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Different expectations, results for playoff targets LeBron, Rome

by | CBSSports.com Columnist
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Two villains have emerged from the two Finals after seven games, and one of them is paying the ultimate price for disappointing the audience. And the other one is suspended for the rest of the playoffs.

The latter is Vancouver's Aaron Rome, whose crushing hit on Boston Bruins forward Nathan Horton knocked Horton out of the rest of the Stanley Cup Finals and earned him a four-game suspension, effectively doing the same.

The former is LeBron James, who is now learning just how hard it is to work the other side of the street.

Aaron Rome will spend the rest of the Cup Finals out of the limelight. (Getty Images)  
Aaron Rome will spend the rest of the Cup Finals out of the limelight. (Getty Images)  
Rome is a journeyman defenseman who, in a very physical Game 3, clobbered Horton well outside the bounds of even hockey propriety, got four games off for his trouble, and then issued what seems to be a very heartfelt apology for transgressing the code so egregiously. No waffling, no "The devil made me do it," no complaints that none of the players understand what is and is not a legal hit any more. He did it, he ate it.

And his name will barely be mentioned again.

James isn't so lucky. After Game 4, in which he was largely a hologram while Dirk Nowitzki played and excelled with what looked like a bad case of consumption, he is now reaping the fullest whirlwind of a mighty backlash of a national scornfest. His failure to be Michael Jordan is now manifest; his shadow on the big stage has been declared shamefully small. He has been judged unworthy to wear the crown, so when it fell right off his head, was accidentally kicked by Doris Burke and rolled under the scorers table as it did Tuesday night, the rebuke-fest became a meteor shower.

And he has to play Game 5 on Thursday night, where everybody is watching and poised to say one of two things:

If he excels: "Well, where was that Tuesday?"

If he doesn't: "Jordan? Hell, he's not even Bill Wennington!"

In short, LeBron James is now a caricature no matter how you view him. He is the model for the dangers of flying too high too soon, of being gleefully scorned as a player for crimes committed as a cultural touchstone, of being the easy target for know-nothing basketball fans, and yes, of not being Michael Jordan.

In fact, he is such a caricature right now that the "superstars are superstars" question put before him by the evil Comrade Doyel after Game 3 has now had its own gestation -- from wrongheaded and impertinent to bold and insightful to eerily prescient to damned near a softball, all in three days. Most questions die in seconds, mostly for lack of oxygen caused by thought. This one is being used as character analysis.

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All because James isn't having a Finals befitting an inheritor to the crown. All because his alleged sidekick, Dwyane Wade, is turning out to be the bandleader after all. And all because Dirk Nowitzki apparently can beat Miami with one lung tied behind his back while a disgustingly healthy James cannot rise up with a full set of organs.

As always the answer isn't so simple, and has a lot more to do with the roles we assign players rather than the actual playing. The much-scorned Mavericks have either broken his will or moved him from his place at the table, one series after he bullied Chicago with help from Wade and Chris Bosh. Every Miami series has been different, which is why ultimately they are still so hard to beat.

And frankly, Dallas is better than anyone wants to give it credit for being, because they defied the preordained story line of turning "The Decision" into "The Prophecy." And since nobody ever likes having to redefine their thought processes in midstream, James is no longer perceived as Batman, but as some tricked-out version of the Penguin. Basketball at the highest level isn't as predictable as people want to make it, and this has been, in fairness, a hellacious series.

In the meantime, Aaron Rome has kept character throughout. He did something profoundly wrong and dangerous, he was punished for it commensurate with the act, and he copped to his deed and apologized. No ambiguity to get in the way.

The one thing LeBron James still has going for him is he has two, maybe three games to win back some of those who dismiss him now. No, he isn't Michael Jordan, but the only other Michael Jordan in NBA history is Bill Russell, and James isn't him, either.

But he's still in play, and still being argued about, if that's your idea of a good time. He's a superstar trying to figure out the requirements of being a superstar in a what-have-you-done-for-me-since-lunch world, which is a unique form of hell because it always promises a form of heaven.

And Aaron Rome is Aaron Rome. It might not be more fulfilling, and the highs and lows won't be as profound, but at least he knows what being Aaron Rome has in store for him for the next week or so.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com.

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