Arenas doesn't have to be an MVP to play like one

May 01, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

Washington -- On two courts on opposite coasts, a hard lesson was learned: NBA Most Valuable Player awards are hard to earn, and even harder to live up to.

Nobody looked more like a future MVP, if not a candidate spurned this very season, than LeBron James did in the first half of last night's fourth game of the Cavaliers-Wizards playoff series. He was what Kobe Bryant had become for the Lakers, even though he's never won the award, and what bitter fate was denying Steve Nash to be, even though a second straight award is practically his.

James, in fact, had been among the slack-jawed fans all over the country watching developments unfold at Staples Center early yesterday evening. He stood in the middle of the visiting locker room at Verizon Center before his own game, with teammates and a crowd of reporters, watching Nash get some very un-MVP-like treatment from the officials, and Bryant make a very MVP-like play to give the Lakers a stunning victory over the Suns and a 3-1 series lead.

Apparently figuring that his team couldn't afford to let a critical road playoff game come down to the final seconds and a referee's whims, James then went out, scored 18 points in the first quarter and 25 in the half. He looked like an MVP.

For a half.

In the second half, and especially the fourth quarter, yet another candidate emerged, from the Wizards - Gilbert Arenas, who might have to be included in the conversation from now on, no matter how many shoe commercials are spread around the other candidates.

"This is LeBron's world," Arenas said afterward, tongue comfortably in cheek and one particular shoe ad in mind. "We're just witnesses."

The world witnessed James going scoreless in the third quarter, saw him commit two offensive fouls in the fourth and three turnovers total in the quarter, saw him score 13 points but also saw him go to the bench for good in the final minute, victory eluding the Cavaliers as quickly and easily as Arenas had throughout that final period.

It also heard him mention those fouls - four offensive fouls in all - after the game and opportunity had been lost. "It seemed like they tried to take my aggressiveness away," James said, not about the Wizards defenders like Jared Jeffries and Caron Butler, but about the officials.

Consider the possibility that the enemy was not in gray shirts or white jerseys, but behind James' headband. "Uh-huh," Antawn Jamison said of the possibility that the physical play is on James' mind. "We do have two guys who do a pretty good job of that ... When you let him run around free, he's hard to stop, but when you play him hard, put some wood on him, you have more success."

Since there was a void for a fourth-quarter master, Arenas stepped right up. No one has been crazy enough to talk MVP about him, but when you score 20 points in the fourth quarter to keep your team from falling to within a game of elimination, your profile should rise. Do that after going 1-for-9 and scoring six points in the same half that James went off in, and contribute mightily to a deficit that reached 13 early in the second half, and such a finish packs even more of a punch.

And remember, he's done this before - in Game 5 of the first round last year, in Chicago, with the game-winning jumper. You know he remembered because he had to correct a questioner last night who had asked him about Game 4.

Suffice it to say that James is not automatically, by default or acclamation, the most dangerous player in this series.

The cruel lesson, then? Sometimes you're not as ready as you, or everyone else, thinks you are. Nobody thought Bryant was ready, since he had spent the entire regular season proving that he could be a one-man show and reduce his teammates to little more than non-paying spectators.

What he has done in his series, and especially yesterday, showed that he is just about there. Bryant is playing arguably the most unselfish basketball of his life. Because of it, the Lakers are playing like the division champs and title contenders, instead of Nash's Suns.

It isn't necessarily Nash's fault that what he has done hasn't been enough to lift his team. It is a problem that he's not getting the treatment from officials that MVPs get. He got jobbed on the so-called jump ball at the end of that overtime, the one that should've been a foul. Kobe would've gotten the call; so would Magic, Michael and the rest. LeBron got one at the end of Game 3, on the travel that wasn't.

Better, however, for things not to come down to that. James set out last night to make sure it didn't for his team.

It ended up being Arenas who made sure of that for his team, instead. Quick - can we get a recount?

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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