For much too much of Game 6, LeBron James reverted to the 2011 version of himself. He was settling. Settling for jump shots. Settling for assists. Deferring. Drifting.
James was playing like a fly on the wall when he needed to be the protagonist.
But then it seemed to dawn on him: Tuesday’s do-or-die game of the NBA Finals was judgment day, not only for the season but for the alluring promise of the Big 3.
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Suddenly, he acted like a king, led like a king and played basketball like a king not ready to give up his throne.
James sustained the Heat’s hopes for a second consecutive championship by dominating the concluding moments of Miami’s 103-100 overtime victory over San Antonio. In doing so, he made sure the series fulfilled the format’s description. It will come down to a best-of-7 Game 7 on Thursday in one of the best Finals in history.
“If we were going to go down, we were going down fighting,” James said. “I still made some critical plays as far as bad plays, but I can live with those mistakes if I know I gave my all.”
The Heat was in its favorite position — precariously hanging by fingernails over a pit of fire. And it gave its usual response — climbing free to survive another day.
James dislodged his white headband on a putback dunk in the fourth quarter and went the rest of the way without that symbolic crown. He can keep it with another scintillating performance like the one he had Tuesday. He finished with a triple-double of 32 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists.
He seized the game when it was slipping from the Heat’s hands.
In overtime, he was everywhere in a confident frenzy of shooting, rebounding, defending and intercepting. It was the transformation the Heat had been desperately waiting for.
After logging 14 somnambulant points in the first three quarters, James awakened in the last 10 minutes of regulation. He scored 16 points on 7-for-11 shooting in the fourth quarter to bring Miami back from a 10-point deficit.
James made errors, too. He turned the ball over with 40 seconds left that led to a Manu Ginobili fast break and two free throws. He took a wild shot/lob with 28 seconds left. And he missed a three-pointer that was way off target, but got a reprieve when Mike Miller shoveled the rebound to him, and capitalized by sinking a three and cutting San Antonio’s lead to two points with 20 seconds left.
Ray Allen, who joined the Big 3 after leaving his trio in Boston, rescued the Heat with a three-pointer from the baseline that sent the game into overtime.
After eight months and 104 games, the Miami Heat felt the acute pressure of the clock ticking down on the ambitions of a team that dreamed of multiple titles. Miami was down by six with 24 minutes left. Down by 10 with 12 minutes left.
Then James snaked inside to snag a bounce pass from Mario Chalmers for a dunk. Then the follow dunk of a Chalmers miss on which he lost his headband. He bull-dribbled inside for a left-handed bank lay-in.
Most magnificently, he blocked a Tim Duncan shot with a swoop from behind.
It seems so simple a game plan: Attack. But for a long while, even when James dug in and drove, he missed point-blank shots that should have been as automatic as placing a cup on a shelf. Late in the third quarter, James made an awkward plunge into the lane, leaned backward, fell, splayed on the floor, and waved his arms plaintively for a foul call that didn’t come.
For a long while, Tim Duncan, seeking his fifth title, was the dominant player. Duncan, 37, played like it was 2007. Six years ago, when his Spurs swept James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, he embraced James in an arena corridor and told the kid nine years his junior that the league would be his kingdom in a little while but thanked him for letting San Antonio win another one. Duncan scored 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting to account for half of the Spurs’ 50 first-half points. But Duncan cooled to five points in the second half and missed his only shot in overtime.
When the game, the season and the legacy of Miami’s Big 3 was on the line, James rose to the challenge. His reign lives for another game.