The evolution of LeBron James took another seismic step last week in Boston, the loud and historic place The King had again come to conquer. Champion Jason Terry tried to get in the way of what was coming with LeBron. All of it. The basketball. The fast break. The game. The desire. The force. The streak. The future. And, for his efforts, because of the size of the moment and the size of the momentum, Terry was left flat on his back in the key, looking like he should be surrounded by yellow police tape and a chalk outline.
This works as a symbol for anything and anyone who has dared to get in the way of LeBron’s Heat the last 50 days, during which Miami has won 25 consecutive games, shame being but one of the dangers in stepping into what LeBron now clearly views as his ordained and righteous path. Understand this about Terry: He is a supremely proud and confident man. He got a tattoo of the championship trophy before he wrestled it away from a different James two years ago. But at the height of flight now, James going up and Terry coming down, the collision at the rim was something to witness, unfair in size and stature and symbolism. The result? Terry writhing on the ground, James standing over him with a silent stare. Technical foul on James. For being too awesome, and knowing it more than ever now.
Miami’s three basketball stars came together specifically because they had not been able to advance beyond this Celtics franchise alone, and now there was some Globetrotter-style toying with Boston on the road and on the break. Dwyane Wade flipped the ball under his arm while facing the other basket, Norris Cole nonchalantly tossed a no-look pass in front of the rim, knowing what was on its way, these Heat players more confident than ever when James literally and figuratively has their backs. The sound of what came next — of the force, of the rim, of Terry’s body hitting the floor, of the gasping crowd, of the screaming announcers — echoed throughout the sport. It was the perfectly masculine punctuation for his play and his time, so much so that Heat reserve James Jones, who ought to be used to all this by now, sprung off the bench as if by ejector button, holding both hands to the side of his head like a man enduring something too loud or too much.
LeBron James is oozing I’m-bigger-badder-better these days, and he foretold what was coming in this very building last year, to save Miami’s season, after a bus ride to the arena that Heat players can admit now filled them with fear. He put together one of the most epic playoff games of all time, at the most desperate of times, and since then has been a gathering avalanche of confidence, sweeping up a Reggie Evans here and a Jason Terry there, engulfing road crowds and Oklahoma City’s stars like a force of nature that should be measured with scales named Richter or Saffir-Simpson.
You’ve noticed this, right? The defiance leaking out of him? This is very new, fueled by 25 triumphs without a loss, and it is the result of stacking successes atop one another, which is how confidence is always built. It is at the core of Miami’s historic winning streak, James caring less and less about what you think and more and more about what he craves.
It would be human, after what he endured for two years in Miami, much of it of his own making, if James had immediately emerged with his championship ring on his middle finger. But he did not gloat after winning, or remind anyone that he had validated his Decision, a Decision that gets more validated with every victory on this streak, the second-longest ever. Anyone arguing these days that he chose poorly in uniting with his friends? Anyone still questioning damage done to his legacy? Yes, James tweeted a photo of himself holding up a magazine cover that read, “Hi haters!” soon after winning the title, the cover speaking for him, but that was about it for the defiance until this streak started, and opponents have dared to disrespect his throne.
This LeBron Of The Last 50 Days has demanded to see a stat sheet to shame Reggie Evans after Evans questioned last year’s strike-shortened title and then put up zero points, zero offensive rebounds in a Heat win at New Jersey. This LeBron Of The Last 50 Days stared down a courtside fan in Oklahoma City, revealing afterward, “He told me to shoot it. He said, ‘Shoot it. You can’t shoot.’ So I said OK. So I shot. And I made it. And I made another one. And I made another one. And he stopped talking to me.”
This LeBron Of The Last 50 Days has taken to pounding his chest on the road, and demanding silence with his palms down amid taunting road crowds. And This LeBron Of The Last 50 Days did what he did to Terry, and relished it, saying afterward that it was a little extra joyous because Terry has such a large mouth. James punctuated that victory in Boston not with that echoing dunk but with the game-winning shot instead, after which he again stared at the crowd, pounded his chest and demanded his reverent silence. Keep in mind, this is all leaking out of someone that Kobe Bryant lamented as recently as the All-Star game he could never engage in trash talk, no matter how fervently he tried.
We didn’t see any of this LeBron’s first two years here, when he was a piñata and the subject of televised late-night jokes. But there is such a freedom in unshackling yourself from the weights of doubt, questions and criticism, like a balloon finally being untethered and allowed to soar. Kobe Bryant talks a lot about the need to be an a--hole. No time for kindness in the cutthroat world of competition. An interesting thing, that. Los Angeles Laker center Dwight Howard seems to be trying very hard for everyone to like him, and losing everyone in the process. Kobe clearly does not care what anyone thinks and gains fans by the day. This has everything to do with winning. Fans like winning more than they dislike just about anything else. They’d like Dwight plenty if he were the one with the five titles; they’d find Bryant to be a jerk if he didn’t have any. But it seems clear that James is less interested in pleasing everyone now that he has his first title — and, as a result, as a happy accident, he becomes all the more pleasing in a way that is sort of remarkable.
That might be the oddest thing about this unusual streak. It wasn’t but a few months ago that everyone in sports seemed to be rooting against and mocking James and the Heat. But now? Now Miami somehow gets to be the lovable underdog, implausibly, impossibly, chasing history against the odds. Ridiculous as it seems, when you are down 27 points at Cleveland, when you are chasing one of the most unbreakable records in sports, you become the underdog, no matter how loaded your team, all of history against you. There isn’t a lot of precedent for going from rooted-against to rooted-for by Sports America quite this fast.
Usually, with a team like the Yankees, something horrific like 9/11 has to happen for the hated bully to become the beloved and emotional fan favorite for a moment, and even that kind of love isn’t enduring. But it would appear, based on ratings, that fans want to see a record during their time, to be a personal witness, and that made even Barry Bonds cheered and respected for a time, though that too was fleeting. In sports, hate morphs into begrudging respect, taken against your will, just before it blooms into love. That is the path James is on now, city by city, month by month and year by year, demanding your silent respect by pushing his palms down when the road crowd starts to get loud but instead gets defeated, victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory after victory.
It is hypnotizing to watch a defiant king on this kind of conquering spree.
You thought beating tiny ol’ Oklahoma City was a big deal?
On the horizon: The rest of the world.