|LeBron James has scored 25 points or more in all six games of the Eastern Conference finals. (Getty Images)|
MIAMI -- LeBron James showed us what he's made of by forcing Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals, treating the basketball world to the kind of virtuoso performance that has been rare since he teamed up with Dwyane Wade in Miami.
Now, we find out if James' 45-point outburst in Game 6 Thursday night was a tipping point in his career or just a one-time response to the moment.
If the basketball gods are watching, it should be No. 1.
With 15 rebounds and five assists, James amassed playoff numbers that hadn't been achieved since Wilt Chamberlain in 1964. With 30 points in the first half, James' first 60-point game seemed possible, if not inevitable. He took 26 shots and missed only seven. That's 73 percent; Wilt-like, to be sure.
|More on Celtics-Heat|
But the context for James' performance has little to do with the history of others. He is one of a kind in the breadth of his talent and athleticism -- a physical specimen like few who ever played the game -- and also a pioneer of sorts as far as the information age during which he has risen to prominence. Well, prominence and notoriety, to be honest about it.
The only context necessary for LeBron is his own. His imprint on the game in his time has been that deep and indelible.
It was the sixth time in his nine-year career that James scored at least 45 points, but notably the first since leaving Cleveland and joining Wade and Chris Bosh to embark on what has been a rocky chase for his elusive first championship. Until Thursday night, James had relied on his basketball upbringing -- play unselfishly, find the open man, win as a team -- and had taken those habits to new levels of co-existence. Just two nights earlier, James had spent significant stretches of the fourth quarter deferring to Wade, to the point where he spent three consecutive possessions simply standing in the corner or, at most, receiving a pass from Wade, sending it right back to him and getting out of the way.
This was not the James that millions of viewers saw Thursday night. This was the LeBron from the Cleveland days, when his inner alpha dog had to be summoned on a regular basis. This was the LeBron who scored 25 consecutive points in the fourth quarter to demolish the Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference finals. This was the kind of masterpiece that will go down in basketball lore.
It was a different LeBron even to Wade, who said, "We just gave him the ball and got out of the way."
We know where it came from -- a place of desperation and pressure and criticism that unleashed James' demons and brought his artistry and ruthlessness out of hibernation. But if you hadn't noticed, James has been different this year, having arrived at what he called "a great place right now as far as the game of basketball, on the court and off the court." The new LeBron is more relaxed, less guarded, making an effort to say the right thing instead of repeatedly fueling everyone's distaste for him in the wake of the ill-fated "Decision" announcement two years ago.
Had James failed Thursday night, had he met yet another playoff demise at the hands of the Celtics, I can virtually guarantee that there would've been no snide, defensive remark like the one he made after last year's Finals loss to Dallas -- when James basically said he'd still wake up the next day and be LeBron while his critics would have to return to their miserable lives. There would have been none of that. And truly, that will be the measure of how far James has come; not his dominance on the court and demeanor off it on a night when everything went his way, but how he responds to failure again.
In this way, according to a James confidante, the "Decision" might have been the best thing that ever happened to him. It awakened him to his basketball mortality and drew a line of demarcation through the heart of his career. Looking back years from now, James has come to believe that history will judge him in the context of two, distinct eras. I'll call them B.D. and A.D., as in before and after the "Decision."
What we saw in Game 6 was the first time those eras overlapped -- the before-Decision dominance with the after-Decision poise, calmness and seriousness of purpose. The question now, with Game 7 beckoning Saturday night, is whether this is the James we'll see from now on.
Was Thursday night, a forever night in a basketball career, simply a visceral response to the moment -- a sort of basketball survival instinct that kicked in? Or was it something more permanent? Was it, as Wade said, a "defining" moment?"
At one point while in Cleveland, James was asked about taking over the way he did in Game 6, about being the kind of preternatural basketball force that Michael Jordan was and Kobe Bryant is routinely. His answer was, "My game won't allow me to do that."
It was both a window into the minefield of James' own skewed perception of himself in those days, and also a reflection of the fundamental struggle of his career. It's not in his DNA to do what he did to the Celtics in Game 6 -- not natural to try to be like Mike. That makes it all the more impressive, because he summoned the ability to override his instincts. But also, it makes his response in Game 7 even more important and anticipated.
It's not so much a matter of can he do it again, but rather, will he force himself to do it again? We'll know when the Celtics muster their response, when they deny him the ball, double-team and trap him when he gets it, and force him to decide who he is.
"Two guys come to me or three guys come to me, I'm very good at math," James said. "That means someone is open."
That's who LeBron is as a basketball player. It's who he will always be. But he'll always have Game 6, when desperate times demanded a different kind of response. Maybe he didn't do it to satisfy anything but the moment.
Or maybe, LeBron James is even better than his instincts.