Well, that didn’t take long.
Just as most people were bracing for an NBA Finals that would go the distance (only the Memphis-OKC series made it seven games this postseason), the Miami Heat have quickly become heavy favorites to win in a romp.
The main reason, just as in their previous two series, was LeBron James. He put up a 24-9-6 while taking only 16 shots and turning the ball over just once in 45 minutes.
It marks the twelfth game in these playoffs that James had at least seven more points than field goal attempts. His team is 13-3 this postseason, with nine wins in eleven games against Boston, Chicago and Dallas—teams they had a combined 1-8 record against in the regular season.
LeBron is finally turning into the player we wanted him to be. It’s just that now his mind-boggling talent doesn’t buy him enough goodwill to be called “The Chosen One” or “The King” anymore. For most people outside Dade County he’s the league’s biggest villain, “LeQuit” or “Queen James."
Not the most villainous names I’ve ever heard, but said with enough disdain they paint him in a clear enough light for the rest of the league.
So when my cable started acting up at the worst possible moment last night, just after halftime in a tight game, I started to get worried. The second half is where playoff legends are made and championship trophies are won. It’s where the most loved and hated players of each generation earn their reputation. And this season, it was going to tell us which LeBron James to expect for the rest of his career.
Who deserves the title of "Best Since Jordan"
So while I fumed at the television, I turned up my radio hoping to stay within earshot of history. I’m glad I did, because as James dribbled the ball up the court and time ran down in the third quarter I heard Hubie Brown chuckle through this gem:
“He’s just biding his time…”
It sounded like something Dr. Loomis would have said about a young Michael Myers, but that made it the perfect commentary for what transpired.
Down two, James corralled a defensive rebound and ten seconds later hit a three pointer from the corner to give his team the lead—one that they would never give up. After Juwan Howard and Dirk traded free throws, LeBron hit another three to beat the third quarter buzzer and give his team a four point lead going into the final frame.
We’ve watched him for eight years. LeBron wasn’t hitting the wall, he was “looking past the wall—looking at this night, inhumanly patient, waiting for some secret, silent alarm to trigger him off.”
James sensed that silent alarm going off in yet another tight game. And while his on-court demeanor was more likely to remind fans why they love him—a sweet shooting stroke, total control of the ball when it’s in his hands, a physicality perhaps never seen at his position—it surely engendered some hatred (and fear) in cities across the country.
For me, all the critiques of his game had begun to get lost in his recent string of epic performances. I’ll revisit those now in a section entitled…
“How did we hate him? Let us count the ways.”
He’s a quitter.
LeBron has been at the forefront of most of Miami’s comebacks this postseason. Games 2, 4 and 5 against Boston. Games 2, 4 and 5 against Chicago. He’s proven his relentless desire to win a championship, even if Cleveland fans are convinced he quit on them just over a year ago.
He gets all the calls.
He’s actually shot fewer FTs per game in more minutes than the regular season. That includes last night, where he only shot two from the charity stripe and it didn’t seem to matter one bit.
He can’t shoot the three.
This is the second playoff year in a row where he’s shot over 40 percent from three point range, including hitting four of five last night and seven of his last eleven.
He doesn’t play defense.
He shut down Paul Pierce and Derrick Rose in consecutive series during crunch time, and did the same to Jason Terry last night in Miami. He can defend all five positions and is now widely considered the best wing defender in the league.
So were Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. Everyone wanted James to have MJ’s “killer instinct”, and now that he’s showing he wants the ball—and to guard the opposing team’s best player—in crunch time, that narrative is waning. If anything James sacrificed individual acclaim by taking a pay-cut to play with two friends in South Beach, but put himself in position to take over games at the highest level of competition.
The Man Behind the Mask
Many will continue to hate James out of force-of-habit, or because their team was spurned in last summer’s free agency. Others will resent that he didn’t take the more difficult path to a championship, improving his team slowly, year by year, until they had the pieces to win a title.
But it’s starting look like James will have the last laugh. He’s still the unstoppable talent we saw coming into the league; the “next Jordan” we were all waiting for but could never seem to find. He can do a lot to earn that legacy by steam-rolling through the Dallas Mavericks this season.
We’ll have to wait and see whether he shows any flaws, any fleeting moments where he and his team seem out-gunned and susceptible to defeat.
Most villains do. Even Michael Myers had that moment. “I shot him six times! I shot him in the heart! But…he’s not human!
Unfortunately (for the rest of the league) that moment came in Halloween II, after the villain’s first rampage through Haddonfield. And then, of course, there were sequels.
Not one. Not two. Not three…
Nate Hamme is a Washington Wizards fan and long-time LeBron hater, who still can’t help but marvel at his meteoric rise to, and catastrophic fall from, grace.