Swish, 99-96. Swish, 100-96. Game, set, match. LeBron James just hit two free throws in the final seconds in a decisive Game 2 that just evened the series. Two of the most pressure-filled free throws he'll ever take with a hostile environment breathing down his neck and he stepped up like he's been doing it his whole career.
Oh, he also hit his only jumper of the night a little more than a minute before that to provide some necessary cushion because that's what great players do.
Fast forward to Game 3 and the Heat are in another situation where the game could go either way. Miami only had a two-point lead heading into the fourth quarter with a refreshed Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook coming off the bench; the next 12 minutes surely would have resulted in the Thunder's star players dominating and bringing the series back in their favor.
It would have been, had LeBron James not had anything to say about that. In the final 12 minutes, James would hold Durant to a mere four points, he was averaging 17 points in the first two games, and recorded eight points and four rebounds with ease to cap off a 29-point, 14-rebound effort and a 91-85 victory.
How'd he do it? Because he's the best player in the league. Plain and simple, this guy is treating his critics and opponents like Rick James does a white couch.
Just another day at the office for the reigning MVP, who is currently averaging 30 points and 10 rebounds per in the first three games of the Finals. He's certainly boosting those 2012 playoff averages of 30 points, nine rebounds and five assists per game, isn't he?
In Game 3 against the Dallas Mavericks last year, James was playing second banana to Dwyane Wade with only 20 points and seven three-point attempts. Over the next three games, he'd become the third wheel that was busted, rusty and needed some serious tender, love and care. It was a LeBron that we have never seen before, not even in the 2007 Finals against San Antonio.
What a difference a year makes. LeBron has scored 20 points or lower only once in this year's entire postseason and is now two games off the Heat franchise playoff record for most 30-plus-point games in a single postseason. He's en route to creating some more history because of the overall change in his demeanor that was clearly non-existent last year.
Losing the 2011 NBA Finals was the best thing to happen to James' career. It was a wake-up call of epic proportions, as the Dallas Mavericks essentially slapped LeBron in the face and told him, "It's not as easy as you think."
What we got out of it was the best year's worth of basketball we've ever witnessed from LeBron James, and yes, that includes the season where he won the scoring title and when he was busy leading above-average rosters to 66 wins.
As for these playoffs? James is creating stat lines that haven't been seen since the 1960's, when scoring 50 points and grabbing 30 rebounds on any given night was a regular occurrence. A 40-point, 18-rebound and nine-assist effort against Indiana and a 45-point, 15-rebound and five-assist effort against Boston put him with some serious company.
Of course, none of this matters, right? After all, it's all about how LeBron does in the NBA Finals. It doesn't matter that he's having historic nights every other game and had willed his formerly shorthanded team to victory on numerous occasions; all that matters is the NBA Finals and how James performs in that span.
This has become LeBron's career. Nobody cares about the MVP's, the All-Star appearances or the All-NBA Teams because it's all come down to one thing and one thing only—the ring. Without that ring, James career legacy is incomplete. He isn't being given any excuses because it's believed that a player of his caliber should be able to lead any type of average roster to a Finals victory.
It wasn't happening with Cleveland. He has no excuses with Miami. He has the talent surrounding him and everything he could possibly ask for in a team, so there will be absolutely no excuses if James and the Heat suddenly start losing games and end up losing this thing.
It doesn't even matter if James averages 40 and 20 the rest of the series and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh combine to average 10, five and five; if the Heat lose it will solely fall on LeBron's shoulders. It's not fair at all, but it's sadly what we've come to. Suddenly, this game that has always been perpetuated as a team sport is being whittled down to one individual and how he performs.
The media is attempting to create narratives involving Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, etc. but it's not working because LeBron James' legacy is supposedly on the line. Nine years of hard work comes down to whether LeBron can lead the Heat to two more home victories at the NBA's biggest stage.
Is LeBron's legacy on the line here? Not at all. He's 27 years old and will have plenty more opportunities to win an NBA title with the Heat. However, losing a second consecutive NBA Finals just might put a blemish on the James' resume, especially when you consider the manner he's lost both of them in.
The problem is that James is drawing too many unfair comparisons to guys like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, who already have established careers. Every single time you bring LeBron up in a conversation, it always reverts back to reasons why James can't be recognized as the greatest player of all time.
For someone who is often criticized at every aspect of their game, those are some humbling comparisons James is drawing. Perhaps we should let James progress with his career before we can start determining why he isn't the greatest player of all time, yet. Maybe we should give him a solid two years with his new team before deciding what James is made of.
If he loses, James is going to get lambasted and annihilated by the media. It doesn't matter how well he plays because he's LeBron James and that's the name that brings in ratings. It also has a lot to do with him being the primary player on the Heat, a distinction that was made weeks ago when Dwyane Wade publicly stated that he gave the reins to LeBron.
James has done a lot of losing over his NBA career, which is the reason why it's in my belief that he'll end up winning this year's title. Because of everything he learned in last year's Finals, the focused mentality he's possessed all year and the improvement to his overall game, I can't help but believe the world's greatest player will inevitably win a title over inexperienced competition.
And if he does win, where does LeBron's legacy stand, then? Do we immediately consider him one of the greatest to play? A top-10 player in league history?
I know one thing—it's going to be very quiet and that's a sound LeBron has been waiting to hear since 2003.
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