SAN ANTONIO — After the condemnation came the redemption, but not the elation. LeBron James was clearly too weary for that. Feet cooling in ice, forehead wearing a towel, eyelids pressing together, he didn't appear as if he'd enjoyed Sunday's 98-96 victory so much as endured it.
He had just overheated in a way that the Spurs, rather than his body, could not handle, scoring 35 points and adding 10 rebounds to tie the NBA Finals at 1-1, all the while delivering a nasty case of writers' cramp to anyone on press row bent on burying him with another negative narrative. He had done it his way, giving the audience a little of everything, while not giving in to those who demand that he do everything himself.
Now the Heat forward lifted his head slightly as a reporter approached, nodding when it was noted that the play he made to put the Heat ahead late was strikingly similar to the one that started all the second-guessing of him again, a pass in Game 5 against Indiana to the same right corner to the same exact person. The one difference was, that time, Chris Bosh missed.
"As the one in Brooklyn, too," James reminded, referring to Game 4 of the second round, when James passed out to an intermediary (Mario Chalmers) who found Bosh for a go-ahead three-pointer in the right corner.
This one on Sunday was a direct delivery, with James using a Chalmers screen to probe to the left side of the paint, recovering his own high dribble and sending the ball slightly behind, to the Heat center camping out in the right corner with 1:22 remaining.
"C.B. had just missed the one before," James continued quietly, his voice scratchy. "Don't matter. Trust my guys, man. Live with the results."
That has become one of his many mantras over these past few years, part of a philosophy that would be celebrated if practiced by just about any other sportsman, but one that couldn't conform to the soloist prototype that so many of the shortsighted see as basketball strength.
James is tired of telling us this, tired of explaining his insistence on involving others on his side when the situation calls for that decision. And yet he knows that the repetition is required, because too many are too defiant or dense to process it.
"He's the most unselfish player that I've ever played with," Bosh said.
That's what made this latest serial storyline especially silly—the idea that, if James could have been on the floor with his teammates in the final four minutes of Game 1 of an NBA Finals, he would have left them out there to drown the way they did.
And that's what made Sunday's response, after two-and-a-half bags of intravenous fluids, and then two days of unflattering, unqualified assessments of his mental and physical toughness, so predictable.
During those "off" days, he continued working to get the soreness out of his legs, and even added a Sunday morning yoga class to his schedule as he prepared to knot the series. In Game 1, before his left leg locked, he had seen some ways to exploit the Spurs defense, ways that weren't apparent early in the 2013 Finals.
And, even though he started 1-of-5, he was encouraged that "all my misses were in the paint." He was getting where he wanted, even if he couldn't get the ball to go through. He made five of his next six shots entering halftime: layup, layup, dunk, layup and layup.
Those six first-half baskets came from a combined eight feet.
"I just continued to attack," James said.
And then he did it differently, in a way that some of his critics would rather he avoid, and others still claim he can't execute.
His eight baskets in the second half were from 18, 25, 19, 26, 18, 20, 20 and 24 feet.
A completely different player.
"Once I get into a good groove, I feel like everything is going to go in," James said.
And, then, in the final 6:09 of the fourth quarter, he didn't score from the field, making 3-of-4 free throws but missing a turnaround over Tony Parker. That likely would have been the talk until Tuesday, that and passing the moment to Bosh at the end, had Bosh not come through in the clutch. Many would have screamed that he was scared, which meant he actually risked more by the route he chose.
He risks, as Erik Spoelstra again put it, "the theater of the absurd," every time "he makes the right basketball play."
Which this was, with the Heat down one.
"I had seen it develop the whole time, and I wanted to try to put some pressure towards the rim, and I caught Tim Duncan peeking at me a little bit," James said from the podium.
He caught a glimpse of Bosh. Again. As in Brooklyn. As in Indiana.
"As soon as my guy leaves, one of two things are going to happen," Bosh said. "LeBron is going to shoot it and I'm getting back on defense, or he's going to pass to me and I'm going to shoot it. I know some people always question the motive and, you know, your opportunity. When you have the chance, you take it."
And it was fitting that Bosh did, just as it was fitting that, on a drive, he fed Dwyane Wade for the putaway layup—after which Bosh went berserk and Spurs fans flooded the exits.
James has been the most scrutinized and, at times, ridiculed person in the NBA in the social media age.
"I'm probably the second," Bosh said with a smile.
"He gets criticized similar to LeBron," Spoelstra added.
Neither is precisely what the world wants them to be. James, to many, will never be Michael Jordan, or the idealized version of what Jordan was. Bosh will never be Shaquille O'Neal or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the conventional conception of an NBA center.
But this is what they are:
Forty-seven playoff games without consecutive losses.
Three wins away from a third consecutive championship, while doing it their way.
They're certainly not weary of that.
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