Heat's future hinges on unpredictable LeBron

Heat's future hinges on unpredictable LeBron

Published Jun. 8, 2012 1:57 p.m. ET

LeBron James supporters like to pretend his past never happened. LeBron James haters like to pretend his past is also his future’s only possible outcome.

But on Saturday, in a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals made possible only because he had one of the greatest playoff performances in history, LeBron James will finally dictate how much his struggles as a member of the Miami Heat will shape the team’s future.

Playing a Boston Celtics team that has proved itself a gritty challenger to Miami’s quest for redemption, LeBron has been both utterly incredible and sometimes frustratingly absent. In Game 5 in Miami, with the series tied 2-2 and the score close, LeBron took four shots in the final 8:30 of play. He made only one of them. Boston won.

His overall stats for that game were OK, but his team needed a star in the fourth quarter of a close and critical contest and he was not one.

Then came a Game 6 in Boston on Thursday night that threatened to end the Heat’s season, further destroy LeBron’s reputation and undermine the very idea that the Big Three were the right idea. Blood, honor, glory, redemption, humiliation – all of these things weighed down from the very first second.

LeBron James’ recent past under pressure – particularly last June’s Finals collapse – be damned. He single-handedly, under one of the most pressure-packed moments of his career, saved the day: 45 points, 19-of-26 field-goal shooting, 15 rebounds, five assists, utter domination.

So what do we expect to get Saturday night in a Game 7 that leads LeBron and his team to either disgrace or to another NBA Finals?

We should expect absolutely anything.

Because LeBron James is the most unpredictable superstar in sports.

Because the Boston Celtics are always at their best, particularly this series, when their backs are against the wall.

Because the Miami Heat are good enough to win this NBA championship, and they are at times equally capable of losing games – and final minutes of huge games – they should not.

Because when it comes to LeBron James, his greatness and frailties, his clutchness and his choking, anything can and has happened.

Even LeBron doesn’t know what to expect.

“I won’t regret Game 7,” LeBron told reporters Thursday night. “Win, lose or draw, I’m going to go in with the mindset like I’ve had this whole season. And we’ll see what happens.”

He’s right, we’ll see what happens. He’s wrong about regret.

This Heat team was constructed to win multiple titles, and LeBron was the crown jewel placed atop what was supposed to be a new version of NBA royalty.

That alone is enough to ensure that Miami, if it allows Boston to pull off another huge win at American Airlines Arena, will wallow in second-guesses and turmoil going forward.

But it would be equally awful because Miami took a 2-0 lead in this series before letting Boston rattle off three straight wins. That is the crux of this Heat team: It can win in bunches, no doubt, but it can lose in them, too.

There will surely be other factors at play. Boston was a mere 1-for-14 from the three-point line in Game 6, and Game 5 hero Paul Pierce was a dud with nine points on 4-for-18 shooting (he was 0-for 6 on threes). Dwyane Wade’s play will be key, as will that of Chris Bosh. Rajon Rondo can put a team on his shoulders and carry it to a huge victory. Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra will determine a lot in who he chooses to play and not play.

But in the end this is LeBron James’ moment. Magic Johnson was wrong Thursday when he said a Game 6 loss would tarnish LeBron’s reputation forever. Winning a championship – even in 2013, or 2014, or 2017 – will be a balm to whatever wounds the Chosen One has inflicted on his reputation.

But Magic was right that Miami losing to Boston in this series will have serious consequences not just for the Heat but for LeBron.

He has a past his opponents point to, a series of big moments in which he did not deliver that have come to partly define him. This narrative, and it is real, stretches back to his awful performance against Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. It grew last year and culminated in his disappearing act against the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals.

But he also has a future that could be as bright as his supporters scream is his birthright, his destiny. LeBron James is the greatest player on earth, he is a force of nature and he is capable of getting it done when it matters most.

He’s LeBron James, and anything can happen. One way or another, on Saturday night in a Game 7 with so much on the line, something historic will.