The countdown began with a hand in his face and a gimpy knee underneath him, ready to launch LeBron James toward his destiny.
You have two more days to hate him, America. Two more days of brooding about The Decision, two more days to fret over what is and isn’t clutch. Two more days to call the Miami Heat, as Joakim Noah famously coined them, “Hollywood as Hell.”
That was the label that had stuck to the Heat, a taunt based in the notion that this collection of superstars would rather float above the NBA than do the dirty work required to become its champion.
But late last night, as James cramped and Dwyane Wade staggered and the Heat felt one last push from the Oklahoma City Thunder, hustle was all they had left. His energy gone and his knee ready to betray him, James popped up off the bench with 4:05 seconds remaining, his team trailing by two in a fourth quarter that could have swung the NBA Finals either way.
And with 2:51 left, James swung it, perhaps for good. His 3-pointer from the top of the key, shot confidently over Thabo Sefolosha, gave Miami the lead in Game 4 and put them on the doorstep of a championship. The Heat held on, 104-98, and will try to clinch the series Thursday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
“Four or five plays, that’s what this series is coming down to,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “There’s not much margin for error either way, and it’s a lot of the intangibles in between.”
America may never embrace James the way it has so many of basketball’s transcendent stars, but with one more win, he’ll have done everything we could have asked. James can never go back and change what happened in the summer of 2010, can’t turn the clock back on the sideshow he allowed his free agency to become.
But James’ transformation in these playoffs should be the ultimate redemption for him. If you don’t like what he’s done in these Finals, you don’t like basketball played with simplicity, force and efficiency and desire.
He has brought all of that to the table in this series, a complete reversal of his disappearing act in last year’s Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks. Until James cramped up with 5:15 left, forcing him briefly to the bench, he was as good last night as he’s ever been. He was scoring every way imaginable (26 points), passing beautifully (12 assists), going to the boards (nine rebounds) and making Kevin Durant miserable with his defense.
And even after he was hurt, James did what the world had been begging him to do, showing the toughness and initiative to knock down a clutch 3-pointer that swung the fourth quarter. It wasn’t the last shot, but it was the most important of these Finals.
“He was hurting, but that’s what it’s about this time of year,” Wade said. “It would hurt more if we lost the ballgame. Our will pulled us through.”
Yes, James had help last night — winning Game 4 wouldn’t have been possible without Mario Chalmers’ 25 points, and it was up to James’ teammates to hold the lead for the final 55 seconds — but nobody has ever asked him to do this alone. It was about leading a team to championship, not being led there. And there is no way to deny that for James if the Heat get this done.
Just think about the journey of these playoffs. Wade has mostly looked old or injured or just plain ineffective. Chris Bosh missed nearly two whole series with an abdominal injury, one of which James had to rescue in Boston. Miami’s role players, aside from the odd contribution here are there, have been wildly disappointing.
But James has dragged them all to within sight of the finish line. In his ninth NBA season, it looks like he’s finally going to get his title.
“Of course it’s there to think about,” James said. “But we’ll prepare the same way we have all series. And if we play Miami Heat basketball, we’ll give ourselves a good chance to win.”
And James has now fully embraced what that means. This was constructed to be the NBA’s dominant team, but it couldn’t get there playing the way James once envisioned. Miami needed James to take ownership of this team and be the 6-foot-9, 270-pound force of nature that he is; to post up, get to the rim and draw fouls. It’s not always pretty, but the Thunder haven’t been able to stop it.
“Because of this journey we’ve been on, we’ve all gotten to the point that, whatever it takes,” Spoelstra said.
Maybe his first title will change the way James is perceived, maybe not. But after the way he’s handled this series, it’s time to let go of all that anger and appreciate the player he’s become, the champion he’s about to be.