You don’t have to push off Byron Russell and drain a last-second shot to close a game and quite possibly the NBA Finals.
You can bury the opposition in the first, second or third quarter or even in the previous game and sit on the bench writhing in pain as your teammates feast on the table you set.
Tuesday night, with the Heat clinging to a three-point lead in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, LeBron James sat the final 55 seconds. His lower body gave up, giving into cramps. He’d done all he could. On legs he was afraid to fully bend, he drained a three-pointer from the top of the key that unlocked a 94-94 tie with 2 minutes, 51 seconds to play.
That was LeBron James’ best punch of the night. It wasn’t a knockout. It was the punch that set up Mario Chalmers’ late-game heroics. It was all LeBron James had left to give. He hobbled back and forth for nearly two more minutes of action. But eventually he sat and let Chalmers and Dwyane Wade finish off the Thunder, 104-98, and push Miami within one victory of wrapping up this best-of-seven series.
“We knew we weren’t going to have anything left in the tank,” said Chris Bosh, speaking of LeBron’s empty-tank finish. “And it’s kind of ironic because he was the main guy that said it: ‘You should be totally exhausted after this game.’ And just for him to set the example, that was huge for us.”
Maybe there were better story lines Tuesday night. Maybe Russell Westbrook’s amazing 43-point explosion and shocking Chris Webber-like implosion were a better story. Or maybe I should be celebrating Chalmers’ 25-point outburst. Or, perhaps, maybe this column should sound an Amber Alert in search of James Harden, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.
But I’m going to stick with LeBron. I’m going to stick with my belief that Twitter, the 24-hour news cycle and Michael Jordan highlights have ruined our sophisticated understanding of basketball.
LeBron James closed out the Thunder on Tuesday night. He’s the reason Kevin Durant wore a seemingly unrecoverable, sad look of demoralization throughout his postgame interview. James is the reason the Thunder lost their fourth-quarter swagger. That no-leg three-point dagger stole OKC’s belief. James’ take-my-corners-back, in-the-paint masterpiece in Game 3 was the bodywork that lowered Oklahoma City’s defenses and freed Chalmers to land the kill shots.
Let’s see. The Thunder had to admit that Durant can’t guard James. And now foolishly Scott Brooks has handed Harden part of the task of defending the league’s three-time MVP. Really? And we wonder why Harden can’t find his legs to finish a shot. You think every time James tosses his 250-pound chiseled frame into Harden it doesn’t take something out of Harden’s body? You think it doesn’t screw with Harden’s head?
Harden is a shell of himself and James is responsible.
To compensate for Durant’s lack of bulk and defensive savvy, Harden, a 6-foot-5 guard, is taking on Baby Mailman. It’s not fair. It’s foolish. Brooks is going to have to leave Thabo Sefolosha on the court for 36 minutes and let the Swiss swingman deal with James and hope Harden can find his shot in Game 5.
Tuesday night, James perched in the post and directed the Heat offense the way Larry Bird once orchestrated the Celtics. James dished 12 assists, grabbed nine rebounds, scored 26 points and then collapsed from exhaustion.
I’m sure his critics will lambaste him for not making it to the finish line. They’ll say that Jordan or Kobe would have to be dragged from the court.
I’ll say that ego and narcissism would’ve kept a lot of NBA stars on the court for the last 55 seconds. Jordan would’ve demanded that Nike marketers be given special access to document his strides as he limped up and down the court.
LeBron, the good teammate, the unselfish teammate, isn’t that kind of narcissist. He sat. He trusted his teammates. He was willing to deal with the consequences of sitting down because it was the right thing to do for his team.
I don’t want to go overboard and paint the guy as some sort of reformed angel. But, like him or not, on the basketball court he makes a lot of the right decisions. His good moments, his intelligent moments — even in the clutch at “close-out” time — far exceed his bad ones.
Tuesday night was another good moment. OKC doesn’t have an answer for James. He’s beating a spirited, talented team into submission with an all-around game that reminds us of Magic, Pippen, Bird and a dash of Jordan.