LeBron lives up to Game 7 moment with a career-defining game

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MIAMI -- LeBron James promised that he'd cherish the moment in this Game 7, promised to have his guys ready. By now, we all knew that he would be.

There was no substitute for this feeling, James had said heading into this latest defining moment of his career. Nothing would be promised, either. If you haven't inhaled every breath of your life dreaming of this, you didn't belong here.

These were the words of LeBron James, and he delivered on them, the way he has delivered on promises made when he brought this Big Three together three years ago in Miami. Game 7's are forever, and James wasn't letting this one tarnish his legacy, wasn't letting these feisty Indiana Pacers block his path to a third consecutive NBA Finals.

James is headed to the fourth Finals of his career after orchestrating a 99-76 evisceration of the Indiana Pacers on Monday night. He is going because he singularly lifted his teammates, drove them confidently and charismatically to this moment and wouldn't let it go until the job was done.

"For a basketball player to be able to play in a Game 7 and to punch your ticket to the NBA Finals," James said, "it doesn't get any better."

And with a maturity that was born out of that 2011 Finals loss to Dallas, a humiliation that permanently changed him, James wasn't ready to let this one go even after it was over.

"I'm not going to take this win for granted," James said. "I'm definitely going to savor this win. ... I look forward to the challenge, but I'm not quite there yet mentally because I'm not going to take it for granted what we were able to accomplish tonight."

With 32 points, eight rebounds and four assists, James did the job with a ruthlessness that has come to define his career -- a kind of ferocity that defined the Heat's season until they stumbled and searched and got knocked off course by a Pacers team that James will be seeing again. But even more important was James' realization that he must bring Dwyane Wade along with him, must make the game easier for his hobbled co-star -- the one who welcomed him with open arms three years ago.

On Monday morning, as the Heat went through their final paces for this moment of truth, James said four words to Wade that made all of that happen: "I'll take Paul George." As quickly as James had embraced George's rise to stardom earlier in the series when he extended his hand in that memorable moment in Game 2, James extinguished it. Under the full weight of James' greatness, George finished the night 2-for-9 with seven points before fouling out.

"Any little pressure I could take off D-Wade," James said, "I wanted to do that."

From the moment he walked confidently off the court in Indiana after Game 6, reaching for the hands of his supporting cast and barking encouragement, James had been drinking in this moment -- inviting all that would come with it. The adulation and satisfaction that would come with victory, and the ruination that would be awaiting him in defeat -- he basked in it all, every molecule of it.

He didn't sleep much; an hour here, an hour there, too nervous. For the great ones, nervous energy is good. Nervous energy can be channeled when it's under control, and James turned every bit of it on the defenseless Pacers.

He'd been here before, having lost Game 7s on the road to the Pistons in his first trip to the playoffs in 2006 and to the Celtics in 2008 as Boston's Big Three marched to their only championship together. That game marked one of the epic performances of James' career, a 45-point masterpiece in defeat at TD Garden.

"That's the notion," James said, "that the highest-caliber players need to step up and play at the highest level in Game 7s. And I've been blessed to be pretty good in Game 7s in my career."

Only last year did James break through, slaying the Celtics in Game 7 of the conference finals at home and settling a score with Boston's Big Three. Now, the team that swept him in the 2007 Finals stands before him again; the next score to settle for LeBron James.

"I'm a much better player," James said. "I'm 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the '07 Finals."

These are the moments when players of James' gifts must prove it, because whatever they do in Game 7 is forever. This is what I'd spoken about hours earlier with Donnie Walsh, who sat courtside watching warmups -- a living, breathing basketball encyclopedia getting ready for another memory in a glorious career.

I'd asked Walsh what his favorite Game 7 memory was, and he immediately said, "The one at the Garden." This was Walsh, who'd built multiple eras of success in Indiana across a quarter century and later worked in the building where he'd experienced his greatest triumphs and defeats.

Defeat was something he could never escape during the past several years as president of the Knicks, because the Knicks wouldn't let him. Right outside his office at the team's Westchester County training center hung a panoramic photo of Madison Square Garden erupting at the moment of Larry Johnson's famous four-point play that buried Walsh's Pacers in Game 3 of the 1999 Eastern Conference finals.

"Every day," Walsh said, "I walked past that picture and said, ‘Oh, [expletive].’"

The memory I'd asked him about, though, came in Game 7 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals between the Pacers and Knicks at the Garden.

"We were up by one or two, and they threw the ball in to Patrick [Ewing]," Walsh said. "And I saw Dale Davis come over. Patrick was so long, I thought he'd be able to flip it in right over him.

"But I saw Dale Davis go up with his left hand and swat it away," Walsh said, "and I knew it was over."

Walsh was sitting a couple of rows from the court, a lifetime from that moment. He was gazing toward the basket and gesturing as though it were all happening right there in front of his eyes. Almost two decades later, it was still a pulsating piece of Walsh's soul -- a strand of the fabric that holds an old New York basketball man together all these years later.

Game 7s are forever, and LeBron James embraced that and breathed it all in on Monday night and didn't want to let it go even after it was over. He'll forever remember what happened on this night, and what happens next, too.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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