Playoffs' start can tip off a career

Cavaliers' James begins new phase vs. Wizards today


Michael Jordan was in his second NBA season when the 1986 playoffs began. Having been named Rookie of the Year and twice selected to the All-Star team, Jordan had missed all but 18 games that season with a broken foot and went against the wishes of his doctors by suiting up against the Boston Celtics.

It was then, in Game 2 of an opening-round three-game sweep for the eventual NBA champion Celtics, that the 23-year-old guard scored a playoff-record 63 points in a 135-131 double-overtime defeat. That day, Jordan went from promising star to basketball deity. "I believe God was disguised as Michael Jordan today," Celtics star Larry Bird said.

Two decades after Jordan launched a legend that would later include six NBA titles with the Bulls, another young phenom in his third season with the Cleveland Cavaliers is about to embark on the most important phase of a well-chronicled career.

At 21, LeBron James has been Rookie of the Year and has made a pair of All-Star teams, including this season when he was named the game's Most Valuable Player. He recently finished third in scoring and is considered a legitimate MVP candidate for leading the Cavaliers to their first playoff appearance in eight years.

James will now begin the transition from regular-season star to playoff hero when he makes his postseason debut this afternoon in Cleveland against the Washington Wizards, an event worthy of a national television audience and the cover of next week's Sports Illustrated.

"I realized in order to become one of the greats in this game today you have to be clutch down the stretch," said James, who struggled in that role until late in the season, when he hit his first game-winning shot in the NBA against the Charlotte Bobcats. "I want to be one of those greats."

It is an evolution Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, both of whom came into the league with James, started in each of their first two seasons. Wade helped the Miami Heat reach the Eastern Conference finals last season, while Anthony has twice led the Denver Nuggets to the playoffs for one-round cameos.

"My first season, I was just happy to be in the playoffs," said Anthony, whose Nuggets will face the Los Angeles Clippers tonight on the road. "Last year, I think we did OK against San Antonio. We didn't do much to win. We learned from that. I think this is the year that's going to separate us."

Asked if he had any advice for his friend in Cleveland, Anthony said, "I just want him to go out there and experience it for himself. I don't want to try to tell him what to do out there in the playoffs. The intensity level by everyone, from the top player down to the 12th player, increases."

Regardless of his accomplishments, James is well aware that his reputation will be ratcheted up a few rungs if he can carry the Cavaliers another round - or two - into the postseason. Even the man-child known as "King James" will face new challenges.

"It will definitely be an adjustment," said Cavaliers guard Damon Jones, who played with Wade and Shaquille O'Neal last season in Miami. "Making plays gets harder, you have to set guys up, you have to slow down and really dissect what's going on. You really have to be in it to really break it down."

Said Cavaliers coach Mike Brown: "I think everybody has an adjustment, I don't care how talented you are. The question is how long [it takes] and I don't know that. One game. The whole series. He's a talented guy and he definitely wants to win. Without him, we wouldn't be sitting where we are."

It took Jordan four playoff appearances to get the Bulls past the first round and another three playoff losses to the Detroit Pistons - the last two in the conference finals - before he led Chicago to the NBA Finals and its first championship in his seventh time in the postseason.

Just as Jordan had obstacles in his way, James will likely endure a few jolts along this often bumpy road to a new level of stardom. And James, like Jordan, will have others in his way trying to secure their own place in the game's lore.

As Jordan finally overcame the likes of Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas and ultimately Magic Johnson, James will have to get past rising stars such as Gilbert Arenas of the Wizards in the opening round and a veteran Detroit team favored to win it all in a potential second-round matchup.

James might lead this young group of stars and legends-in-making into the playoffs, but they are not the only ones looking for a playoff breakthrough.

At 24, Vince Carter seemed on the brink of legitimizing those comparisons to Jordan, a fellow North Carolina Tar Heel, when he led the Toronto Raptors past the New York Knicks and into the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers in 2001.

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