- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The sight of LeBron James single-handedly delivering the Detroit Pistons their ticket home from the NBA playoffs has generated a buzz around the league unlike any since the days when everyone wanted to be like Mike.

James scored 48 points for the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, including 29 of his team’s final 30 in a 109-107 double-overtime win. He followed that up with 20 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists in the series clincher two nights later.

The arrival of James in the championship series raises hopes that the league can begin to reverse the 54 percent decline in television ratings it has suffered since Michael Jordan last appeared in the NBA Finals in 1998.

“It definitely bodes well because now normal people are talking about the NBA Finals,” ESPN basketball analyst and former NBA guard Mark Jackson said. “People now want to see if this guy can raise the stakes and take it to the next level.”

If anyone in the NBA is expected to reach that level — as Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird all have done before — it’s James, the 22-year-old who joined the league out of high school accompanied by loads of hype.

“For 22 years old and knowing he’s our guy and the double-teams and triple-teams that he sees night after night and the 45-plus minutes he plays for us night after night after night, he’s one [heck] of a player,” Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said after the team’s victory over the Pistons.

But James still has a long way to go before he reaches the same plateau as Jordan, Magic or Bird. While his playoff performances in the Eastern Conference finals were extraordinary feats, he has yet to win a championship. It likely will take several rings, along with a half-dozen performances similar to Game 5 along the way, to cement his status as one of the game’s all-time greats.

“I think he went from great to special during [the conference finals],” said former Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy, now an analyst on ABC’s coverage of the NBA Finals. “Whether he can do it in the finals and do it over time is the interesting thing to me.”

Indeed, it’s expected that James and his teammates will need top-notch performances to topple the favored San Antonio Spurs and Tim Duncan, a three-time MVP in the NBA Finals.

“San Antonio is the premier team in our league, playing the best basketball, better than any team in this league,” James said. “They’re veterans. They’ve been there before. They’re special. And we’ve got to be even more intense, even more physically and mentally in tune to what’s going on when we enter into the finals on Thursday.”

League and broadcast executives can’t openly root for teams, but since Jordan’s last NBA Finals appearance, television ratings for the series have dropped from 18.7 in 1998 to 8.5 last year, the sixth-lowest since Nielsen began tracking NBA ratings in 1976. Ratings for this year’s playoffs on ABC are down nearly 20 percent from last year, and the network reported several all-time ratings lows during the regular season.

Not coincidentally, since Jordan’s exit from Chicago, the NBA playoffs now have seen four appearances from the Spurs, which operate — and dominate — with little fanfare.

ESPN and ABC executives point out that the NBA Finals still are strong enough to guarantee a ratings victory each night. But Jackson said he views James’ recent emergence as a potential panacea.

“You walk the streets, you talk to people and it’s all about LeBron’s performance,” Jackson said. “No question, this is just what the doctor ordered. I think it’s going to bring in a lot of casual fans.”

Even Jordan weighed in on James in an interview with Chicago Tribune.

“What just transpired was something I felt was needed for the league, was needed for Cleveland was needed for LeBron,” Jordan said. “Now the test comes in being consistent and continuing that elevation, and not getting complacent.

“The test is going to come for him to consistently do that every single night, when everybody expects it. And he expects it of himself. But he took a big step in that right direction in this last series. This next series is going to say, ‘How far do you want to take it?’ ”

Van Gundy, however, winced at the Jordan comparisons.

“I don’t really like it when people use Jordan and anyone in the same sentence, because Jordan’s greatness was over time,” he said. “To me if he has that championship will, we have to see it game after game, year after year, and that’s what I’m looking to see.”

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