DALLAS -- LeBron James has arrived at the crossroads he's been on a collision course with for almost a year. He has done this to himself; let's be clear about that. Whatever praise, criticism, or loathing he inspires, this was his own doing. This is what he signed up for.
Yet, in the aftermath of Dwyane Wade leading the Heat to a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals, LeBron has been able to do something almost nobody thought he had in him. He's made himself likeable, or at the very least sympathetic, in the face of the latest round of tired criticism. It's either doing too much, or not enough. Being too assertive, or too accommodating. Being the Alpha dog or the devious fox, doing his dirty work in the shadows of the greatness he signed up to join.
It's almost as though, no matter what he does, LeBron can't win. And when he was asked that very question Monday at the American Airlines Center, LeBron responded with an answer as crafty and appropriate to the moment as his deft pocket pass to Chris Bosh for the winning shot Sunday night -- a game-winning and series-turning play that was ignored by some because it didn't fit the definition of a superstar rising up and delivering the dagger himself.
"No, I did win," James said. "We won."
And there it is.
Someone will no doubt call him smug, egomaniacal, or defensive for saying those words -- just as colleague Gregg Doyel accused him Sunday night of "shrinking" from the moment because he has deferred to Bosh and Wade at winning time in this series. Doyel's perception unleashed a torrent of debate and derision, and James' response won him a rare dose of unmitigated praise. Go watch film of what I did defensively, LeBron said, and you can come back Monday and ask me a better question.
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To paraphrase Carmelo Anthony, who spoke this season of tipping his hat to himself, Doyel promptly congratulated LeBron for a praiseworthy zinger. If the LeBron apologists and see-no-evil statistical devotees would stop breaking down screen grabs and Synergy clips long enough, they'd tip their hat to Doyel, too. They'd credit him for being one of the only media members with the cojones to confront LeBron publicly -- even though he was wrong. Much easier to limit that dialogue to the fingertips and the laptop, which is the way of the world now.
What we are witnessing here with the Heat is a phenomenon that we've never quite seen before in basketball, and it confuses us and makes us doubt what we thought we knew about the game. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the two iconic players of their generation, always opposed each other and wouldn't have dreamed of playing on the same team unless the letters "USA" were sewn on the jersey. Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen as his wing man, and there was no doubting the pecking order there. Jordan was maybe the greatest ever, and he had no peer when he played, nobody of similar age or even close to his talent, work ethic and maniacal pursuit of titles to share the burden.
The Magic were a "yes" from Tim Duncan away from teaming him with Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady in 2000. The Celtics of the Big Three era represented three aging stars coming together late in their careers -- not comparable to Wade, LeBron and Bosh in their prime. Those Celtics are lauded for sacrificing their games in the name of winning. That's a lot easier to do on your way out of the spotlight than on your way in.
So while it's true that no champion -- not Bill Russell, not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, not Jordan or Kobe Bryant -- has ever won a title by himself, there was no blueprint for the merging of talent, ego, and star power like James and Wade signed up for in July. The idea of two stars of similar age, stature and ability chasing titles together on the same team is different, and it confounds us. It changes things.
Against the Celtics and Bulls, James took on the toughest defensive assignment every night and embraced the challenge of being the closer at the end of games -- at winning time. Some have forgotten this already, because our attention span in this age of the minute-to-minute news cycle obscures anything not currently visible on our Twitter timelines. (Don't worry, Anthony Weiner, the world will forget about your package pic in about 25 minutes.)
So you're forgiven if you've already forgotten about James scoring 11 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4 in Boston and getting a defensive stop against Paul Pierce to force overtime in the conference semifinals. You're forgiven if you've forgotten about James averaging 28 points in that series, and scoring 13 in the fourth quarter of Miami's series-clinching Game 5 victory as the Heat closed on a 16-0 run.
It's OK if you've also forgotten about James averaging 25.8 points in the conference finals against the Bulls -- compared to 18.8 for Wade -- and can't seem to remember James locking down the MVP, Derrick Rose, in the fourth quarter of those games. Or James scoring nine of the Heat's 14 points in the fourth quarter of their series-turning Game 2 victory in Chicago ... or scoring 35 in Game 4 (to Wade's 14) ... or scoring 12 of his 28 in the fourth quarter of the series-clinching Game 5 victory while holding Rose to 1-for-10 shooting with two turnovers when he was guarding him during the game. With James guarding him over the final two games of that series, Rose was 1-for-15 with three turnovers. Do you remember that? It's understandable if you don't. I mean, it was two weeks and eight zillion tweets and a political sexting scandal ago. The game stories from those performances were practically pounded out on stone tablets.
And if we've forgotten that, how are we supposed to remember Bryant playing one of the worst games of his life in the title-clinching victory over Boston in Game 7 of the Finals last year? Or Jordan not scoring a basket in the final 7½ minutes of the Bulls' victory over Indiana in Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference finals? Or John Paxson's 3-pointer, clinching Jordan's third title in Game 6 against Phoenix in '93? (Warner Wolf used to say, "Let's go to the video tape," but we might need microfiche for that one.) Or Jordan passing to Steve Kerr for the game-winner in Game 6 of the '97 Finals against Utah?
I mean, who can remember all this stuff?
"Even though I know I get a lot of the headlines, bad headlines, D Wade gets a lot of the great headlines, CB gets a few headlines, this is a team game," James said. "We understand as a team we have to play together to win. It's not just about me."
Nobody likes what James did to Cleveland, or how he handled it. And everybody is rooting against the Heat, because, well, they're the villains. LeBron is THE villain. Except now, the backlash has gone too far, and LeBron may have found an opening in all that excess to transform the loathing into empathy.
You can't credit James for closing out the Celtics and Bulls because the defensive matchups favored him, and vilify him when he steps aside against the Mavs because the matchups favor Wade. This is the very thing his critics (myself included) doubted he'd be able to do. You can't watch LeBron notice out of the corner of his eye -- with his back to the play -- that Udonis Haslem was walling off Dirk Nowitzki to create a wide-open baseline shot for Bosh and say LeBron should've shot the ball instead. Can you imagine the venom if he'd done that, and missed?
You can't watch Haslem force Nowitzki into a miss on the game-tying attempt at the other end and say LeBron should've been guarding him. (It's not like he was asked to and said no.) If LeBron hadn't guarded Rose in the last round, none of this would matter. We'd all be sitting here marveling at how Rose is averaging 35 points a game against Jason Kidd in the Finals, and saying what a deserving MVP he really was.
And as we learned Monday, you shouldn't say LeBron can't win for losing because, well, he's winning. If he wanted to do it alone, he would've stayed in Cleveland. And if he had, you know what some people would be saying now?
That the dummy should've gone to Miami.