LeBron James, Best Basketball Player On Earth

MIAMI, FL - MAY 24: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat against the Chicago Bulls in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs on May 24, 2011 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

LeBron James carried the Miami Heat against the Chicago Bulls in Game 4, and aside from putting his team one win away from the NBA Finals, it proved once and for all... Love him or hate him, LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world.

The Chicago Bulls had a chance to tie the series against the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, and take control of the Eastern Conference Finals heading back to Chicago. Derrick Rose almost did it, too--then LeBron James proved why he's the best player in the world. Mind you, I'm saying all of this through clenched teeth.

Everything about the Miami Heat makes me angry. Whether it's their contrived origins, the stupid celebration they held last summer, the absentee fans they have in Miami or the bandwagon fans they have elsewhere. Whether it's Dwyane Wade and LeBron James refusing to do individual interviews, Chris Bosh playing the proud peacock when things go well and the wounded duck when they don't, or Pat Riley glowering from the sidelines no matter what happens. Whether it's LeBron calling the worst rapper of my generation his family, or the Heat's owner hanging out with Mike Kryzewski. Whether it's being forced to pretend their role players are any better than mediocre, pretending Bosh is any better than Carlos Boozer, pretending Dwyane Wade is still a top five player in the NBA, or pretending Eric Spoelstra is actually pulling the strings in Miami. Or maybe it's just watching the whole NBA pretend that the Miami Heat didn't, you know, blatantly break the rules, conspiring over the past three years to make this nightmare a reality.

Whatever it is about the Heat, though, LeBron's making it irrelevant. Tuesday night made it nearly impossible to question LeBron James, the basketball player. He may not be the NBA MVP, but after what he did to Rose and the Bulls, it's hard to argue there's anyone better.

That's the thing with the MVP. It's a media-driven award. Rose may have had the best story this year, and he definitely had the best regular season, but NBA players know better. That's why as late as last season (when LeBron won the MVP), if you'd polled the players themselves, the majority of the league would have called Kobe Bryant the best player on earth. It's a completely different title than MVP.

It has nothing to do with who has the best season, who exceeded expectations, or who won the MVP the year before. The "best player on earth" just comes down to who's the baddest dude in the league, and which player scares the crap out of everyone when everything's on the line. You don't get to take the torch by dominating the regular season. This stuff all gets handled in the NBA Playoffs. That's why, for the past five years or so, the title belonged to Kobe Bryant.

Now it's LeBron's league. Even though Dirk Nowitzki's dominating like never before out West. Even though LeBron's best friends with Drake and threw that ridiculous birthday party. Even though he took lame, passive aggressive shots at Cleveland when the Cavs were down. Even though he's still the same arrogant, oblivious fool that thought The Decision was a good idea. Even though he came out yesterday and took passive aggressive shots at another team's coach.

Even though he has a seizure after every big dunk, and even though he treated the Celtics series like the NBA Finals. Even though he gets too many calls, even though he totally traveled on that huge shot to seal the game on Tuesday night, and even though he still makes that stupid "WHAAA? MEEEE?" face every time a ref has the temerity to call a foul on him.

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What LeBron did Tuesday looks impressive in a box score (35 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 steals, 3 blocks), but it was more than that. Just when it looked like Rose was going to stake his claim to the throne all over again, LeBron went out and completely shut him down. 

Rose was everywhere for Chicago in the first three quarters, but once LeBron clamped down in the fourth quarter, he couldn't do anything. Suddenly, the paint was off limits, the passing lanes closed up, and Rose and the Bulls found themselves settling into a series of one-on-one sets and desperate heaves at the end of the shot clock. That was all LeBron James.

Bulls fans complained that Rose was tired after playing too many minutes this spring. But guess how many minutes LeBron's played over the past three Heat wins? 49, 44, and 46. True, over the course of the playoffs, Rose has played 40.1 minutes-a-night. LeBron? 43.9.

It's not that Rose was tired. Derrick Rose just isn't on LeBron James' level. Nobody is.

And while LeBron almost single-handedly threw the Chicago offense into desperation, he went to work on the other end, too. He hit Mike Miller for a wide-open three at the start of the fourth, then had 13 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. Barreling toward the rim, twisting for dagger jumpers, and looking more unstoppable than ever. People have always criticized LeBron for not being clutch, and Game 4 was his best answer yet. 

Shutting down the NBA MVP on one end, carrying his team's offense on the other, and hitting crucial jumpers down the stretch to win it at the end? You won't see many players top that. Ever.

He hit the shots you're supposed to hit as a superstar, he rose to the occasion and shut down the other team's best player, and in a series that's been a war from the outset, Miami's winning solely because they have the best weapon in basketball. When LeBron James turns it on, there's nothing anyone can do. I didn't think he had it in him, but the playoffs have been proof. 

It goes back to something Charles Barkley said last week. He told a story about his time with the Phoenix Suns, when he realized that Michael Jordan was better than him. It starts like this:

...when I finally came to Phoenix, I had told the late, great Cotton Fitzsimmons, 'Hey dude, I'm the best basketball player in the world. We're going to the Finals.' And he said, 'That's why I traded for you.'

I actually thought I was the best. I thought Bird and Magic just had better players. So, I said, 'Listen dude, I'm going to the Finals this year. Dan Majerlie, Kevin Johnson... That's what I need. We're going to the Finals.' He says, 'Well Michael's gonna be there.' I said, 'Cotton, I think I'm better than Michael Jordan.' He says, 'We will see when you get there.'

But after losing Game 1, he had to face his daughter.

So Game 2, I'm talking to my daughter. She said, 'Dad? Are y'all gonna win tonight?'

I said, 'Baby, your dad is the best basketball player in the world. I'm going to dominate the game tonight.' And I remember... I think I had like 46, 47. I played great. ... And Michael had 52.

And I got home that night, and my daughter was crying, and she said, 'Dad, y'all lost again.'

I said, 'Baby, I think Michael Jordan's better than me.'

She said, 'Dad, you've never said that before.'

I said, 'Baby, I've never felt like that before.'

That's the NBA Playoffs, where you can be very good, but you can't escape the truth. Michael Jordan was the best in the world back then. And even though Rose looked dominant for three quarters on Tuesday night, it didn't matter because LeBron James is the best player in the world.

What makes this frustrating is that for so long, we could put an asterisk next to LeBron's name. For a long time, he's been the most talented player in the world. But to be the best, you have to win in the playoffs. He could be the NBA's Voldemort, but he was always fatally flawed.

"He can't win in crunch time," we said. "Thank God." The bad guy can't be the best guy, too.

But this spring everything's changed. Or, he's changed everything, to be exact. His explosions against the Celtics and Bulls don't leave much room for debate. He's hit all the shots great players are supposed to hit, and then some. He's been so good that he's got an incomplete Miami roster one win away from the NBA Finals. He can shut down anyone in the league on defense, and on offense, he just went for 35 points against the best defense in the league. He can stop anyone, and on the other end, nobody can stop him. He's the best.

But you know what? He still hasn't won an NBA Title. Maybe this is all premature. Lord knows we've had about five false starts with the LeBron Era in the past. As long as Nowitzki's around to play the role of Harry Potter, there's still hope for all the haters out there.

...Just not as much as there was before Game 4.

If you need me, I'll be over here clenching my teeth.

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