As NBA Commissioner David Stern handed Lebron James the Most Valuable Player trophy on Sunday afternoon at the American Airlines Arena, you could almost feel the aura and mystique of basketball greatness hanging in the air. As the MVP chants poured down on him from a sold-out crowd, James held the award high above his head for the third time in his career, becoming the eighth player to do so in league history.
You might have heard of some of the other players that have won the award that many times or more: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and few more basketball greats that will forever be remembered as legends of the game.
But what made those players so great in the end? It's the fact that they were ready to take on any challenge thrown at their disposal on the biggest of stages, and James did just that to the Indiana Pacers on Sunday in a game one 95-86 Miami Heat victory. From a crowd pleasing alley-oop dunk that sailed half the court in the second quarter to the multiple jump shots in the second half that felt like daggers straight to the heart of the Pacers hopes of a comeback, James proved once again why he is the world's best basketball player with a performance of 32 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 assists.
Hopefully somewhere during that time, Pacers star Danny Granger was taking notes. In fact, with the way Granger disappeared on the court on Sunday, he might have been able to jot some down and it is just that nobody noticed.
Granger had the task of guarding the unbreakable and never-tiring James, who played a game-high 43:15 minutes on Sunday, which in all honesty is about as difficult as any jobs Ethan Hunt from the Mission Impossible series chooses to accept. James' size and quickness just proved too much to handle, especially in the fourth when James scored 16 points and ultimately catapulted the Heat past Indiana in a game in which the Pacers practically led the entire first three quarters. It was a spectacular performance to watch, and it is what you would expect from the best player on the best team left in the Eastern Conference.
It's just a shame that the best player on the second-best team left in the Eastern Conference couldn't have done the same.
While Granger and company struggled with James on the defensive end, the newly-minted MVP made life twice as miserable for Granger on the offensive side of the ball. James, who is the best on the ball defender in the Association, suffocated Granger to perhaps the worst game of his career with just seven points on 1-10 shooting. For Pacers fans it must have been frustrating to watch, as their best player and leading scorer in the Orlando series with 21.4 points per game had shrunk underneath the spotlight. For Granger himself, it was just frustrating feeling James breathing down his neck on practically every possession.
"A lot of the misses were just shots in which I was just trying to make something happen," said Granger. "None of them were in the offense or in the flow of the game. A lot of times, he just didn't leave me. I would just stand in one spot and David West or Roy (Hibbert) would get up the shot over the top because he just wouldn't leave me. So a lot of it were forced shots, and if I didn't force them then I would have taken three shots in the game and would have been one for three."
Though where Granger credited James for his ability to shut him down, the Pacers captain credited the blame of making better opportunities for himself elsewhere.
"I think it is more so getting creative with getting me involved in the offense," said Granger. "A lot of times they don't help off of me and it opens some other things, but I don't get to shoot shots, I won't make a lot of shots."
It might have been in Granger's best interest to stop there, but similar to Head Coach Frank Vogel letting his true feelings known by calling the Heat the biggest floppers in the NBA, Granger carried on with this thoughts.
"That's not really on me," said Granger. "In the system of our offense, in the rhythm of our offense I can't just catch the ball and hoist up shots. So I think it is on all of us. The coaching staff and myself, we have to find ways to get me involved."
Props should be given where props are due, and the fact that Granger wasn't just throwing up shots is something that should be considered admirable. Too many times players who are scorers in this league will take shots that might be considered questionable, and a string of them will shoot a team right out of a ballgame. Granger knows he can score. His teammates knows he can score. Now he just wants to have the opportunity to do so.
"It's hard. Up til probably six minutes [left] in the third [quarter], I'd only took two or three shots," said Granger, who led the Pacers in scoring for the fifth consecutive regular season (18.7 ppg). "It's hard not to force it. You don't want to look like you're not trying. But you don't want to look like you're forcing shots either."
Though as the leader of a team that will only go as far as he takes it, Granger needs to find some way to effectively do damage to Miami's defense, or this could be a much shorter series than anticipated. Quite frankly, in the NBA Playoffs games are won by players who step above and beyond the challenge set in front of them, and James stopped Granger dead in his tracks before he could make any progress.
For James, it was just a Most Valuable Player doing Most Valuable Player-type things.
For Granger, it was a night of excuses that he and Pacers fans can only hope to forget soon before game two on Tuesday night.