“I’ll take your bet, and you’re going to regret, ’cos I’m the best that’s ever been.”
— The Devil Went Down to Georgia, The Charlie Daniels Band
Boil everything away — all the analysis and pronouncements, all the incessant talk of adjustments and matchups and everything crammed into a 24-hour news cycle that reset with another ridiculous message every day for the past two weeks. Make it all disappear and here’s what’s left:
The best coach in the NBA dared the best player in the league to beat him, and the player did.
It was always an NBA Finals between Heat forward LeBron James and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Yes, plenty more was important and one player or coach does not a championship bring, but at the core of the series — the burning, swirling soul of everything — it was Popovich gambling that James couldn’t beat the Spurs in a seven-game series with his jump shot.
And, in the beginning, Popovich’s calculated bluff outfoxed the MVP. James folded his hand, giving away those trump cards — those efficient jumpers — he had worked so hard to obtain and made him next to unstoppable.
In Games 1 and 2 of the Finals, James retreated from Popovich’s challenge. He deferred smartly to wide-open teammates. He played the math while playing directly into Popovich’s defensive game plan. Those first two games, Popovich turned James into an older version, a less-versatile version, of himself — the James who reached the Finals in 2007 with the Cavaliers only to be swept away by Popovich and the Spurs.
The James that began the 2013 Finals wasn’t the same player who, a few months earlier, won his second consecutive MVP award by expanding his game to include a trusty midrange jumper and a reliable three-point shot.
“For 2 1/2 games I watched film, and my mind started to work and I said, ‘OK, this is how they’re going to play me for the whole series,’ ” James said after it was all over. “I looked at all my regular-season stats, all my playoff stats, and I was one of the best midrange shooters in the game. I shot a career high from the three-point line.
“I just told myself why — don’t abandon what you’ve done all year. Don’t abandon now because they’re going under. Don’t force the paint. If it’s there, take it. If not, take the jumper. And I think the last … I did a good job in Game 4. Didn’t make as many shots as I would like to from the outside in Game 5, but I kept on getting into the rhythm of it. Just saying everything you’ve worked on, the repetition, the practices, the offseason training, no matter how big the stakes are, no matter what’s on the line, just go with it.”
So it was that with 2:43 left in the second quarter of Game 7, James found himself wide open in the corner with the ball in his hands and the Heat leading 37-36. Spurs defender Kawhi Leonard positioned himself more than five feet away from James, cutting off his driving lane and begging him to shoot. James obliged and drilled his second three-pointer of the period directly in front of the Spurs’ bench.
And now freeze it.
The stare only lasted a second, but in that briefest of moments James shot a look at the Spurs’ bench that spoke volumes about the taproot dynamic of the series, the development of James as a player, his maturity as a person and the legend he is now positioned to become.