Scene: American Airlines Center, Dallas, June 2011. It’s Game 4 of the NBA Finals. The Miami Heat, already leading the Dallas Mavericks 2 games to 1 in the series, appears poised to put a stranglehold on their bid for a championship. After dominating most of the series, they’re up by 9 in the 4th quarter. They have the two best players in the series – so far. A 3-1 lead, and the inevitable series victory that will follow, seem like a foregone conclusion.
For LeBron James this will be his long-awaited coronation, the sweetest validation of a Decision that didn’t exactly go as planned. For years in Cleveland, he carried a series of sorry supporting casts to great heights. But 60-win seasons and division titles were followed by humbling and humiliating playoff exits. Who could blame him for jumping at the chance to team up with the 4th and 5th overall picks from his draft class? It was going to be different in Miami: LeBron wouldn’t have to face constant double-teams and score 40 every night. And even if LeBron and the Heat foolishly planted targets on their own backs, they were able to salvage a turbulent regular season by dominating the playoffs, losing just twice on their way to the Finals. As the clocked ticked down in Game 4, the first installment of LeBron’s ludicrous preseason prediction of multiple titles – “not one, not two, not three…” – seemed like it actually might come to fruition.
The tide turns suddenly in Game 4. The veteran Mavs methodically chip away at the lead while remaining poised and confident. With the crowd going crazy, Miami cracks under the pressure for the first time in the postseason. LeBron was still LeBron, but something was…different. In the fourth quarter, he takes only one shot – a miss. He looks gassed and out-of-synch. He barely touches the ball in the final minutes as the Mavs squeak out a close win.
Five days later, Dallas wins the series in Miami. LeBron, playing for his new team, with his own hand-picked stars, is still ringless.
LeBron is now back in the Finals for the third time, and he knows. He knows he’s done everything in the NBA, accomplished every goal, won every award, checked every box – except one. He knows that there are two categories of elite players, that All-Star appearances and MVP awards mean very little when the final judgment is passed. He knows that the truly great players must break through that wall, no matter how much of it is out of their control. He knows that people were saying the same exact things about Dirk Nowitski at this time last year. He knows how the media, the fans, and even other players talk about Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson and others: Great players but…well, you know.
LeBron also knows – doesn’t he have to know? – that this chance, while it won’t likely be his last, may be one of his best. At 27 and in the prime of his career, he’s putting up jaw-dropping playoff numbers that even Dan Gilbert and Scott Raab have to appreciate. Last Thursday, with the team teetering on the brink of a disastrous series loss to the aging and underdog Celtics, LeBron painted his masterpiece: 45 points on 19 for 26 shooting, 15 rebounds, and 5 assists in a blowout win in Boston. It may someday be known as the game that transformed the Heat from Dwyane Wade’s Team to LeBron’s Team.
For the series against Boston, LeBron averaged 33.6 points and 11 rebounds, adding another chapter to a sparkling playoff resume that is missing only one thing. LeBron’s playoff failures have been dissected so much that his triumphs often get overlooked as if they don’t merit the same attention. Now, he does everything so well that even his Game 7 line against Boston – 31 points and 12 boards in 47½ minutes – barely raised an eyebrow.
LeBron arrives at this stage playing the best basketball of his career. He insists that he’s relaxed, he’s in the zone. That last year was different, that this time he will leave it all out on the floor. No one will remember this in a couple weeks unless…well, you know.
It had to be the Oklahoma City Thunder, didn’t it? It’s a team that was built from the ground up, through draft picks, frugal free agent signings, and timely trades. It’s an organic team, carefully constructed over a period of years, the antithesis of Miami’s all-or-nothing approach where the superstars arrive and we’ll-figure-out-the-rest-later. A year ago, when Dallas triumphed over the Heat, there had to be some satisfaction among the basketball purists who always maintained that a great team could beat great players. Now the theory is being put through another round of testing.
It would be hyperbole to suggest LeBron needs this series to validate his career. If he never plays another game, he’s still a Hall of Fame lock and one of the best players to ever touch a basketball. No matter which way his career goes, it seems almost impossible that he wouldn’t have at least one or two more appearances in the Finals. In his first nine seasons, LeBron has nearly exceeded even the most impossibly bloated expectations. He can score like Jordan. Pass like Magic. Defend five positions. Athletically, he’s got the power and strength of Bo Jackson, stretched out over a 6-foot-8 frame. Physically, he’s a nightmare matchup for any and every defense.
But LeBron is something more than just a great player. A few weeks ago, he won his third MVP award, becoming the only 3-time winner who has never…well, you know. LeBron’s physical gifts put him in a higher plane; when he’s judged, the standard is not the standard. His numbers this postseason have occasionally soared so high into the stratosphere that they’ve crossed path with the numbers of another multiple-MVP winner whose physical gifts were such that he transformed the game itself. But Wilt Chamberlain’s career, or at least a small part of it, is often thought of as a failure: Despite his otherworldly size and skill, he “only” won two NBA championships.
Starting tonight, LeBron James gets his third swing at true greatness. We all know what happens if he leads the Heat to an NBA title. But if he has another shaky series, or endures another humbling exit, his career legacy may be permanently turned upside down. Because another missed opportunity could mean that no matter how many titles he may one day end up with – “not one, not two, not three…” – the focus will always be not how many times he won, but how many times he didn’t.