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Was Kurt Rambis Tougher Than LeBron James?

After three games a number of story lines have emerged from the Celtics and Cavaliers round 2 series:

- The woeful shooting in Game One
- Boston’s defense in the first two games
- Cleveland’s defense in Game Three
- Kevin Garnett’s stellar play
- Zyrundas Ilguaskas' shooting prowess and the Cavs' strange decision to ignore him at times
- The contributions of the Cleveland’s late season acquisitions in Game Three.
- LeBron James’ struggles from the field: 13-58 (22%).

I'll add one more. LeBron’s reactions to any kind of contact. To be fair this started in Round One when Brendan Haywood fouled LeBron hard and the physical pounding the Cavs’ superstar endured received a great deal of attention. Mike Brown even argued that Cleveland’s meal ticket rarely gets the benefit of the doubt:

"He knows he's going to get hit, and unless he gets absolutely clobbered, they're not going to call the foul.'' - Mike Brown

Fast forward to Round 2 and the play is still physical. However, this time around Sam Cassell has called the NBA out for protecting LeBron in ways it never protected Michael Jordan:

"I know Michael Jordan is sitting at home right now pouting because they didn't protect him. There wasn't no bigger star than him, and he took some banging. But he got through it. That's why he got considered the best player to pick up a basketball." - Sam Cassell

Disregarding the fact that Jordan is probably gambling, golfing, filming a commercial or doing any number of things that don't involve pouting or running a team, it's fitting that Cassell brought up MJ, as it segues nicely into a passage from Sam Smith's stellar The Jordan Rules:

"The Pistons advertised their "Jordan Rules" as some secret defense that only they could deploy to stop Jordan. These secrets were merely a series of funneling defenses that channeled Jordan toward the crowded middle, but Detroit players and coaches talked about them as if they had been devised by the Pentagon. ‘You hear about them enough – and the referees hear it, too – and you start to think they have something different,’ said Bach. It has an effect and suddenly people think they aren’t fouling Michael when they are.’ – Sam Smith The Jordan Rules, pgs. 8-9.

I think most people would agree that at a certain point in Jordan's career he was getting calls and then some. Yet one could make the argument that at the young age of 23 LeBron is already getting that treatment. However, perhaps Jordan is not an adequate comparison because for all his talents - leaping ability, shooting touch, defense, drive, etc. - MJ was not the physical presence LeBron is. It's been written and spoken about ad nauseam but it bears repeating - LeBron is a unique combination of size, strength, speed and quickness. I can't think of anyone like him. And he's not content to fire jumpers. Frequently LeBron will get up a head of steam and attack the basket, endangering anyone who dares get in his way. Consider Bill Simmons' take on one play from a few seasons ago:

"LeBron completely took over the game in the fourth, capped off by one of the most startling plays I have ever seen: Trailing in the final two minutes, LeBron seized some open space in transition and pulled the Runaway Freight Train move, careening toward the basket as one Net reached in and hacked him, followed by another Net on the other side reaching in and fouling him, and then a third guy just to make sure he wouldn't score. LeBron was cradling the ball, taking two giant steps toward the basket and absorbing those karate chops. BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. Any normal human being would have either lost the ball or lost their balance and tumbled to the ground.

Well, LeBron kept going -- almost like a tight end bouncing off three safeties in the open field. As the last guy walloped him, LeBron jumped in the air (where did he get the strength?!?!?), regained control of the ball, hung in the air, hung in the air for another split-second, gathered the ball (at this point, he was drifting under the right side of the rim), and finally unleashed a righty layup that banked in. The shot was so BLEEPING INCREDIBLE, the referee practically jumped in delight as he called the continuation foul." - Bill Simmons

Of course that begs the question. What should his opponents do when LeBron pulls his patented "Runaway Freight Train move"? So far the Celtics have tried several tactics:

1. They have tried to prevent it from even getting to that point by turning it into a half court game, essentially ignoring Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao and putting three defenders wherever LeBron wants to go. This was evident in Games 1 and 2. Game 3? Not so much.

2. Step in and take a charge. Paul Pierce actually pulled this off in Game 3 and if I'm not mistaken Leon Powe drew one in Game 1 as well. This strategy is difficult because LeBron is athletic enough to avoid contact in those situations, the whole charge/block thing is a grey area that James is more likely to win and it hurts like hell.

3. Foul him hard and stop him. Cassell gave it a shot in Game 1. Strangely the 6-3, 185 pound and 38-year old Celtics point guard could not slow down a player that is 5 inches taller, 65 pounds heavier and 15 years younger. The plot thickened as LeBron ran right through the foul attempt and Cassell grabbed hold of his jersey, earning a flagrant 1 in the process. Two games later James Posey tried to wrap up a runaway LeBron only to see the Cavs star run through the foul attempt and into a close line. Given how ugly the play looked, LeBron's status and Posey's past I was actually relieved to see it only resulted in a flagrant 1.

As a Celtics fan I'm actually not bothered by the two flagrant fouls because I understand how the NBA works. Superstars get calls. Furthermore, the fact that LeBron is so physically imposing creates situations like that. Of course I'd appreciate it if Varejao were not allowed to manhandle KG in the post. But that's a discussion for another time. Nor am I bothered by LeBron's 35 free throws so far. Say what you want but King James but he creates contact. However, I am concerned by how willing LeBron is to hit the deck and mug for calls. Granted I'm a biased Celtics fan. Yet in FlCeltsFan's most recent "Comment from the Other Side" even a few Cavs fans recognized this phenomenon:

"That wasn't meant to be flagrant. It was clear as daylight that if lebron didn't over react or he didn't bend down it would be normal. I aint complaining though"

"LeBron needs stop acting so much. It really is a little annoying. Anyways, GO CAVS!"

1000+ words later maybe 2 people have made it this far and I've finally reached the title of the post - Was Kurt Rambis tougher than LeBron James? Well I put together a YouTube clip of their respective close line incidents. I'm not entirely sure why I went with Europe's The Final Countdown and the footage isn't great. But it is fun to analyze nevertheless:


To be fair if you watch the McHale's take down from another angle one fairly obvious point is hammered home - Rambis was moving as fast as LeBron. However, Rambis had definitely left his feet when contact was hard and landed hard on his back as a result. And anyone who watches NBA basketball has been lectured numerous times on how dangerous it is to foul a player hard while said player is in the air and as a result unable to defend himself. Yet despite the contact Rambis quickly bounced up and charged after McHale. Meanwhile, LeBron went down like he was shot and stayed down for a while, grimacing in pain:



Of course it's never easy to compare hits. Most people who play a contact sport will at one point walk away unscathed from a violent collision and then get hurt  by a seemingly minor hit. Far be it from me to say whether or not LeBron was actually hurt on the play. He most likely was. Granted he stayed in the game and continued to play at a high level without limping or grimacing in pain the way Kobe Bryant finished out Game 4 against the Jazz. However, the bigger issue is that it's just odd to watch arguably the most physically gifted player in the league careen around the court, create contact and then act like he's been beaten mercilessly. Isn't he better/tougher than that?

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