MIAMI — P.J. Tucker and LeBron James are peers in a sense, their births separated by four months.
As professional basketball players, however, they have been oceans apart. Since his second-round selection in 2006, Tucker has played for professional teams in Israel, Greece, Italy, Germany, Puerto Rico and the Ukraine, each team less pronounceable than the last. Monday, in a credit to Tucker's perseverance, they were opposite each other, respective small forwards in the Heat and Suns lineups.
That's when Tucker took things a bit too far, as James kept taking him into the post, then spinning baseline, back to the middle and then back to the baseline for feathery fadeaways, the sort of unstoppable counter that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have so famously used.
Tucker told James that he could live with those shots.
"I told him he might not want to live with those shots," James said, smiling, after a 107-92 victory in which he scored 35 points on a mere 14 field-goal attempts, as he raised his season shooting percentage to an obscene 60.9.
Although James did so entirely unconsciously, it seemed appropriate that he kept tapping into that particular offensive weapon on this particular evening, just hours after one of its primary practitioners had made major NBA news. No perimeter player since Jordan has utilized the baseline fadeaway more effectively than Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers star who, Monday, signed a two-year, $48.5 million extension.
It would have been something to see James and Bryant—two of the all-time elites and perhaps the top two of their era—in a playoff series (an NBA Finals, even), backing each other down, testing their arrays of skills and shots and taunting each other as true equals, game after game after game, with so much on the line.
That's what made Monday morning's development a bit depressing, because it became clearer than ever that we'll never see such a series. It already seemed unlikely, with Bryant already 35, coming off an Achilles' tear and stuck on a team in transition. But his decision to take such a substantial sum—not the maximum but close enough to restrict the Lakers' flexibility—has all but assured it.
James is playing for titles, and will be for the foreseeable future wherever he is, not just because he's younger, but because he's shown a willingness to sacrifice some money to attract a strong supporting cast.
Bryant will likely be left to play for historical individual numbers, with the Lakers lacking the resources to recruit more than one maximum player, and perhaps by losing Pau Gasol in the process.
Prior to the game, James was asked about Bryant's extension.
"I didn't have much of a reaction at all, really," James said. "I felt like he would be a Laker for his whole career. I never felt he would go anywhere else."
James noted how, the past couple of years, "he's been the highest-paid player in our league."
"Whatever they graced him with, good for him," James said.
James said being the highest-paid player "didn't mean much," adding that "we all are blessed" to be able to support their families.
"Kobe has paid his dues," James said. "I mean, no one can argue with anything that he receives from anyone. Eighteen years, five championships and so on and so on, his resume. Nobody can ever speak anything about what he's accomplished. But as far as what we get paid, highest paid, lowest paid, middle pay, we all have to work for it, and we all have to earn it. We do what we love to do, but at the end of the day, what means more than anything is what we do out on the floor and how we are able to inspire people to watch what we do on the floor."
We've seen James and Bryant on the floor against each other 19 times in the regular season, with James winning 13 of them, and we will probably see it again this Christmas.
But never in the postseason.
Michael Jordan faced all of his closest contemporaries at some point in the playoffs, beating Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone, Gary Payton and Magic Johnson in the NBA Finals, and Reggie Miller and Patrick Ewing several times along the Eastern Conference way.
This is how it has worked for most of the all-time greats in the major team sports. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, who dueled Sunday night, have also done so in two playoffs. Dan Marino, who was in AmericanAirlines Arena on Monday, gushing on Twitter about James' efficiency, only made one Super Bowl—but he saw Joe Montana on the other side. He faced another of Montana's teams, the Chiefs, much later, and he even went against John Elway's Broncos in a divisional round, if only once, and in his twilight.
It was always a long shot that James and Bryant would team up in Bryant's twilight, even if Bryant took significantly less than he did Monday. But what if Bryant had taken much less? Gotten significantly more help? Could he have taken his team to the top of the West?
We'll never know.
So we only know what's happened.
The past seven NBA Finals have featured either James or Bryant, but never both.
"I jacked one of them up," James said. "It was my fault on one of them. Orlando advanced, and Rashard (Lewis) basically eliminated us by himself, so I messed one matchup up."
That was sweet to say, with Lewis on the other side of the room.
But the truth is James averaged 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and eight assists per game in that 2009 Eastern Conference Finals against the Magic. Cavaliers fans will point instead to the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals and James' catatonic, catastrophic Game 5 against the Boston Celtics.
Bryant's Lakers, representing the West, beat the Magic and then the Celtics to win two straight titles.
James has taken the Heat to the past three NBA finals, but the Lakers have checked out in the second round twice, then the first round.
"Yeah, absolutely, you'd love to try to match up against the best throughout your career, and hopefully you can match up with who you think are very good at your position or around your position," James said. "We had never had the opportunity to. But we're still playing, so you never know."
No, we know now.
We know what will never happen.
We know as sure as P.J. Tucker now knows what never to say to LeBron James.
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