John Smallwood | Just win, LeBron

KING JAMES WOULD PROVIDE NEW MAGIC FOR NBA

PUBLICLY, DAVID STERN doesn't play favorites, but you can bet that behind closed doors up in New York, the commissioner of the NBA and all of his minions are cheering for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Four seasons ago, James arrived as the savior of the NBA, and right now, a life preserver is clearly floating in front of him.

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Would LeBron James in the NBA Finals mean higher TV ratings?

Save us, oh mighty King James. You are the Chosen One to spare us from the plague of San Antonio Spurs/Detroit Pistons II.

We'll take locusts and frogs as opposed to having to watch a second go-round of that blight.

In the 2005 Finals, the Pistons and Spurs met for a defensive-minded, starless series that sent the NBA back to the days before the shot clock.

America tuned out in droves as the series, which went to a dramatic seventh game, posted an 8.2 rating, the second lowest since the Finals stopped having games broadcast on tape-delay in 1981.

Nobody outside of the Detroit and San Antonio metropolitan areas wants to see a rematch.

But that's exactly what looked to be on the horizon when San Antonio took a comfortable lead over Utah and Detroit won Games 1 and 2 against Cleveland.

Then James came to the rescue - or at least potentially he did.

The Spurs are likely to be back, but after Cleveland beat Detroit on Tuesday, the Eastern Conference finals are 2-2.

Tonight, at Detroit for Game 5, James gets the first opportunity to show that he is deserving of all the hype he's received as the next big thing in the NBA.

Three games to finally start a legacy - that's what James is looking at.

If he can lead Cleveland to two victories in the next three games, we can finally start to take all of those Michael Jordan comparisons seriously.

In fact, if Cleveland can beat Detroit and advance to the NBA Finals, James will have succeeded where Jordan failed during his fourth season in the league.

Back in 1988, Jordan's Chicago Bulls were 1-1 with Detroit in the Eastern Conference semifinals but then lost three straight.

James, who scored 25 with 11 assists and seven rebounds in the Cavaliers' 91-87 victory on Tuesday, has the NBA Finals in his grasp.

"The series is a lot better being 2-2 than 3-1 going back to Detroit," James told the media after Game 4. "I'm more focused than I've ever been my life."

The NBA needs James and Cleveland to pull this out.

At a juncture when interest appears to be sagging, the NBA needs James to resurrect the Cavaliers the way Jordan resurrected the Bulls in the 1990s.

James' ascension toward a championship is the only storyline that can capture the imagination of the general public.

For all its talk about wanting to make the league about its teams, the NBA is, and always will be, reliant on the appeal of its individual stars.

It wasn't about the Los Angeles Lakers. It was "Showtime," starring Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

It was Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Magic, Isiah Thomas, Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

The surge in popularity of the NBA began when Magic and Bird entered the league in the 1979-80 season, and climbed steadily during the Jordan era.

Between 1982, when Magic's Lakers beat Doctor J's Sixers, and 1998, when Jordan led the Bulls to their sixth championship, the NBA Finals never had an overall rating lower than 12.3.

Since then, the 2001 Finals is the only one to reach a 12 rating. It's no coincidence that Finals featured the Sixers ultrapopular Allen Iverson going up against the Lakers of Shaq and Kobe.

The two lowest-rated Finals since they stopped showing games on tape-delay feature San Antonio against the New Jersey Nets (6.5) in 2003 and the Pistons in 2005.

As good a player as he is, San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan and his three titles just don't capture the interest of the American viewing public.

That's why the NBA desperately needs LeBron James in the Finals.

The only thing that can bring interest back to its biggest stage is if its brightest star is there to shine.

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Send e-mail to smallwj@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/smallwood.