Only winning it all can change perception of James
This is what LeBron James envisioned last summer. Why he broke the hearts of everyone within a 100-mile radius of Cleveland, trashed his reputation and gave the nation a new punchline.
The Miami Heat aren't in the NBA finals - yet. But it seems almost inevitable now, what with a 3-1 lead and the Chicago Bulls looking dazed after James' all-around dominating performance Tuesday night.
James can apologize for the rest of his career or make more defiant commercials, and he'll still be the player everyone outside Miami loves to hate. The only way he'll change public opinion is by winning the NBA title, and he is playing like a man determined to do that, even if it means dragging the rest of the Heat along with him.
''It's whatever it takes for myself and for our team,'' James said.
He was talking about defense, but it applies to the rest of his game, too. He played more minutes (49:23) and scored more points (35) than anyone else on the floor in Miami's 101-93 overtime win in Game 4. He led the Heat with six assists, grabbed six rebounds and had a pair each of steals and blocked shots.
That James is a special talent has never been in question. He's mesmerizing on the court, able to do things that defy imagination, and was a two-time NBA MVP before his 26th birthday. Finally, NBA fans thought, here was a player worthy of those Michael Jordan comparisons.
There's always been something, though, that's kept James from making the league his own as Jordan did. In years past, he might have had a meltdown after being called for a late offensive foul, as he was with 8 seconds left in regulation Tuesday night. He might have faltered at taking sole responsibility when his team's next-best offensive option was having an off night, as Dwyane Wade did against the Bulls.
But there is a toughness to James now, a superstar's attitude he never seemed comfortable embracing in Cleveland. No one can accuse him of quitting, as he was after last year's second-round debacle against Boston. Or wish he'd been a little more selfish, as he could have been in Cleveland's other playoff disappointments when he insisted on passing to open teammates instead of keeping the ball in his own hands.
His 10 points in the third quarter Tuesday almost single-handedly kept the Bulls from pulling away, his one-handed slam over Luol Deng in the final seconds cutting Chicago's lead to 65-63. He scored 13 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, seeming to be everywhere on the court.
He scored on a spin move and, on the next possession, fed Mike Miller for a 3-pointer. He took a charge to cause a Bulls turnover, which set up a jumper by Miller that gave the Heat a 70-69 lead. And though Wade finally found his groove in overtime, it was James who finished the Bulls off.
With about 90 seconds left and Miami clinging to a 91-89 lead, he scored on a driving layup, brushing Joakim Noah out of the way as if the Chicago Bulls center was a mere gnat.
Equally impressive was his smothering defense on MVP Derrick Rose.
Rose has been dismal in the fourth quarter this series, in large part because of James. Anytime he gets the ball, James is sticking a hand in his face or forcing him to change direction. Rose had a chance to win the game in regulation, but his jumper never even reached the basket after the pressure James put on him.
''It's extremely hard when a 6-8 guy can easily defend you,'' said Rose, who is listed at 6-3.
James has owned their matchup so completely it'll be months before Rose is be able to shake the feeling somebody's following him.
''He shoulders a big responsibility for us during the course of the game on both ends of the court,'' Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Being willing to put a team on your back and carry it when it matters most is what separates the game's greatest icons from those who are merely great. James, Wade and Chris Bosh have billed themselves ''The Big Three,'' and James and Wade clearly want to be seen as this generation's Jordan and Pippen.
What they've forgotten, though, is Scottie Pippen was the supporting actor and Jordan the star. Jordan lived to take the big shots, to put on the kind of performance that sent opposing coaches back to the greaseboard and broke the will of his opponents.
Oh, he could get his teammates involved and let them share in the glory. When the game was on the line, though, Jordan was going to have his hands on the ball.
James finally seems to understand it has to be that way for him, too.
Nancy Armour is a National Writer for The Associated Press. Write to her at narmour(at)ap.org or follow her at http://twitter.com/nrarmour