Once upon a time, LeBron James wasn't "clutch." Once upon a time, he seemed to shrink under pressure. Once upon a time, there were serious doubts that one of the most gifted athletes the NBA had yet seen would ever live up to his billing as "The Chosen One."
Now, the notions of James being a "choker," an incapable leader or really anything less than the best player in basketball are about as believable as the fairy tales and bedtime stories from your childhood.
Or, at least as subsumed by the distant past as knights and princesses and dragons and the like.
Another outstanding Game 7—and a third straight trip to the NBA Finals with the Miami Heat—will do that for a player's legacy. The four-time MVP was a picture of efficiency in the fourth winner-take-all scenario of his illustrious career: an impressive 99-76 smackdown of the surprising Indiana Pacers. James scored 32 points on just 17 shots from the field, thanks to a sterling 15-of-16 performance at the line.
This, in addition to stuffing the stat sheet with eight rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block in 41 minutes. He flew up and down the floor. He attacked the rim and crashed the boards with reckless abandon. He was a pest on defense, limiting Paul George to just seven points on 2-of-9 shooting while coaxing the Indiana Pacers forward into six fouls.
And he hardly made any mistakes along the way. James turned the ball over twice and was whistled for a foul once on the evening.
Perhaps what's most remarkable about LeBron's latest virtuoso performance is that it fell right in line with an established pattern of greatness in pressure-packed Game 7s.
Coming into Monday's action, James averaged 34.3 points on 45.9 percent shooting, 8.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists. For the most part, those numbers outstrip those posted by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant (i.e. James' predecessors to the throne of "Best in the Game") in their respective Game 7 lives (via Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated):
The biggest difference, of course, is that MJ and Kobe had winning records in those games, while LeBron was still stuck on the losing side of the ledger.
That is, until he led Miami's evisceration of an Indiana squad that seemed flustered by the experience and flatfooted at the sight of the Heat playing together with the sort of energy and enthusiasm that had been absent for much of the series.
Indeed, the Heat wouldn't have been in position to continue their title defense without LeBron to carry them. He tallied a triple-double along with the winning basket in Game 1, dominated down low in Game 3 and reverted to his form as an all-in-one force from his days with the Cleveland Cavaliers to rescue his slumping teammates in Game 5. Not to mention the masterpieces James turned in during each of Miami's three losses in the series.
At long last, LeBron wasn't alone in his excellence. Dwyane Wade, long hobbled by a bruised right knee, came up big with 21 points and nine rebounds in 35 minutes. Wade appeared to set aside his concerns about being given enough opportunities and simply created his own, just as LeBron had done all series long.
Wade's willingness to fall in line behind LeBron sparked the rest of the Heat to action. All the players who wore home whites at AmericanAirlines Arena played with tremendous energy and enthusiasm, as if they'd all finally arrived on the same page after wandering Indy's defensive desert for days.
Chris Bosh struggled to find his shot (3-of-13), but he still managed to chip in on the glass (eight rebounds) and on defense (three blocks, two steals). Chris Andersen finally missed a shot in this series—two, to be exact, Monday night—but was no less impactful in the middle on both ends.
Even Mike Miller, the injury-mangled mess of a three-point specialist that he's become, was flying into the paint with reckless abandon and picking off passes (three steals) as if he were, well, LeBron. All while Shane Battier observed from the bench, no less.
Indeed, the truest measure of an NBA legend isn't found in the individual numbers he piles up, but rather in the effect those efforts have in the bigger picture of wins and losses. LeBron's always had the numbers to back up his brilliance; he's basically evolved into a hybrid of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, and even that might not be too hyperbolic.
Now, thanks to his stellar individual play within the context of his team, LeBron will have another chance to add to the most important stat of all: his championship count.
Being the best player on back-to-back championship squads is a rare feat, to say the least. It's a distinguished club to which only names like Jordan, Kobe, Magic, Bill Russell, Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Isiah Thomas and George Mikan currently belong. Not even Tim Duncan, an all-time great in his own right (and LeBron's latest impediment to a title), can claim membership in this particular pantheon.
With four more wins against Duncan's San Antonio Spurs, LeBron James will etch his name into this next echelon of NBA folklore.
That sure beats the heck out of fairy tales, doesn't it?