The ever-creative New York fans decided a couple games ago to serenade LeBron James with a chant that almost rhymes with “lasso.” Apparently, they don't like him.
This can be a problem at times for James, who really likes to be liked.
But this time, in Game 3 of the Miami Heat's first-round playoff series with the Knicks, James took the bait and used it to his advantage. He bore down, scored 17 fourth-quarter points and demonstrated why – when he's in the zone – he's unstoppable.
It's time James fully embraced his unpopularity outside of Miami.
We've spent forever comparing James to Michael Jordan and, like everyone else who has been compared to Michael Jordan, James comes up short.
Maybe a better comparison is Wilt Chamberlain.
Wilt's biggest crimes were 1) he was a freak who could do anything on a basketball court, and 2) he wasn't Bill Russell.
LeBron's biggest crimes are: 1) he's a freak who can do anything on a basketball court, and 2) he's not Michael Jordan.
Yes, I'm going way back on this comparison and if you don't know anything about Chamberlain and Russell, don't even bother trying to weigh in on James' place in NBA history. Do some studying. (End of old-guy rant.)
James proved with his statistical dominance this season (27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists per game) that he's the most talented player in the game. He does everything well, most things great, and the one area where he's weakest – three-point shooting – he toned down to help his game. Even that weakness isn't a full-bore weakness. He shot 36 percent from three-point range in the regular season. He can still nail a long-distance three in a defender's face.
Because of James' televised fiasco of a departure from Cleveland, saying he was “taking my talents to South Beach,” and his intent on manufacturing a title through free agency, he's a villain to opposing fans. Even relatively neutral fans, like those of the Indiana Pacers (the NBA's Switzerland), disliked the way he paired up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to create a “superteam.”
Chamberlain was never beloved, never the “winner” like Russell and his Boston Celtics dynasty. Wilt the Stilt later became a punch line after distastefully boasting about his "relationships" with the ladies. He won his title near the end of his career, when he reinvented himself as a monster defender and supporting player with the Lakers.
James shouldn't have to wait that long. Miami is the favorite to win the NBA title this season. (Then again, they were the favorites last year, too.)
Still, James is likely stuck in the role of villain, as Chamberlain was, from now on.
That's a shame in one respect for fans, because if you allow yourself to watch James from the perspective of liking him as a player, you'll see his game differently. You'll appreciate his talents at reading the court, passing, hustling, setting up teammates, defending and, of course, scoring.
He's not protected the way Jordan was. NBA referees allow James to be mugged by defenders away from the ball with rarely a hint of a call. Carmelo Anthony uses an arsenal of holds and shoves against James that pro wrestlers would envy.
James must employ every bit of his ample muscular frame on drives. Outside of Shaquille O'Neal, no recent player has taken more uncalled hacks in the paint. If you're not a Heat fan, you probably call that good “physical” defense.
The fact is James can't be stopped without the physical defense, much like the towering Chamberlain, who was rock solid, 7-foot-1 and capable of leaping out of the gym.
Even the Heat doesn't know what it has in James at times.
I still can't believe James didn't have the ball in his hands at the end of Game 4, when Wade dribbled around, drove in the lane, lost the handle of the ball, recovered and missed a fade-away three-pointer.
Yes, Wade has been clutch in the past. But sometimes coaches out-think the situation. It's tough, given the ample talents of Wade. But James is the best player in basketball and, thus, the best on his team. Down two points and you don't let him drive to the hoop for a bucket, a foul or both?
In a late regular-season game, New Jersey Nets fans spent all night booing and jeering James before he scored 17 consecutive points to seal the game. They chanted “M-V-P!” He's not going to win over many stadiums. That's a rare exception.
James should embrace opposing fans' vitriol. Let it be an aural energy drink. Use it as fuel. Ride the wave of the villain.
James will never again be liked by everyone, if he ever was. He should take a lesson from Chamberlain's story. You don't have to be liked to be great.
Fans should realize, too, they don't have to like LeBron James to appreciate watching him do his thing.