CLEVELAND — On the night LeBron James became an accidental porn star, the Warriors also tried their damndest to expose him as a bad actor. It was an utterly humiliating Game 4 for The King, who revealed a portion of his jewels to 18 million unwitting voyeurs while adjusting his jersey and shorts before tipoff. The cameras usually are kind to James, who will be an eventual billionaire because he’s engaging publicly and welcomes the hot glare whether he’s in uniform, filming commercials, dabbling in soclal media or appearing as himself in a Judd Apatow movie.
But if one TV camera wasn’t capturing a penis shot Thursday night, another was colliding with his head and opening a deep scalp gash after he was shoved over the baseline by Warriors center Andrew Bogut. At the moment, James finds himself in the rare position of being a mockery victim, targeted by (1) Internet creeps fascinated by the most infamous wardrobe malfunction since Janet Jackson; and (2) a couple of Warriors veterans, Bogut and the suddenly transcendent Andre Iguodala, who don’t seem concerned about the possible ramifications of their hijinks — say, a 50-point performance by James on Sunday night at Oracle Arena.
There should be no debate that Bogut, in his only three minutes of playing time after being replaced as a starter by Iguodala, intended to push James with a hard foul late in the second quarter. The flying fall, which ended with James bleeding from a cut in the very shape of the camera lens, could have been called a flagrant if the officials were showing any game-to-game uniformity in the Finals and the NBA playoffs as a whole. But I don’t care if Apatow views James as an accomplished actor; no one could have feigned that fall in a mid-air sequence. Bogut, perhaps trying to avoid punishment from the league office, claims James staged the event and tried to make contact with the NBA TV videographer.
“I think he jumped into the cameraman,” Bogut said after the Warriors tied the Finals at two games apiece. “Yeah, I think he came down and took two steps and then fell into the cameraman. I definitely, definitely didn’t hit him that hard.”
When asked if he was serious, Bogut said, “That’s how it was. If you look at the replay, you can see the two steps being taken and then him falling into the camera. That’s what we saw on the replay, and that’s what my teammates saw.”
As further evidence, Iguodala had some fun at James’ expense by pretending to hurt his arm, clutching it after he was fouled late in the third quarter. It was the first topic he was asked about on a night when he returned to the starting lineup, after a frustrating but selfless season coming off the bench, and scored 22 points while helping hold an exhausted and beaten-up James to 20 points on 7-of-22 shooting. His answer did not disappoint in that it completely avoided the question.
“It’s more that goes into the game than people realize,” Iguodala said. “Like not being able to sleep and get in your normal routine. You can’t take naps. It’s like everything — every emotion, every thought, physical, mental, psychological — is thrown into the game. My brain is, like, fried. But it’s like we understand the commitment and sacrifice we have to make. So it was just a perfect opportunity to relax and enjoy the moment. As soon as you get back to the line and shoot the free throws, you’re right back into grinding, grinding, grinding, trying to get a win.”
The Warriors got one, 103-82, in the return-to-normality performance we’ve been waiting to observe in the Finals. In the process, they regained the swagger that had characterized their 67-win regular season and relatively easy postseason. Even Curry’s wife, Ayesha, got in the act by pointing at her head after the victory, a return mock for James’ similar gesture after her husband’s critical late turnover in Game 3.
By ribbing LeBron, they are disrespecting him when everyone else on Planet Earth is marveling … or peeking at the Internet. He can react to the dis in one of two ways in Game 5: Play superbly, as he did the first three games, or bog down again in a fatigued daze.
“I mean, it’s three games left possibly. You just go out and play hard,” James said. “Coaching staff gives you a great game plan, and you go out and execute it and live with the results at the end of the day. That’s all you can ask. It’s the biggest stage in the world, but I don’t put too much pressure on myself about basketball. That’s all it is. It’s just basketball.”
Just basketball? Sounds like a man bracing for his fourth loss in the Finals, which is hardly a disgrace given the gutted condition of his depleted supporting cast. “This is being covered by everyone in the world, and you should just be happy to go out and compete,” he said, continuing the passive-aggressive rationalization. “Win, lose or draw, you go out and compete. And that’s all that should matter. It shouldn’t matter what everyone is talking about or how everyone is putting pressure on you. It means nothing. I mean, in the scheme of things, you’ve been playing basketball your whole life. You live with the results.”
It’s outlandish, and a little loony, for Bogut and the Warriors to think James would risk a serious head injury just to draw a Flagrant 2 foul on an opponent who has been reduced to bit status. Clearly, they are trying to get inside James’ head now that they finally have conquered his body. With the blood from the spill officially confirming that James is a human being, we now see that he does tire after playing 183 of a possible 202 minutes in the series. The idea of James leading the ridiculously depleted Cavaliers to a championship with a herculean effort seemed possible until Thursday night, when the magic of Matthew Dellavedova vanished under his own exhaustion issues and Cleveland’s other guards — Iman Shumpert and JR Smith — looked emotionally detached and out of gas.
“It’s a fact that he’s a human being and I’ve got to give him a minute or two (of rest) here or there,” said coach David Blatt, whose decision to rest James at the start of the fourth quarter led to the Warriors’ romp. “If i don’t, I’m really going to put him under more duress than he already is. When he is out, everyone has got to step up and give a little bit more. We’re thinner now than we were, but that’s not an excuse.”
It took two successive losses for the Warriors to grasp the ignominy they were courting: Imagine being the victims in a one-man-gang championship fairy tale. That still could happen if they slip into their too-comfy cocoon again and lose Game 5, but Steve Kerr seems to have rescued his teetering team with the wake-up lineup change — Bogut out, Iguodala in, smallball over big-boy pants — coupled with his decision the previous game to pull David Lee out of mothballs. Just as he praised assistant Ron Adams for the series-changing tweak against Memphis — having Bogut cover the weak-shooting Tony Allen and creating advantageous defensive matchups — Kerr said his video coordinator, Nick U’Ren, was the staffer who first mentioned the idea of starting Iguodala. It’s the first time in the series that the Warriors looked like the team that won 67 games and dominated the NBA conversation all season.
“When we have that [small] lineup out there, we were able to turn defensive stops into transition and just pick the tempo and the pace of the game up,” Curry said. “And if we can do that from the jump, we thought we’d put some pressure on and not let them be so comfortable with the lead like they’ve had the last couple games.”
“They had to make an adjustment, obviously, because the games, all three of them, were going our way,” Blatt said.
“We spent three games running in mud,” Kerr said.
The move wouldn’t have worked, of course, had Iguodala not made it work. He is your hometown series MVP after four games, with Thursday night providing the best Iggy showcase yet. He handled James on one end, hit four three-pointers at the other end and made time to ridicule The King in between. If he wasn’t happy initially about coming off the bench, after starting all 806 of his previous NBA games, he learned to accept his status in an admirable show of selfless professionalism. Nor did Iguodala chide Kerr when the decision was made to start him.
“We said, ‘Hey let’s throw a little wrinkle in it and see how it works,’” Iguodala said. “It worked for us tonight.”
Whether it works the rest of the series depends on James. It is clear now that Curry, unless he breaks loose with huge scoring games, is neither the MVP of the Finals nor his own team. LeBron still holds the fate of the championship in his paws, as Kerr’s mid-week tribute to him continues to echo. Is he the best athlete of his day?
“Can you find another one? Maybe American Pharoah?” Kerr said. “When I was a broadcaster with TNT, I think I might have made the comment that he’s arguably the best athlete that any of us have ever seen in terms of size and speed and strength. I mean, he’s a force. We know that. There are other guys who you can compare in the game over the years. Scottie [Pippen] and Michael [Jordan] come to mind. But, yeah, I mean, LeBron is so unique because of that powerful force and how smart he is.”
James is so smart, he doesn’t read or watch any media pertaining to the Finals. But I’m pretty sure he has been told about his wardrobe malfunction. And the Bogut claim that he plotted his fall. And the Iguodala mock job. The Warriors cannot have their fun with James, then let him beat them again.
“If I had told my teammates two months ago that we had an opportunity to be 2-2 in the Finals going on the road, would you take it? WIth three games left, I think all of them would accept that,” he said.
He still hasn’t identified the “secret motivation” that fuels him. At this point, he might want to drink more fluids and tie his drawstring tighter.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.