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SportsMonday: Lay Off LeBron

No rational person believes that LeBron James was at fault for the cramps that tormented him at the end of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, a game his Miami Heat lost 110-95 to the Spurs last Thursday.

It was the work of the poster child for irrational sports commentary, Skip Bayless - and the response to it - that perhaps best illustrated just how ridiculous criticism of James was on Friday.

So why do so many headlines this morning say something along the lines of "LeBron answers critics with powerful performance in Heat bounce-back victory (98-96) Sunday?"

If we all agree that the original criticism was idiotic, then how about we all also agree that we aren't going to use it for facile follow-up headlines that don't bear even the tiniest bit of scrutiny? LeBron James played a great game when his basketball team had to have it - again. As it progressed, he sure as heck didn't have a chance to worry about whether his performance was sufficiently good to answer the snipers.

Local baseball was bad enough this past weekend (remember with the Cubs that when they win like they did last week that's the worst because their "plan" is still to unload the good players at the trade deadline - success now will just make that more painful) that I decided to turn the attention of this usually hyper-local column to the national sports scene. Especially since that scene is all about the NBA Finals.

Many of my fellow basketball fans are hoping, hoping, hoping James and the Heat will falter this time around. I suppose I won't be unhappy if the Heat fail to three-peat but I can't bring myself to root for the Spurs either. The main thing I'm rooting for is more of this amazing match-up, and the split of the first two games was a good start.

One big reason I don't root for the Spurs is that I'm not a fan of coach Gregg Popovich. I've written before about how annoying I find it that people forget the story of how he started his coaching run in San Antonio. In 1997 he absolutely screwed previous coach Bob Hill in a Machiavellian bit of maneuvering that also involved another thing that always ticks me off - tanking games.

When David Robinson was sidelined by a back injury early in the '96-'97 season and a Spurs team that had averaged more than 60 victories the previous two seasons started 3-15, then-general manager Popovich hatched a plan. He would ensure his team could do nothing but tank the season, thus earning a great draft pick. And then the coup-de-grace: he would fire Hill and take the coaching job for himself.

Sure, that meant sticking it to the fans who had already paid thousands of dollars for tickets for games later that season, but oh well. Robinson was ready to come back to the lineup sometime around the middle of the season but Popovich had him stay on the sideline. He was lucky enough that Chuck Person and Sean Elliot also suffered significant injuries. And the Spurs finished 20-62. They were awarded the first pick, Hill was fired, Popovich took over and Tim Duncan was drafted.

Popovich has had a victorious run ever since. Sure, he's probably a good coach but it would be great to see him have to manage just one season without Duncan. He was a big part of the Spurs' choke last season (blowing a five-point lead in the final few seconds of what would have been a Finals-clinching Game 6 win).

And wasn't it ironic that perhaps his biggest mistake in that game was to leave Duncan on the bench during Miami's last two possessions. The Heat twice managed to secure critical offensive rebounds that led to James and Ray Allen three-pointers that first cut the lead to two and then tied the game with less than three seconds left in regulation. It is a good bet that Duncan would have grabbed at least one of those caroms and the Spurs would have been golden. Instead, Miami went on to win in overtime and do the same in Game 7.

The rematch is off to an awesome start. Game 3 starts at 8 p.m. Tuesday night.

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Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays. He welcomes your comments.

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