The line for LeBron between securing his spot atop the GOAT mountain and finding himself forever blocked -- the space between himself and Jordan -- is razor thin. The difference may just be this thinned-out, underdog, on-paper-injured-and-thus-underwhelming Miami Heat team.
Consider: If the Lakers win this series, giving LeBron James four rings, he will add another layer of depth and nuance to his finely-tuned narrative that he is the game's greatest player ever. He will have led a third franchise all the way, in a season that properly honors the late, great Kobe Bryant, all under the duress and difficulty of a COVID-19 pandemic, a testament to LeBron's mental toughness even in a bubble that bested other stars.
And he would have done it against his former team, selling the notion once and for all that the only consistent ingredient LeBron needs for greatness is himself.
Win this one, and the Lakers celebrate, Anthony Davis signs a long-term deal, LeBron and this team chase titles in the years ahead even as he pursues individual accolades, including becoming the game's all-time leading scorer. His losing NBA Finals record fades away -- as it should -- in the Jordan vs. LeBron talk.
That's one scenario.
The Heat's victory in Game 3 sparks a shocking Finals comeback. It turns out LeBron couldn't even beat a Miami team that for much of the series was missing two of its best four players. It also turns out the best teammate he's ever had in terms of fit -- Anthony Davis -- wasn't enough to stop King James from succumbing to a less-than-royal 3-7 record in the NBA Finals.
LeBron becomes more Jerry West than Michael Jordan.
In this reality, the list of players who have bested LeBron in the Finals -- Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and, now, the talented but not exactly overpowering Jimmy Butler -- grows so long all that Jordan talk starts to feel off.
Suddenly, a look at LeBron's postseason career conjures a different kind of image than Jordan's: That two of the most surprising NBA champions of the century, the 2016 Dallas Mavericks and this 2020 Miami Heat, were fortunate enough to face a star like LeBron James who couldn't close the deal, even with superstar talent around him. And the Warriors and Spurs, in retrospect, who more than held their own against him in their numerous showdowns, stake a higher claim to greatness than the patchwork of LeBron James Finals teams.
Passing Jordan isn't just about what's true. It's about what we think is true -- how we want to remember things, how we filter all of this through our memories and biases, through the Rorschach test of what is first conjured as "LeBron" or "Jordan."
We fans are fickle, sure, but so is the pursuit of something as hallowed as Michael Jordan's place in the game. To claim that mantle, you better have the mettle to beat a Miami Heat team that's lesser than your own Lakers squad, and that was on the ropes and ready to go down in Game 3.
For a moment, the Heat wobbled. The Lakers pressed. A 3-0 series lead looked likely. That's when Jimmy Butler pulled a LeBron against LeBron, going off for 10 fourth-quarter points on the way to a 40-11-13 showcase, the only time a player has ever topped LeBron James in a Finals game in points, rebounds and assists. That also made it 73 points that Butler either scored or assisted on, the second-most in NBA Finals history -- all without taking a single 3-point shot. Oh, and Butler effectively guarded and flustered LeBron, too, besting him in every facet of that game.
If all of that sparks a Heat turning point, it will be on LeBron -- and no one else -- for not doing what Jimmy Butler did, and imposing his will on that game and ultimately the series.
This is not to disrespect the Miami Heat. They're an excellent, dangerous, well-coached group. But they do not feature a top 10 NBA player, Butler notwithstanding. They are young, and have shown it at times in this series. They are certainly beat up, with Bam Adebayo playing just 21 minutes so far in the series, and Goran Dragic less than 15, forcing even more pressure onto Tyler Herro and Butler.
The Lakers can -- and probably will -- prevail. They certainly should. But lose Game 4 Tuesday night, let that momentum take on a force of its own, see A.D. play passive again or the Lakers role players actually play like role players, and anything can happen. As LeBron knows firsthand.
He would never have claimed his third ring, the one in Cleveland, if the Golden State Warriors had finished the series in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals. But Draymond Green was suspended, a close game in the first half gave way to a comfortable Cleveland victory, and the tide, before most recognized it, had turned.
That can happen now, too. It's why LeBron stomped off the court early on Sunday. It's why Butler, executing a hoops psych-ops mission, told his opponent, "You're in trouble." Not because the Lakers are just yet, but because they could be. Doubt can be powerful.
Most people still think the Lakers win this series. But the NBA Finals, like legacies, are fragile things. LeBron James would be wise to see this Heat team as a threat to both, and respond tonight accordingly.