NEW YORK -- Sometimes a fan can’t help it. It isn’t that they forget what team they’re rooting for, they just get swept away by the moment. For a second they are cheering greatness, power that awes them or artistry that wows them or both — and the reaction is beyond their control.
It was that way in the Brooklyn arena here Monday night during a sequence when LeBron James commanded the respect of even Nets fans.
The Heat blocked a shot and Dwyane Wade began a fast break that ended with a thunderous tomahawk slam by LeBron that caused a spontaneous roar as loud as any in the building all night long. There were plenty of red-jerseyed Heat fans here, yes, but not that many.
It was rather astounding to hear.
That slam gave LeBron 22 points late in the first half.
He wasn’t even half done.
This was an epic night that saw James — the NBA’s greatest player at his full powers — score 49 points in one of the greatest individuals performances by any athlete in South Florida sports history.
Miami would beat the Nets 102-96 to take a commanding 3-1 lead in this second-round playoff series heading back to Miami on Wednesday night, and it was all LeBron. Seldom has an athlete ever justified and perhaps exceeded a nickname so audacious.
In full reign.
Brooklyn fought and fought and nearly overcame James’ massive output. They came so, so close to wrapping James’ scintillating night in devastating defeat.
Instead, ultimately the Nets and their fans had no choice:
They bowed to the King.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra offered the exhausted James a rest during the fourth quarter. James declined. Spoelstra exalted inside.
“I kind of asked him but I didn’t really mean it,” admitted a smiling Spoelstra.
“I didn’t know if he was serious or not,” said James, smiling. “What I told him, I cannot say again.”
The coach said he never spoke to James about needing him to take over the game, but, “He sensed what we needed.” Maybe the message was subliminal. Spoelstra has an old game replaying in the lockerroom before every game. Monday it was Game 4 of a 2011 playoff vs. Boston, a night James scored 35.
LeBron, asked if he felt the need to take over, simply said, “I felt the need that we needed to win this game.”
Nets fans spent most of the entire game booing LeBron every time he touched the basketball, but, on a night when no adjectives measured up — “Indefatigable, is that how you say it?” said Spoelstra — you know these fans would have sold the Brooklyn bridge to have Miami’s No. 6 on their team.
The arena was full of star-power rooting for the Nets. Jay Z and Beyonce, Denzel Washington, Floyd Mayweather, Jason Sudeikis, Jerry Seinfeld and Mike D of the Beastie Boys to name a few.
LeBron outshone them all.
The 49 points tied James’ personal playoff record and set his postseason personal best with the Heat.
He was on the free-throw line just before time expired but missed one of two shots, denying himself 50 and his outright personal best.
He frowned. Shook his head.
“That’s the first time I’ve been disappointed in myself in a win,” he said. “I understand history. And putting up 50 points in a playoff game would have been fun.”
Is that a new definition of greatness?
That you can be disappointed, on any level, after you have just scored 49 points?
On a one-man-show night, James got late help when he needed it.
Chris Bosh hit a three-point shot for a 97-94 lead with 57 seconds left.
Wade got a big offensive rebound after a James miss.
Ray Allen made four late free throws.
But one man won this game for Miami and put the Heat one victory from advancing to the Eastern finals.
The stage was great.
The game was great.
LeBron James was greater.
He is why Miami just won its 10th consecutive playoff game following a loss.
He is why Miami has now won at least one road game in 14 consecutive playoff series, an NBA record.
The Nets had been a little mouthy in the buildup to Monday’s Game 4, emboldened by Saturday’s home win.
“You’ve got to have that type of mental ego against a juggernaut,” Paul Pierce had said. “You go against the best, a lot of series are [decided] on the fear factor, or non-belief. When you have non-belief, you have no chance. We can beat this team. They’re not unbeatable.”
Teammate Deron Williams chimed in, “We feel like we match up well with them.”
They do match up well.
But there is no match for LeBron on a night like this. No equal to him, or answer for him.
On Saturday, James had scored 16 points in a big first quarter and then tailed off badly, with just two field goals in the final three quarters.
Monday he started strong and stayed there, a human freight train.
He made 16 of 24 field goals. He made 14 of 19 free throws. He muscled to the rim time and time again through Brooklyn’s interior defense.
Even Pierce had to concede: “Never underestimate the heart of a champion.”
The night was about resilience. About bouncing back.
“We’ve been in this situation before. What is your response?” Erik Spoelstra had told his team. “You see how teams respond to adversity. The biggest thing is, ‘What is your response?’ ”
Wade had said before the game, “It’s not about making adjustments. It’s about who gets to their game the best.”
It wasn’t quite that for Miami on Monday.
They didn’t get to their game the best.
They got the best from the best.