LeBron pointed the way back to South Beach Thursday night
I am a critic of LeBron James' game. There is no sense in denying that. He has the physical tools and basketball IQ to do things that should transcend the game. And yet far too often, he does not impose his will upon the game in big moments.
That was not the case in Game 6 against his personal nemesis, the Boston Celtics.
In a game that could be seen as a transcendent moment in his career—a flash point from frustration to full-fledged greatness—LeBron absolutely destroyed Boston. The stats are impressive on their own: 45 points, 15 rebounds, five assists. It would be one thing if he just put up large numbers; that has happened before.
No, the magnificent thing about this game, this performance, this breakthrough is that he seemed to take the game by the throat and squeeze early. The Celtics never had a chance in the game and that's because James would not allow it. And that type of effort and efficiency is precisely what people have expected from a player who seems capable of doing anything on a basketball court.
That said, I do not expect a rout Saturday night's Game 7 by any stretch. The Celtics are far too proud to lie down and just give away a surprise trip to the NBA Finals.
Plus, they seem encouraged by the fact that history suggests James will not have another transcendent performance like this. That is precisely my point for this article: If Miami does not deliver in Game 7, one of the best basketball performances ever will be largely forgotten.
Here are the five best playoff performances in NBA history that have been forgotten because the individual played on a team that would lose the series.
In actuality, this performance is really a continuation of an awesome Game 4 by Isiah Thomas. Facing elimination, Thomas scored 22 points and had 16 assists as the Pistons rallied for a 119-112 victory to tie the series at two.
The fifth and deciding game was played at Joe Louis Arena, and like the great boxer it was named for, it played host to a legendary slug fest between Thomas and the great Bernard King.
King was actually the more dominant figure, scoring a variety of ways to lift the Knicks to a double-digit lead. They stayed in control when, with about 1:45 left, Thomas exploded. He would score 16 points in a 93-second stretch, including a game-tying three-pointer with less than 30 seconds.
For the game, Thomas would score 35 points and dish out 12 assists. But it was not enough. Bernard King would score 44 points and the Knicks would hold off Thomas and the Pistons, 127-123, to advance in the 1984 playoffs.
When you think of Kobe Bryant, there are many games that come to mind. Some good. Like his 81-point eruption against the Toronto Raptors. Or his 45-point evisceration in 2001 against the San Antonio Spurs that proved to be a harbinger for that series.
There are even bad games, like his 6-for-24 performance in Game 7 against Boston in 2010, his disappearing act in the second half against Phoenix in the 2006 playoffs (Game 7). Maybe even the three games in Detroit in the 2004 NBA Finals.
In a year when he would average the most points in a single season since Michael Jordan nearly 20 years prior, Bryant would go 20-for-35 and score 50 points while dishing out five assists and grabbing eight rebounds. 12 of those 50 would come in overtime.
But that game is best remembered for Tim Thomas, of all people, hitting a clutch three-pointer with six seconds to play to tie the score at 105. Phoenix would outscore the weary Lakers 21-13 (Bryant scoring 12 of the 13) in OT to hang on 126-118 and send the series back to America West Arena.
They would rout the Lakers in Game 7 and Bryant would be labeled a quitter for only taking three shots in the second half.
One of the more fascinating games I had the privilege to watch was Game 3 of the 2001 Eastern Conference semifinals between the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers.
This matchup became a duel between the polarizing MVP in Allen Iverson and the seemingly more likable Toronto forward, Vince Carter.
The teams split the first two games in Philadelphia, with Toronto winning Game 2 in spite of Iverson's 54 points. Returning to Canada, the thoughts were: What could "The Answer" do for an encore?
Instead, Carter dominated from the start, going 6-for-7 in the first quarter and scoring 15 points total. The second quarter saw Toronto assume control as Carter went for 19 points, including five three-pointers. In all, he would score 34 points in the half, going 8-for-8 from deep as the Raptors led by 17.
Although he would cool off some, Carter would wind up with 50 points on 19-of-29 shooting, including 9-of-13 beyond the arc.
What should have been a coming-out party on a playoff stage was instead a career footnote. Carter is best known in this series for attending his graduation and showing up just before the tip of Game 7 in Philadelphia. Though Toronto played valiantly, Carter would miss a buzzer-beating 21-footer from the baseline as the 76ers survived to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
Carter would never advance that far as an elite player, only managing a trip to the conference finals in 2010 with the Orlando Magic.
Hard to believe, but yes, even Michael Jordan has had legendary performances overlooked because the young Bulls did not win titles. Some would say the 1986 performance in Boston is an example to the contrary. But remember, that game was the true ascent of Jordan the individual talent, not the consummate winner he is now remembered as.
Instead, by 1989, the Bulls had many of the familiar parts, but they were not quite ready to go all the way. Buoyed by Jordan's individual brilliance, the Bulls had upset the Cavaliers (thanks to "The Shot," MJ's iconic jumper over poor Craig Ehlo) and the Rick Pitino-coached Knicks en route to the Eastern Conference finals with Detroit.
The Bulls managed to steal Game 1 even with Jordan shooting a very average 10-for-29 from the field. Headed back to Chicago Stadium, a series that seemed like a footnote for the eventual champion Pistons became a real struggle. That's because Jordan put forth an electric Game 3.
Scoring from everywhere and befuddling the best defense in the league, Jordan scored 46 points, grabbed seven rebounds, dished five assists and had five steals. He almost singlehandedly lifted the Bulls from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to a 99-97 win and a stunning 2-1 series lead.
However, the Pistons would shut MJ and the Bulls down in the pivotal Game 4 and win their final seven games of the 1989 playoffs on their way to the team's first title. It would take Jordan another two years to scale Mt. Detroit and win his first ring.
And because of that, gems like this are not as well remembered as those during his title reign in the 1990s.
Nobody rooted for Goliath
By 1970, it had gotten to where nothing Wilt Chamberlain could do was enough. In spite of the fact he had won a championship in 1967, critics said the aging Celtics and injuries to Bill Russell and others contributed more than his brilliance.
When he was traded to the talented, but flawed Lakers in 1970, it seemed a formality that Los Angeles would finally win the championship that had eluded them.
But instead, the Lakers found themselves as a perfect contrast to the team-oriented, though immensely talented New York Knicks.
The teams split the first four games, with Game 3 being a microcosm of the perceived differences in the teams. After Dave DeBusschere hit a jump shot with two seconds left to put the Knicks up two, Laker legend Jerry West hit an iconic 60-foot heave to tie the score (no three-point line until 1979) and send the game into overtime.
However, the Knicks used their great ball movement and execution to take the lead in the series. After L.A. tied the series with a Game 4 win, they shot to a 15-point Game 5 lead in New York. Then, the emotional leader for the Knicks, fiery center Willis Reed, would have to leave the game with serious thigh injury. But instead of packing it in, the Knicks rallied for an improbable 107-100 win.
Back in Los Angeles, the Lakers were facing elimination, and for one game, Chamberlain played like the force of nature he was acquired to be. Pummeling the Knicks inside, he helped the Lakers explode to a 36-16 first-quarter lead.
Never looking back, Chamberlain would go on to score 45 points and grab 27 rebounds to lead the Lakers to a 135-113 victory and a Game 7 back in New York.
However, like many points of his career, Chamberlain's individual brilliance was overshadowed by his inability to produce when it truly mattered. In a Game 7 remembered for Reed's courage and the amazing performance by Walt Frazier (36 points, 19 assists), Chamberlain would only total 21 points, including 1-for-11 from the free-throw line.
The Lakers were soundly defeated and the loss would be another case of Chamberlain's inability to raise his game when it mattered, fair or not.
So now, it comes back to LeBron. Greatness has a way of being qualified when you are as talented as James is. And while in some eyes, he may never do enough to justify the praise he is given, the fact of the matter is, Game 7, with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line, is going to be a game that defines the man as a basketball player.
Even if it does not approach his Game 6 performance, a win shuts a lot of mouths for at least another 10 days.
But, if the Celtics get off the canvas and win Game 7 in Miami, the echoes become roars. And you have to begin to wonder when exactly his time is going to be, because a performance that should rank in the top 10 historically, given the significance.
The efficiency will mean nothing to those who expect nothing short of the multiple championships James claimed would come to South Beach upon his "decision."
For LeBron, this Game 7 does not have to be a masterpiece. But it does have to be a win. Without one, a game for the ages is resigned to a YouTube memory forgotten with time, instead of shining as an example of how the "King" finally ascended to his actual throne.