Derrick Rose's return was supposed to be the main event of the season-opening game between the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls, but LeBron James hijacked "The Return" and turned it into his own personal three-ring circus.
Viewers were inundated with LeBron commercials, images with the MVP standing at the center of attention. They were treated to a performance that strangely seemed more impressive than his rather pedestrian statistics would indicate. By the end of the night, Rose was an afterthought.
Think about that for a second.
Rose's return has been hyped for months. Everywhere you went, you probably were subject to the breathless anticipation of his first regular-season game in eighteen months. And yet, he wasn't the premier attraction.
Miami's 12-point victory did more than prove to the world that a three-peat is within the realm of possibility. It went beyond establishing Miami as the team to beat, a squad capable of massacring another contender during the portion of the game that actually mattered.
It proved once more that the NBA still revolves around LeBron James.
By now, you've all seen it. But in case you somehow managed to spend opening night under a rock, you can still see the newest LeBron James commercial above.
Even though it's just a commercial, it still underscores everything that's going on with LeBron and the NBA. Not only did it trump Derrick Rose's commercial for a night, but it also highlights the one word that you have to use when describing the reigning MVP right now.
Throughout the two-minute spot, James is entirely comfortable in his own skin. That's still true even when he sheds his shirt to run across the beach before diving into the ocean for the next part of his trendy workout. Whether he's biking in front of hordes of followers, practicing by himself in the gym or playing pickup basketball with a bunch of strangers, he's being himself.
It's different than what we've seen in the past. Even after winning his first title, LeBron was trying to show that it was no fluke. He wasn't comfortable.
Now he is, and we witnessed it firsthand throughout both the commercial spots and the opener against the Chicago Bulls.
Still Center Stage
When the Heat received their rings before the start of the game, who was the one announced last?
You shouldn't need too many guesses for this. It was obviously James.
Despite the fact that it was Rose who was returning from a prolonged absence, LeBron still took center stage. Maybe it was because the proceedings took place in AmericanAirlines Arena, right on the shores of Biscayne Bay, but something tells me that isn't the case. Even if the United Center had roared its approval when D-Rose was announced, LeBron still would've ended up taking center stage.
The NBA just belongs to him at the moment.
Rarely do players completely demand attention at all times, but the four-time MVP certainly qualifies as one of those who do. Even when Dwyane Wade is attacking the hoop or D-Rose is slashing to the rim, a part of you has to keep your gaze fixated on LeBron so you can make sure that he's not about to do something special.
And remember once more that this was supposed to be Rose's night. He was the player you were supposed to be completely in tune with, but that quickly died down.
Rose had a chance to start his pursuit of a second MVP award in promising fashion, taking down the defending champions and reigning MVP while announcing that he was completely back.
Michael Jordan needed a newspaper quote to do that. D-Rose was only supposed to need a single game.
And yet, the story never seemed to be about Rose, with the exception of the one acrobatic bucket he made to put his name in the scoring column for the first time. Everything still revolved around LeBron, who stole Rose's thunder in a big way.
From the ring ceremony until the final buzzer, he was "the man." And no one else came close, even Carlos Boozer with his 31 points on 13-of-18 shooting and seven rebounds. That was impressive, but not worthy of stealing the attention.
Taking over Down the Stretch
Through three quarters, James hadn't truly asserted himself, but the Heat were still up 78-58.
A passive first quarter and the sharpshooting of his teammates had minimized the need for the forward's immense talent, and he saw no reason to insert himself into the proceedings when everything was going well.
Instead, he was content to distribute the ball and rack up the assists and rebounds, eschewing shots since his early looks weren't dropping. In those first three periods, he recorded 11 points, five rebounds and six assists on 3-of-9 shooting.
But then the Bulls started to scratch and claw their way into the game. And that's when LeBron started to become, well, LeBron.
In the fourth quarter, he put up six points, a rebound and two assists. He was a perfect 2-of-2 both from the field and the charity stripe.
The first bucket came after Chicago had closed a 20-point lead to 14. Then, after the Bulls had crawled back to within eight points, LeBron drew contact and calmly drilled both of his ensuing free-throw attempts to push the lead back to double digits. And after the advantage dropped to single digits again, LeBron made a pull-up jumper with a minute left for the final nail in the coffin.
Just as he's been doing for the last few years, he came up big when it counted most.
Was there a signature moment for James on the night? A block of Tiago Splitter or a chase-down rejection? A thunderous dunk that would spawn a million posters?
Nope, but there also didn't need to be.
It reminds me of the moment in Game of Thrones when Theon Greyjoy was discussing Robb Stark's role in life. He realized that Robb didn't have to try particularly hard to act like a king and fill in his father's footsteps. He just had to be...who he was born to be.
That's exactly what we're witnessing with James at the moment. He's becoming who he was meant to be, and we're all lucky enough to see the process. He no longer has to try to please everyone or take over games, but instead he can pick the right moments and still stand at the center of attention.
In the past, I've been hesitant to use the "King James" moniker. That's an awfully high mark of praise, and while James was quite clearly the best player in basketball, he still hadn't reached true royalty to me.
It's funny that the shift in that mentality was spurred on by a 17-point outing that failed to leave a lasting statistical impression. But in some ways, that's more telling than anything else.
The King has arrived. And we're all witnesses.