Imagine if LeBron hadn't stepped in at the beginning of the year to insist that he had been type-cast in a role that he doesn't even play well. He is not a villain, he insisted, but rather someone who plays best when he is having fun.
If the tale of LeBron's perceived betrayal of Cleveland had continued in linear fashion, with sustained seething against the Heat star, James' matchup with Lin would have been set in stark contrasts.
It would have been framed as a Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker kind of duel; in that case the basketball equivalent of Vader's lightsaber slash of Luke's hand might have come with something like a LeBron dunk over a trailing Lin on a fast break. You could just imagine LeBron standing with an ominous glare over a Spalding-bruised Lin.
He could have gone sci-fi with his trash talk—"Lin, I am your father"—because without all the cross-regional animosity that LeBron spurned across the league last year, we might not have witnessed the birth of the "Linthusiasm" now sweeping multiple continents.
People praise Lin for bringing all that was supposedly lacking from the NBA: an underdog player who grew his tireless grit in the shadows of the NBA limelight, far removed from the luxuries of endorsements, big contracts and all the hubris that comes with both.
The implicit backdrop to Lin is a big cutout of LeBron.
In contrast to Lin, LeBron never passed under anyone's radar in his basketball journey. By the time of that fateful "Decision," he had seemingly unlimited financial means to transport his talents and sizable ego to South Beach.
Meanwhile, Lin couldn't even leverage a long-term contract.
They meet, though, when LeBron's image is now showing signs of rehabilitation. He even has the consistent Twitter support of America's Patron Saint of Wholesome Comebacks, Tim Tebow.
(Perhaps no one feels more conflicted than Tebow for a Lin-Lebron showdown, since he has publicly praised both players.)
Right now, the NBA is fascinating not only because of spectacular games, but because of the web of narratives spun in both their preparation and aftermath.
LeBron wants to rewrite his script, but it will be hard to avoid Lin as a character in that drama.
Is Lin inspiring enough on his own to not require a LeBron backdrop as the implicit contrast to all his virtues?
Watch the game and the webs that are spun afterward for an answer.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!