Did you notice what LeBron James did as soon as it was over?
As his jubilant teammates poured toward him, jumping up and down like careening adult-children in a bounce house?
As the Indiana Pacers bent over with the sudden sickness?
As South Florida roared and swayed with all that good noise he created?
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And as the referees scurried toward technology to double-check that what they had just witnessed so fast in real time was, in fact, so?
James was still and serene throughout this celebration. It was strange, given the asylum he has just made of his surroundings. James removed his mouthpiece gently with his index finger and thumb to reveal no overt smile or joy whatsoever, as echoing bedlam broke out all around him and teammates came over for hugs that went unreturned. Facially, emotionally, impossibly, he would have looked about the same if he had been wandering down a grocery aisle shopping for produce. He somehow looked normal. And ordained. And not yet done.
It was the peace and belief and clarity a bullet-dodging Keanu Reeves was trying to channel when he realized he was The One in the chaos of The Matrix. Only this wasn’t, you know, science fiction. Less than one year removed from America’s mocking laughter, the butt of televised late-night jokes and character smearing that suggested he was a late-game coward, James somehow seemed to be the least-surprised person in this entire bouncing building about what he had just wrought.
We are in such a big hurry these days, staring into our phones as we walk past strangers, texting while driving, so connected to a bombardment of instant stimuli that it is easy to miss even the biggest and most obvious things whizzing right by us. James made a very difficult thing look very easy at the end of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, and the magic/art of this was lost in howling and blame and all the noisy insta-opinion wondering how the coach of the Indiana Pacers could possibly be so dumb as to allow it.
That is a loud criticism today, wondering why the best defense in basketball would bench its best defender at such a crucial time, allowing the best basketball player in the world the easiest shot in the world while a 7-2 rim-protector sat far away on the bench. But it ignores all the other things that had to happen over a lifetime for James to find that kind of freedom suddenly at that most important moment, things that don’t have much of anything to do with some suit on the opposing sideline being an idiot bum.
This wasn’t the perfect photograph taken in 2.2 seconds by some right-place-right-time amateur. This was an artist dedicating his life to a craft and becoming a master of his trade before our eyes, so that the opposing coach found himself choosing between only bad options late Wednesday before realizing with a punch-to-the-gut horror that he had, oh my God, chosen the very worst one. It says more about us and the nature of sports analysis that we would conclude this wonderful show by shoving the magician out of the way in our zeal to go behind the curtains and immediately start questioning the guy in charge of the lights.
The selflessness that got James branded a coward in these late situations, the fact that he is one of the only superstars in the history of this sport who won’t automatically take the contested jump shot with ego in search of game-ending glory, is precisely what left him so open on this particular play. Indiana coach Frank Vogel pulled 7-2 Roy Hibbert because he feared James passing to an open Chris Bosh, who couldn’t be guarded correctly by Hibbert if Hibbert was also trying to protect the rim from James.
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.