By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — LeBron James is kind of weird.
He is the best player in the world, obviously, and his run of reaching the NBA Finals for eight straight years is utterly preposterous. Though he and his teammates have lost five of those eight Finals series, there’s no denying the level of sustained dominance that LeBron has maintained, even as he ages through his early 30s. And the man just put together arguably his best postseason performance yet: 34 points, 9.1 rebounds and 9 assists per game. (Nine assists per game on that roster is by far the most impressive feat.) He led the entire NBA in playoff scoring, he led the Cavaliers in assists (the next closest was George Hill at 2.2 per game), and he was second on his team in rebounds.
The man was, quite clearly, an unstoppable force on his own. The problem was that his teammates weren’t exactly championship-caliber, so his team was swept in the Finals by a Golden State Warriors team that is currently enjoying a dynastic stretch atop the NBA. Losing to that Warriors team, with those teammates? There is not even an iota of shame in that.
But with LeBron, there always tends to be something. And sure enough, on Friday night, as the final seconds ticked off the clock in Game 4 in Cleveland, that something came in the form of reports about LeBron playing Games 2-4 with a serious hand injury. The injury was of course not serious enough to keep James from playing, and it wasn’t serious enough to keep him from averaging close to a triple-double in those three games, but it was nevertheless serious enough to warrant reports to emerge immediately after the game.
LeBron being LeBron, he showed up to his postgame press conference with his hand wrapped in a cast. Again, the hand injury was not severe enough to prevent him from playing high-stakes basketball games. But talking to reporters while sitting at a table? Doctors probably wanted to get that thing wrapped up as soon as possible. Can’t take any risks out there.
“Pretty much played the last three games with a broken hand, so that’s what it is,” James stated, admitting that he had let emotions get the better of him.
The cast was a bit dramatic. Bones can’t “pretty much” be broken. Frankly, the whole spectacle made the injury seem difficult to really believe.
The explanation for the cast didn’t help, either. Sam Amick of USA Today reported that James “only wore the cast because he had already been told that the news was out.”
That’s not a reason to wear a cast.
Amick also reported that news of the busted hand did not come from LeBron’s camp. So where did it come from? Can’t say. But it wasn’t LeBron’s camp. Got it? Got it. Good.
It’s all somewhat reminiscent of 2010 — you know, when LeBron left Cleveland the first time. It was during those playoffs when LeBron, clearly the best player in the world, didn’t really have the world’s best teammates. He averaged 29.1 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.6 assists in that postseason, but the Cavs’ next-best scorers were Antawn Jamison and Mo Williams. That team wasn’t going anywhere. So when those Cavs lost to a still-potent Celtics team that was en route to a seven-game Finals appearance, there was likewise no shame in losing for LeBron.
But throughout that postseason, LeBron was dogged by a mysterious elbow injury, one that bothered him so much in the first round that he took a left-handed free throw. Was this a real injury? Well LeBron didn’t undergo surgery that offseason … and he hit the ground running in his first season in Miami … and Nuggets head coach Mike Malone, who was a Cavs assistant coach at the time, later wondered if the injury was just mental.
Nevertheless — nevertheless! — in this glorious modern era of technology, we have the ability to easily go back and examine whether or not James showed any signs of injury during the Finals. While his post-Game 4 high-five routine and his ferocious Game 3 self-alley-oop made it seem as though everything was A-OK with that right hand, a closer examination does indeed seem to show that James’ hand was not right.
Let’s go to the photos!
So, here are a couple of great shots of LeBron’s hands from Game 1, prior to J.R. Smith ruining everything.
As you can see, both of his hands appear to look the same. You can see bones and tendons and whatever else is visible on the backs of hands. They’re the same size, and nothing is swollen.
OK, let’s move on to this photo from Game 2.
Clearly, there is a puff factor at play with that right hand. There’s no definition and it definitely appears to be a bit swollen. Not obscenely swollen, but swollen nonetheless.
It’s worth noting that LeBron still had plenty of flexibility in that hand, though:
Oddly, LeBron decided to hold up an apple in his right hand during his postgame press conference after Game 2.
What was that all about? He didn’t even eat it. Just held the apple. The assembled media, which no doubt included some hungry men and women who didn’t get to stuff themselves at a buffet line, likely didn’t appreciate being taunted like that.
In his press conference during the off day, he replaced the apple with a ball — maybe a racquetball?
The series then took a two-day break, which would seemingly have provided some benefit to an injured hand. But LeBron’s hand actually looked worse in Game 3 in Cleveland. Just look at this thing. It looks like a balloon.
A closer look at those mitts:
Clearly, the hand is pretty swollen. So any and all ferocious self-alley-oops delivered in Game 3 must have been made with some degree of pain involved.
And as you might imagine, the puff factor was still around in Game 4:
“OK,” you may be saying. “Big whoop. You proved with some photographs that the injured hand was actually injured. Way to go, sleuth. Thanks for wasting my time.”
Well, you’re welcome. But before you go, I do have an interesting twist. The reports from Amick and Brian Windhorst both said that James suffered the injury when he punched a whiteboard out of frustration after the Cavaliers lost Game 1. (A visibly distraught Windhorst actually said “blackboard,” as if it’s 1872 and we’re still clapping erasers out on the fire escape. Come on, Windhorst! Get with the times.)
That would make sense, right? Heat of the moment. J.R. Smith’s historic gaffe. The changing of a Kevin Durant charge to a LeBron blocking foul. The no-show in overtime. The pain of missed opportunity. While one would probably prefer the best player in the world to not go ahead and injure his hand by punching an inanimate object, LeBron certainly wouldn’t have been the first person to ever ride the Pain Train of emotions.
But … check out this picture of LeBron speaking to the media after Game 1. His hand looks … fine. His hand arguably looks perfect.
Just look at those purdy paws! This man could be a hand model, folks!
Obviously we’re not looking at that hand via magnetic resonance imaging, but it sure looks just fine as he speaks to the media. Now you might recall that this session with the media ended a bit unpleasantly for LeBron, who got tired of hearing the same question about J.R. Smith asked over and over again by ESPN’s Mark Schwarz. LeBron got up out of his chair, adjusted his suit shorts (not a typo), threw on his sunglasses, grabbed his fancy bag, and advised the media to “be better tomorrow” as he walked off the podium.
While we may not be privy to exactly when LeBron might have gone HAM on a whiteboard, it sure seems like he had yet to do his best Andy Bernard impression when he spoke to the media. That means if it was indeed frustration from the Game 1 loss, it wasn’t until at least an hour after the game had ended — and closer to 90 minutes since LeBron sat in steamed silence on the Cavs’ bench at the end of regulation.
Based on that, it seems as though there should be a little bit more to the story of LeBron’s self-inflicted damage.
For now, we seem to know that the injury was real, that it didn’t really prevent him from playing very good basketball in the Finals, that he had no chance of winning the series anyway, and that, in all likelihood, he probably could have braved his Game 4 postgame press conference without wearing a cast.
But did the fateful punch come after his postgame press conference, which ended with LeBron in a rare moment appearing to be flustered? Perhaps the people (who are not in LeBron’s camp) can leak out a little bit more information on that one.