On the other, only one can count in their corner a player capable of turning “hero ball” into his own blissful art form: LeBron James.
James’ latest legend unfolded with a 35-point, 10-rebound blitz in Miami’s 98-96 Game 2 win Sunday night, just days after leg cramps had forced the All-Universe forward to the bench down the Game 1 stretch.
Indeed, even the week’s narrative arc seemed to mimic mythology—from conquering king to humbled husk and back again, each turn a testament, it seemed, to some Homeric truth of human nature.
After tallying just two points in the opening frame, James steadily picked up steam, hitting on 11 of his final 13 shots and generally bending the Spurs to his irrefutable will.
For those who only saw the box score, James’ performance screams the stuff of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant—score-first-and-last assassins who in many ways midwifed the “hero ball” moniker.
To be sure, there are elements of both in LeBron’s game—in the impossible athleticism and ferocious focus, the readiness to win and the willingness to fail trying.
More crucially, LeBron's role as the undisputed point man of Miami's offensive attack is borne out in more than mere momentary heroics:
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But where Kobe and MJ prided themselves on a singular, almost savant-like obsession of living and dying by their own right wrist, James’ game is all about making the right basketball play—outcome be damned.
Case in point: Down two to the Indiana Pacers with four seconds to play in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, James—who finished with a paltry seven points—drove hard to the rim, kicking the ball to an open Chris Bosh for a corner three.
Miss. Cue the caustic cries: "Weak." "Coward." "Kobe would’ve shot it."
Ten days later, James would make a similar play—same pass, same recipient, same corner—late in Game 2.
Bosh drilled it, giving the Heat a fourth-quarter lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
"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 following the game.
Given those same scenarios, how many times out of 10 do Kobe or MJ try to finish the drive? Nine? Eight? Certainly more than zero.
Such comparisons highlight the contrasting brands of hero-ball calculus at play. Where the gunner is willing to sacrifice the smart play for a bigger payoff—emotional, psychological, ego-wise—LeBron is playing the actual basketball odds, crunching the numbers irrespective of naysayers and narratives.
Yet every time he does so, James risks what head coach Erik Spoelstra calls “the theater of the absurd” (h/t USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt)—a stand-in for our collective propensity for arm-chair expertise.
Indeed, as SI.com's Rob Mahoney brilliantly underscores, James’ talent is as much a product of god-given ability as it is a meticulous basketball mind:
James is the rare player whose superstardom cannot be used against him. Seldom is LeBron baited or prodded into anything particularly unwise, even though he finds himself in a position to force the action almost every trip down the floor. His shot attempts are crowded from multiple angles. He faces incredible (if artificial) pressure to score and to win. He squares off against the best defenders in the league and has entire game plans built to smother, bully and/or distract him. Somehow still James operates through an eerie calmness of mind, seeing through the traps to ascertain a situational truth.
A cynic might say James’ brand of heroics amounts to the basketball equivalent of the T-1000: outwardly human, anything but in its brutally calculating practice.
What good is a hero, after all, if it’s not human, faults and all?
What such criticism misses is how wholly egalitarian LeBron’s basketball instincts are. He’s not heeding statistics and outcomes for the sakes of themselves—he’s doing it because winning as a team lingers longer than a few YouTube highlights.
What could possibly be more human than that?
In James, Spoelstra boasts not just the best basketball player on the floor—although he is most certainly that—he has a player peerlessly capable of catalyzing his distinctly team-oriented system.
It’s an ingredient San Antonio—for all its undeniable offensive brilliance—simply does not have.
The Spurs are more than capable of capturing this series, of course. Theirs is simply a much more minuscule margin for error.
That’s the luxury of having LeBron: For every split-second decision that didn’t quite go as planned, there were 10 before—the ones our minds and eyes missed—that LeBron authored flawlessly.
It would be easy to see another Heat title as a kind of death rattle for San Antonio’s precise poetry—a vindication of those who naively believe the game is doomed to remain the realm of singular superstars.
That LeBron James is exactly that will only feed such negligent narratives.
Instead, it’s high time we realize that James offers us—if not for the first time, then certainly with the most palpable pride—the prospect of a brave basketball world: One where right finally makes might.
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