MIAMI – On the ride out of the arena, in the back of a speeding golf cart, LeBron James finally allowed himself to smile. The cart stopped near the exit ramp of the building, and James shook hands with a certain Hall of Famer – one with multiple championships and a 1,000-watt smile himself.
It's not often that Magic Johnson encounters anyone, friend or foe, with a smile as bright as his own. This was one of those moments when the brightest basketball face of all had a rival.
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It was James in the back seat of the golf cart, longtime friend Maverick Carter in the front passenger's seat. The scoreboard above the court at American Airlines Arena still glowed with Heat 104, Thunder 98. It was 1 a.m. in the East, the witching hour in James' long, painful pursuit of vindication for all that talent – for so many failures.
“We're just going to prepare the same way we've prepared all series, all season,” James had said earlier in the interview room. Under the lights, with the cameras rolling and media questions flowing, James was not letting himself acknowledge this moment. It's 3-1 in the NBA Finals for James and the Heat, one win away from removing basketball's biggest albatross.
As the cart sped away, his smile said it all.
He was brilliant Tuesday night, a different kind of brilliance than we saw in Game 6 of the conference finals in Boston, when he coaxed his inner assassin out of hibernation. This was all-around dominance – 26 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds and two cramped legs that cruelly quit working on him in the final minutes. This was James at his very best, being helped to the sideline and writhing on the court as trainers iced his exhausted, misfiring muscles.
“Your muscles just basically lock up on you,” James would say later. “So I tried to walk, but they weren't letting me move.”
What a cruel twist, what a storyline out of the most ghoulish of horror-writing minds. James had gone down on a drive to the basket, struggled to his feet, and managed to coax through the net a leaning bank shot with no legs to propel it. He'd given the Heat a two-point lead, 92-90, with 5:35 left in Game 4. He had withstood a heavyweight barrage from Russell Westbrook, who'd gone all Rajon Rondo on the Heat with 38 points at the time. And now this.
"I'm thinking, 'This is a bad time for that,' " Udonis Haslem said in the locker room.
After Westbrook missed a jumper, James was on the floor and couldn't get up. He sat there, the indestructible James, rocking back and forth and rubbing his thighs. Juwan Howard and trainer Jay Sabol helped him to the sideline, where he lay on the court while trainers worked on him.
Teammates implored him to drink Gatorade. Trainers broke out the ice. It was chaos on the sideline during a timeout with 5:15 left – almost half-a-quarter between James and the cusp of a title he's pursued for nine years.
“I didn't want to come out,” James said.
After 70 seconds, James limped back into the fray, directing traffic as the ball moved around the perimeter. Finally, the ball came to him. With 2:51 left in a tie game, James drained a 3-pointer from the top of the circle that gave Miami a 97-94 lead.
“Playing on one leg, I don't know how he did it,” Chris Bosh said. “But he hit a huge three, and fortunately we didn't look back after that.”
That was the final effort from James on this night, the last ounce he had to give. He came out again with 56 seconds left, and could only watch as the supporting cast – led by Mario Chalmers, who sealed this one with a layup and finished with 25 points – closed the deal.
“That's what being in the Finals is about, giving everything that you have until you can't walk anymore,” Bosh said. “… That's how we knew we were going to feel beating these guys. We knew that we weren't going to have anything left in the tank.”
Before the game, James had told his teammates that all they should feel after this game is sheer exhaustion.
“For him to set the example,” Bosh said, “that was huge for us.”
Of all the incredible feats we've seen from James – the 25 straight points against the Pistons in the conference finals a few years back, the 45 points, 15 rebounds and 73 percent shooting in Game 6 against Boston in the previous series – somehow seeing him go down and not get up was the most unbelievable of all. He's that indestructible, that strong. Now, after all this, fueled by an almost violent obsession with winning this title, how could this happen?
“He's a freak of nature, but he's still a human being,” Haslem said. “… He gave us everything he could, and it was just enough.”
But it's not enough until he does it again, until the Heat somehow squelch the resilient Thunder and their own freak of nature, Westbrook, one more time. It was Westbrook for 43 points on 20-for-32 shooting when it was over, and James gave him the ultimate sign of respect when he compared his performance to Rondo's 44 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds in Game 2 of the conference finals.
“If someone has a spectacular game against us,” James said, “we're still able to find a way to win.”
“That's the reason that we call came here together,” Dwyane Wade said, and he wasn't just talking about the Big Three, because on this night – as great as they are – they needed help. They needed more.
Hours earlier, the architect of this axis of basketball power and perceived evil, Pat Riley, was making a rare public appearance as the recipient of the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award. Riley coached Wade and Shaquille O'Neal to the 2006 title, was out front as the face of the franchise. Now, he is the Wizard of Oz for the Heat, his five championship rings having lured LeBron to Miami with no apologies.
“We got very fortunate that at the right time and at the right place, three players wanted to play together,” Riley said.
On his ride out of the arena early Wednesday, James was in the final stretch of the journey – an epic, two-year climb back from the disgrace of how he left Cleveland, a nearly decade-long pursuit of a championship.
“Of course it's there to think about,” James said.
As the golf cart sped off toward the muggy South Florida night, James' expression said it all.