In Miami on Wednesday night, LeBron James scored the Heat's final 10 points to finish off the Boston Celtics in Game 5, bringing his team one step closer to an NBA Championship, and closing a chapter that seemed like it might go on forever.
The Decision™ is over now. The question is, what happens next?
When LeBron dropped to his knees after the buzzer sounded, he said, "Everything went through my mind at that point. Including finally getting over this hump against this team. Everything I went through this summer, with the decision and deciding to come down here and be a part of this team." This is why he came to Miami.
You could see it on his face and the faces of his teammates as they celebrated. To them, this victory meant everything. Or, three things, to be exact. Redemption, Validation, and Ascension.
Let's take these one-by-one.
REDEMPTION. The whispers about LeBron's ability to win in the NBA Playoffs had always been there, but when he disappeared in the 2010 Playoffs, those doubts became deafening. It was like we'd all been holding back our skepticism out of respect for his insane, supernatural talent, so when we finally had a tangible example where this superhero shrunk from the moment, the floodgates flew open like never before. If he'd gotten the benefit of the doubt through most of his career, after last year's Celtics series, it became a case of guilty until proven innocent.
Then came his surreal free agency tour this summer, and it just padded the arguments for all the skeptics. "He's more interested in being famous than being great," "he thinks he can win a Championship in free agency," "he's not tough enough to win without his superstar friends." Etc, etc.
Lost in this surreal spectacle was that, as a basketball player, LeBron's still the most surreal talent of this generation. Maybe ever. His combination of skills makes him a terror, and somewhere along the line, it's like the public forgot exactly who we're talking about.
Wednesday night, he reminded us. LeBron may still be an attention-whore who wasn't tough enough to win on his own in Cleveland, but he's still out-of-this-world talented, and if you doubt his ability in crunch time, then all you have to do is try rooting against him and see how it feels.
Seriously, just think about it. How many players would you like to face less?
Dirk Nowitzki? Carmelo Anthony? Kevin Durant? Kobe? If LeBron's not the most terrifying closer in the game, he's in the top five on talent alone. And Wednesday night, he delivered. When the game got close in the final minutes, he hit clutch jump shots, he attacked the rim, and he single-handedly killed the Boston Celtics. What more could the skeptics possibly want? At least as far as criticizing his game is concerned, this series redeemed him.
VALIDATION. Afterward, you got the sense that LeBron took this series as proof that he'd made the right decision coming to Miami. He'd never beaten these Celtics as a Cav, and when he left, it was partly because he wasn't convinced he'd ever get past Boston with Cleveland.
"That was the team I wanted to get over the hump against," he said afterward.
To LeBron, winning this series was proof that he made the right choice. In his press conference, he told the media, "I apologize for the way that it happened, but I knew that this opportunity was once in a lifetime." Do you think it's a coincidence that for the first time all year, he admitted he may have mishandled The Decision process? For the first time all year, he can say, "I may have been wrong, but see why I did it?"
It makes sense. He doesn't have to worry about beating the Celtics all by himself anymore. Now he's got Wade and Bosh to help carry the load, giving him the freedom to pace himself, and laying the foundation for fourth quarter eruptions like Wednesday's display.
Even if it's just from a mental standpoint, you can see where that eases a superstar's burden. In other words, LeBron was able to redeem himself vs. the Celtics thanks to superstar teammates like Wade and Bosh, and in LeBron's eyes, that validates everything. You could see it in the way he reacted. This meant everything to him. Literally, that's what he said about that moment at the end.
“Everything went through my mind at that point, including finally getting over this hump against this team. Everything I went through this summer, with the decision and deciding to come down here and be a part of this team.”
ASCENSION. But hold on a second: why, exactly, did this mean everything? The way LeBron and his teammates celebrated Wednesday night, you'd have thought this was the NBA Finals. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with being happy, but this was just strange. This was everything I'd expect to see if the Heat won a title, except it's still mid-May.
Like, when Michael Jordan curled up with the ball and wept, he'd just won a championship. This wasn't quite that level, but the flood of emotion was nearly as jarring giving the context.
LeBron fell to his knees, for God's sake.
And their coach said things like this afterward, "It took a five-and-a-half-month season to get to this point." Does he realize the Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic got to "this point" last year?
It was a big win, but to put this in perspective, the Heat's three superstars outscored Boston's big three 42-20 in the second half. The Celtics' other superstar, Rajon Rondo, could barely walk by the end of this series. (Remember before this series started, when we said Rondo would have to be the catalyst if Boston had any chance at winning?)
You can credit the Heat for finishing them off, but if we're treating this like some momentous torch-passing, let's not forget that the previous torchbearer has been hobbling for a while now, and seemed overdue for a collapse since 2009. Really, especially given Rondo's injury, just passing the torch without embarrassing themselves is a moral victory for the Celtics.
All of which is to say... It was an important step for LeBron James and the Heat to beat a tough team that wasn't going to fold or give them anything. We really weren't sure Miami had it in 'em. But they did, and LeBron answered his critics in a big way over the past ten days.
Now we're back to square one. It's no longer a question of "Can he come through?" and it probably never should've been. Now it's back to "Will he come through against Chicago? Will he win a title?"
The prospect of a spectacular, cathartic collapse was always a dream for LeBron-haters, but unrealistic. For all of LeBron's defenders, though, it bears mentioning that he's still won nothing. He's just back to where he was, before the Celtics and The Decision sabotaged his reputation.
Redemption's not the same as coronation.
Maybe beating Boston was enough to convince LeBron he made the right choice and convince the rest of us he's as good as he's ever been, but if 'Bron really wants the throne, there's a whole lot left to prove. And for all the relief we saw from the Heat on Wednesday, on the climb to the top, something tells me there will be tougher tests than three proud veterans and an injured point guard.