Goodwill: LeBron's ascent to stardom began at Palace

Vincent Goodwill Jr.
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — Pistons fans have never quite recovered from that May night, and LeBron James still smiles at the memory.

It is the image of a 22-year old manchild taking the air out of a jam-packed and high-energy Palace crowd.

It may seem like yesterday, but James scoring 25 straight Cavaliers points and 29 of their last 31 in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals was eight seasons ago.

He's been to the NBA Finals five times since then, creating demons, exorcising them and becoming an undisputed champion. But that night — and The Palace itself — holds a special place with James.

"Always. Always. Being here, memories always come back here," James said standing near quarter court Tuesday.

He tattooed a special memory everywhere on the floor in that second half, as the Pistons, who had once held a 2-game-to-none lead, found themselves in an unexpected dogfight with the James-led Cavaliers.

It was that night that truly catapulted James into the strata of superstars, not just a super talent. He single-handedly carried what was perhaps the worst NBA Finals team of the last 25 years past a Pistons team that had won a ring three years prior, and was a fixture in late May and early June.

"They definitely hold something in my career," James said. "Because they pushed me individually to a championship level, a mind-frame. Understanding to beat this team, you have to play like this team to be successful."

It was a nightmare Pistons fans would like to forget. James' exploitation of a Flip Saunders defense — one that couldn't stop one man with no offensive help — prevented the Pistons from getting back to the Finals, pushing them one step closer to a rebuilding process from which they're just now beginning to emerge.

It was so long ago James joked he didn't remember the exact numbers.

"Yeah whatever it was," he said when someone guessed the statistics. "It was something like that."

That season was likely the last time James wasn't mentioned as an automatic MVP candidate, finishing fifth in voting that season. He's won four since, closing in on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's record of six. Michael Jordan and Bill Russell each have five.

This season, though, he hasn't been talked about as a top candidate, even though his averages of 26.2 points, 7.4 assists and 5.6 rebounds would make favorites Stephen Curry and James Harden blush.

A back injury forced him to sit out eight games, and he has seemed to be without his usual explosive finish at the rim, prompting speculation that after 11 seasons he had lost a step.

"Nah, I don't get involved in what people say about how I approach the game," James said about the lack of MVP talk. "I know I can play the game at a high level. I know who I am and what I'm about. Me making excuses about my injuries when the time we were struggling, it just would've added onto what we were going through."

James' return home hadn't yielded the results he was hoping for. Cavaliers rookie coach David Blatt seemed overmatched and James wasn't meshing well with teammates Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Kevin Love.

"It made no sense to talk about it until I crossed that path," James said. "Sometimes I was hurting the team, sometimes I helped the team. I gave what I had.

"It got to a point where my body had to rest. My body told me that it needed a rest and it's paid off for our team."

The Cavaliers have won six straight since his return, with James averaging 30.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists, shooting 51 percent in 36.3 minutes.

"I think we're playing better than then," James said. "We play with a little more intensity, more urgency. Everything isn't gonna be perfect, we know that. But when we're playing hard, it's more sustainable than before."

It's likely that if Stan Van Gundy had a vote, James would be in his first five.

"The award says itself. The guy most valuable to his team," Van Gundy said. "I always think it's gonna come from a successful team. Not the best team, but a successful one. Right now we could narrow it down to 4-5 names."

Make no mistake, even though James is getting closer to exiting his prime. — the same way that Pistons team was on that memorable night in May — he'll play at an MVP level for years to come.

Slim dunks

It'll never happen, but the NBA's Slam Dunk contest will not reclaim its luster until the top names return. The last memorable buzz was when James teased the crowd in 2009, claiming he would make his dunk contest debut in 2010 at the then-new Cowboys Stadium.

It never materialized, and despite Blake Griffin putting on a great show in 2011, the signature event of All-Star Weekend won't fulfill its true potential without the best players.

They feel it's too much to lose, not enough reward for too much scrutiny from an audience used to seeing exploits from Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Vince Carter.

They're correct, but it would be entertaining to see them try. Until that happens we'll settle for Steph Curry, Kyle Korver and the best shooters in the 3-point contest.

Not a yawner, but certainly it doesn't provide the excitement of the dunk contest.

And it's a little sad.