Against any other team today or yesterday, the superstar is taking that last shot. Kobe Bryant. Kevin Durant. Carmelo Anthony. All of them. You can’t give up a layup, so naturally Hibbert stays in against just about any other superstar who has ever played, especially since Indiana has stayed big all season no matter the opponent. But you never know where the hell the ball is going with James because he is fundamentally hard-wired to make the smart basketball play, to bring the defense to him in search of a weakness an open teammate can also exploit, a fast-twitch calculator tallying efficiencies while up in the air and before he comes down. Funny to think that was viewed as a cowardice in some circles less than one year ago, a shrinkage, but in Game 1 it was the very thing that a fearful Vogel was guarding against, and it is ultimately what made the avalanche fall upon his defeated head.
Vogel knows he has one of the best LeBron defenders in the league, if indeed there is such a thing. That’s a young extraterrestrial named Paul George, and he has an absurd wingspan that makes his standing reach 8 feet 11 inches. Vogel chose to cover the shooters James always finds and prayed that James couldn’t make a contested jumper over his All-Star to win the game. We can quibble about whether an open Bosh jumper is more desirable than a contested one from James if you are Indiana, but the Pacers leader trusted his very best player to guard Miami’s very best player at the most important time for 2.2 seconds from the top of the key. It did not occur to Vogel that James could reduce his best player to bones in the 2.2 seconds it takes piranha to feed. It might not have occurred to any of us, either, if we hadn’t just witnessed it being done so expediently, without George offering even a tenth-of-a-second’s worth of resistance.
To arrive at that rim so freely, soaring as if liberated, James had to fail in Cleveland and Miami, had to suffer enough to want to erase all weaknesses. Michael Jordan, best ever, recently said that the best way to stop James is to push him to his left for a jump shot, but that’s an outdated scouting report, all the math proving that James has turned that into a strength. George sent James that way anyway, as if he was doing any of the choosing in this particular transaction, and the result was the easiest game-winner James has ever had in the pros. Think of all of Jordan’s most famous game-winners. They weren’t layups at the rim. They were the contested jump shots James will not take if a teammate is open. They were the kind of shots Vogel thought he was getting James to take — the kind of game-ender James hadn’t ever hit in Miami until this season.
Charles Barkley, one of the 50 best to ever play this game, left the arena this night laughing about what he had just seen.
“Indiana was the better team tonight, but it must be nice to have that nuclear bomb named LeBron at the end that you can just use to detonate everything,” he said.
Barkley was one of the few to defend Vogel’s decision-making at Wednesday’s end because he knows what he is Witnessing, and the kind of futility one can feel while fighting it.
For reference and perspective, he tells a heartbreaking story about his ring-less quest. Seems that before Game 2 of the Finals in 1993, the year Barkley won the MVP, he promised his daughter he would beat Jordan. He told her that Daddy, not Jordan, was the best player in the world. And Barkley scored 42 that night. But so, too, did Jordan. And Jordan won by three.
Barkley returned home to his crying daughter, and told her that Daddy had lied. He was not, it turns out, the best player in the world.
“Dad, you’ve never said that before,” she said through wails.
“I’ve never felt it before,” he replied.
Barkley has vowed that he will never, ever say a player is as good as or better than Jordan.
But he admits that now is the only time he has ever found himself reconsidering.