers in the finals.
Jordan really is the measure for them all. Dominant during the season, he was astounding in the playoffs. Nothing may ever top his 38 points when flu-ridden to will his team to a 90-88 victory in Game 5 of the 1997 finals against regular-season MVP Karl Malone's Utah Jazz.
Jordan won five MVPs, second to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's six. The Bulls lost in the conference semifinals when he won it in 1987-88. In his other MVP seasons (1990-91, 1991-92, 1995-96, 1997-98, they were champions. Jordan outplayed Charles Barkley and Malone in their MVP years in the finals.
In Basketball, the best players can exert more influence than in other sports. They are expected to win the biggest games. James resumes the quest tonight.
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