“He’s timeless,” Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had said of LeBron James before Sunday night’s game here. “It doesn’t matter what uniform, what year or what age.”
Spo wasn’t lyin’.
James is wearing Los Angeles Lakers gold now. He will be 34 next month. And he isn’t as good as ever. No. He’s better.
And he reminded South Florida and Heat fans exactly what the team he left behind has been missing ever since James broke up the Big 3 by returning to Cleveland following the 2014 season.
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Miami has nobody who can take over and own a game like LeBron can, and like he did Sunday in a 113-97 Lakers victory led by James’ 51 points -- 51! -- on 19-for-31 shooting. No Laker had ever scored that many vs. the Heat. And LeBron Had been 0-6 as an opponent playing in Miami, until now.
“The environment is the basketball and the hoop,” said James afterward, downplaying the incentive of playing back in Miami. “Always good to come back, though. We had some not so good times, and sojme great times.’”
The Heat have a bunch of pretty good players today. They don’t have anyone capable, right now, of doing anything close to what we just saw.
Oh, what we had, and what we lost.
Just this week The Undefeated website chronicled 28 hip-songs that referenced the Big 3-era Heat in 2010-14, because the Heat in those years made Miami a cultural powerhouse like it hadn’t been since Miami Vice and the Canes football dynasty.
LeBron caused all that the night he told the world he was taking his talents to South Beach.
The familiar face glided smiling into the cramped visitors lockerroom of the Heat’s downtown arena before Sunday’s game, greeting reporters and others from his Miami days.
LeBron mentioned Dwyane Wade’s 12-day-old baby girl, named Kaavia James Union Wade, and said he had thanked Wade for the honor of including his name as a part of her name.
“Oh hell no, it got nothing to do with you!” Wade told him, laughing.
“Well, at least you could have lied to me!” James said he answered back.
James and Wade are BFFs, even now, four seasons after the rather abrupt and not entirely harmonious breakup of the Big 3 that delivered to Miami 2012 and ‘13 championships amid four consecutive NBA Finals.
So it was odd Sunday, seeing James back in his old home gym but Wade absent -- still not quite done with a paternity leave that will cause him to miss probably eight Heat games in all.
Everything has changed for the Big 3, since the breakup.
Everything except James’ uninterrupted excellence.
Wade, pushing 37, returned home for this “Last Dance” farewell season before retiring, but the new dad faces a swansong that figures to include the playoffs and a first-round exit if it includes the playoffs at all. It will most likely end quietly, in other words.
Chris Bosh’s career was cut short of course by blood-clot issues that forced retirement upon him, though he says he still hold out hope for a comeback. His career ended too quietly, too
James is the only one of the Miami former Big 3 to remain at full powers. For a few years now we have been waiting for signs of decline, and seeing none. He is a sports phenomenon.
“You can book it every year: 27, eight and seven,” Spoestra said, meaning point, rebound and assist averages. “Consistency is as much a talent as as any physical or mental talent, and he’s five-star in all of those.”
Sunday, after a modest crowd reception of mostly cheers, James had 19 points by the end of the first quarter, and didn’t let up. He charged the basket for a monster dunk late in the third quarter. The Heat’s Rodney McGruder, as if fearing for his well-being, scooted out of the way, a matador stepping from the path of a bull.
It is impossible to see James back in Miami and not be wistful, and wonder about what might have been.
Heat godfather Pat Riley certainly has.
“I had two or three days of tremendous anger. I was absolutely livid,” Riley said of James leaving for Cleveland after the ‘14 season, revealed in Ian Thomsen’s wonderful 2018 book , The Soul Of Basketball. “My beautiful plan all of a sudden came crashing down. That team in 10 years could have won five or six championships. But I get it. I get the whole chronicle of [James’] life.”
Riley’s hopefulness there is flawed. It presumes the Golden State Warriors didn’t come along to out-Big 3 the Big 3, to take the Heat’s superteam blueprint and raise it to another level.
Post-Big 3, it’s Golden State that has reached four straight Finals, winning three, with the dynasty still going at full throttle.
James’ original optimism about the Heat Big 3 winning “not five, not six, not seven...” titles, and Riley talking about five or six parades in 10 years both presumed first that everybody stuck around -- and second that Golden State never happened.
Besides, even if the Big 3 stuck around, and James was still in a Heat uniform Sunday, not Lakers gold, Bosh still would have been erased by medical issues. And Wade still would be an aging star turned role player.
Everything has changed since the Big 3 broke up.
Everything except the relentless, massive excellence of one man.