OUTSIDE SPORTS: In NBA finals, team ball should trump star power

Ari Feuer, Sports Editor

Eight seconds before ending this year’s first round series with the Chicago Bulls on April 27, LeBron James threw the sports world into chaos.  Actually, all he did was throw up a free throw—with his left hand.

This year’s Most Valuable Player – who is normally right-handed – sparked a media panic that included articles in major newspapers across the country, analytical segments on news channels, and an explosion of online reports and stories from around the world.  The fear?  That the mighty LeBron had suffered an injury that jeopardizes his Cleveland Cavaliers’ run for the championship.

Cleveland issued an official diagnosis of a bruised and sprained elbow, but many experts and NBA fans strongly suspect something worse.

LeBron’s mysterious elbow injury has become the focus of this year’s NBA playoffs: it is causing many to reconsider earlier predictions of favorites to win the finals this season, including Sports Illustrated and other major sports outlets.

Reports claimed that LeBron was having “great difficulty in carrying anything heavier than a basketball” surfaced on many NBA-related websites, including Cleveland and Lakers fan-sites.

Just to calm everybody down a bit, James responded with a 35-point outburst in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston, followed by a 38-point masterpiece in Game 3 (both Cavalier wins).  Still, the star could be seen clutching his elbow throughout the matches.  Then came Game 5.

“The King” missed 11 of 14 shots and managed only 15 points in Boston’s 32-point massacre of the Cavaliers, in Cleveland.  Boston took a commanding 3-2 lead in the best of seven series.

Compare LeBron’s situation to that of his fellow superstar, Kobe Bryant.  Third place in MVP voting this year, Kobe has endured a season plagued by injuries, including a twisted knee, sprained elbow, back problems, a dislocated pinkie-finger (shooting hand), and a broken index finger (also shooting hand).

Kobe’s Lakers remained atop the Western Conference the entire season, and have rebounded from first-round scares to sweep the tough, physical Utah Jazz in the second round.  This can be credited to a large extent to Bryant’s supporting cast, all of whom have come up big while Kobe has been hurting.

Pau Gasol, the Lakers’ forward, shut out the Jazz with 33 points and 14 rebounds in Game 4 to cap a series of dominance down low.   Ron Artest and Derek Fisher both chipped in 20 points during Game 3 to propel the Lakers to the Western Conference Finals.

The fact that the Cavaliers—who finished with the top regular-season record—are now faltering without a healthy James, while the Lakers are cruising with a less-than-100-percent Kobe, proves that basketball still is a team sport.  No organization can rely on one player and expect to win.

Without a reliable supporting cast around him, James can only hope that the adrenaline rush of the games keeps his playoff hopes alive.  Meanwhile, Kobe and the Lakers, Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic, or the bursting-with-talent Boston Celtics are playing team ball on the way to a probable championship.