A year ago, the most stunning thing about LeBron James was what he decided. He elected to reject his home-state fans, spurning friends and teammates to join both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Chicago. He went on a nationally televised special on ESPN in a plaid shirt with a neck beard and said the famous South Beach talents line. With one overly-produced interview with Jim Gray, James changed the course of NBA history, wrecked his own public image, and made a bold statement. “The Decision” remains his most controversial move to date, a defining point in his career.
But Thursday night, it wasn’t what James decided, but how. Against the Bulls in Game 5, in a hostile environment down 12 with 3:36 minutes remaining, LeBron James decided it was over. There’s really no other way to put it. Dwyane Wade helped, but in reality, it was James. James simply chose to win the game. It was one of the most stunning examples of a player simply taking over since… Game 4 when James did it and Game 3 before that. James brought out an arsenal in Game 5 which didn’t require veteran savvy. James didn’t use tactical advantage or take advantage of a mismatch. James was just better.
I’m going to invoke Jordan here. Do not leap to the assumption the comparison is whole. Michael Jordan won six rings and did it as the alpha dog and is the best player of all time, yada, yada, yada. This is like comparing Jordan’s celebratory cry with Kobe Bryant’s, or his mustache to fascist dictators. It’s a superficial comparison, not meant to intertwine the fire that makes Jordan the icon of basketball.
But the shots James hit in Game 5, the pull-up three-pointer on a hair-trigger release, the post-up fadeaway jumper, the barrage he unleashed? They were shots you can’t defend. They were just build on one player being better than all others. And that’s what made Jordan great, in the visceral.
You will hardly ever see a player take hold of a game like James did against the Bulls and shake it until all the money ran out. What’s even more stunning is James immediately came back and played to the exact same level on defense. Derrick Rose had no escape. When the game was on the line and Rose had the moment to seize and send the game to overtime and save the Bulls’ season for five more minutes, James blocked it (with a healthy assist from Udonis Haslem for freezing Rose on the roll to the corner). James intercepted Rose’s jump pass, a jump pass. He was everywhere, all at once, smothering the MVP and taking hold of the destiny he never did in Cleveland.
Yes, that will be the latest criticism of James. Why did he not show this effort in Cleveland? Where was this effort in Game 5 against Boston? Why couldn’t he have had this kind of heart when he wasn’t flanked by elite players? Valid questions all. (What is not valid is “Why couldn’t LeBron try like Derrick Rose?” Rose’s field goal percentage should show that sometimes effort without intelligence does not reap the adequate awards sought.) But the problem is that we’re a results-oriented society, and ten times over when it comes to sports. No one questioned Kobe Bryant needing Pau Gasol to win as the alpha dog or why Bryant couldn’t pass as exquisitely as he did in 2009 even if his targets weren’t as good. The result is what matters. And the results have shown that the best overall player in the NBA at the moment is LeBron James. Why? Because he chose to be.
The only questions left are how good, or better, James chooses to be in the Finals?
And, what does Dirk have to say about that?
Game 1 is Tuesday.