LeBron James was all in when tapped for Kevin Durant duty with seven minutes remaining in Game 2, when things looked easy or at least easier.
By the time 12 seconds remained, it was dirty, pressurized work LeBron had volunteered for.
The Heat had let another double-digit lead evaporate and every question about Miami finishing and LeBron as a closer were swirling, critics like yours truly smelling another collapse. And LeBron had himself at least partially to blame. His ill-advised jump shot after a Heat turnover and KD 3-pointer had OKC only down two with the ball.
Everybody knew where the ball was going, what KD had been doing all postseason in moments just like this.
“KD is an unbelievable talent. I think we all know that, we all see that,” LeBron said. “On the last play, I figured they were going to go to him. He got a small step on me. I just wanted to try to keep a body on him, make him take a tough shot, and he’s made tough shots all year, all series, and just one he missed.”
If only that were exactly true.
There was contact, a lot of contact that helped him miss and influenced what ended up a 100-96 Heat victory that evened the NBA Finals at a game apiece. It was an awful non-call, and if anybody except LeBron had been guarding KD, it probably is called.
The NBA has always had The Jordan Rules. And apparently, in big-on-big moments, the NBA has determined LeBron — as Air apparent and The Chosen One — has custody of them, not Durant.
No, Mr. Stern, I have not stopped beating my wife.
I never did. I do not have one.
That settled, can we agree all y’all at The NBA have a refereeing problem? Game 2 deserved an ending befitting what has the potential to be a transformative moment for LeBron and Miami, and LeBron deserved the moment without question.
Every criticism that had dogged him in Cleveland and followed when he decided to take his talents to South Beach were being answered right in front of us. He was relentless, driving again and again, hitting big shots and carrying an enormous load of minutes and expectations and responsibility.
He had help, Dwyane Wade rebounding nicely and Chris Bosh playing big and Shane Battier being a beast. When things were falling apart, though, it was LeBron.
There can be no Decision redemption in these playoffs, no ring takes away that mistake. Only time. There can be basketball redemption, though. If he wins a championship playing like he did in Game 2 — unafraid, emboldened, dominant — there will be certain things that can never be said about him, certain questions that will no longer be relevant.
Who is the best closer? Is he mentally tough enough?
Is he talented or a winner? How bad does he want it?
Few have gone after LeBron harder than myself, not for schtick or any reason other than his play in moments like Thursday. His history had been to shrink in those moments.
Rings shut up everybody, as Dirk Nowitzki learned. And Game 2 seemed to be a statement about who he was and how we were going to have to start viewing him.
“That’s just,” LeBron started before thinking better of whatever he was going to say. “We want to make enough plays to win basketball games, not to answer any questions about what people have to say about us.”
Two moments stand out from LeBron’s 32-point, eight-rebound, five-assist game.
1) With 1:47 remaining, OKC had cut the Heat lead to three. There was a timeout on the floor. The ball ended up in LeBron’s hands on the wing and he started driving and the clock was ticking down and he pulled up. He pulled up for this wickedly hard bank shot that went in.
2) He also sank all four of his free throws in the quarter, including the clinchers with seven seconds left.
If LeBron does not make that shot and hit his free throws, this would have been an epic collapse. I wonder if the Heat get off the mat, considering their baggage and past hints of fragile psyche. A year ago, choking away a huge lead in Game 2 against Dallas, led to wheels falling off and another full year of doubt.
How you react in these moments often defines who you are, and LeBron manned up on KD in that moment. He went right at him. He was unafraid.
And if he got a little ref help, well, welcome to the NBA.
Bryon Russell doesn’t want to hear our bitching about how stars get special treatment. Neither do the 2006 Mavs. Neither did Durant for that matter after Thursday’s game.
“I missed the shot, man,” he said after already politely dismissing two questions about the contact and no-call.
I was reminded of what Russell said about Jordan after he hit the game-winning shot, with help from a slight shove, in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals. “Whether he pushed off or not, he was making that shot,” Russell said.
That was LeBron on Thursday.
Whether LeBron fouled or not, he was winning this game. And we very well may look back at this moment as what transforms him and Miami from talent to champions.