MIAMI – Its getting harder and harder to keep referring to LeBron James as a king without a throne. By tonight, it might be impossible.
With little more than five minutes left in a Game 4 gem Tuesday night that felt as seminal as any elimination game, LeBron came up lame. Carried from the court by Juwan Howard, a hush fell over American Airlines Arena – a worry almost as great as the euphoria that swept over the building when he rushed back to the scorers table to re-enter the game less than a minute later.
Hobbling with leg cramps, he could only give the Miami Heat three minutes of physical fortitude and skill before his body betrayed him again and he sat for the final minute. But those three minutes – featuring an assist and a monstrous three-pointer to give the Heat the lead for good – were enough to propel Miami to a 3-1 lead over Oklahoma City in the NBA Finals, a deficit no team in league history has recovered from since the 2-3-2 Finals format was introduced.
Whatever his condition and availability for Game 5, when the Heat can clinch its second title in franchise history and the first in the LeBron era, he chiseled his name into the annals of clutch playoff performances in June – a Willis Reed Lite moment that goes down as one of his most memorable postseason games and easily his most resilient.
What did it feel like? LeBron asked. I mean, I dont know. I mean, you have to play sports and get a cramp to understand the feeling. Its basically like your body just shuts down, your legs shut down on you, theres nothing you can really do about it.
He returned to the game, the Heat trailing by a bucket, and settled down his team. He dropped in a three-point bomb that made the arena explode. Just like that, the guy who referred to himself as King James is a victory away from obtaining the hardware to validate the nickname.
Now comes the bigger question: Hes one victory from winning it the old-fashioned way – by earning it, by going through a gantlet of very good teams and very good players. Will he be able to catch a break in the perception department? Or will the entrenched and jaded among us still root against him.
Bottom line, after all the bravado and buildup, after the postseason disappointment and the outright derision that followed The Decision, James is moving quickly toward one of those natural NBA ascensions.
Michael Jordan, after all, took seven years to finally win a title. In the same vein, LeBron has waited his turn, eight years and counting.
It might just be his turn now. As he said earlier in the week, the pain of losing last year – of not doing enough down the stretch – fueled this run more than anything.
If he can walk, he will play in Game 5. If not, he has still set up his team for the title. Its time we all started giving him his due, started celebrating him for the persevering champion he is about to be instead of denigrating him for the scowling, sour-faced runner-up he was.
In sports and in life, they call this moving on. LeBron has. Can you?