"What the hell happened to?" said everyone after the beat the in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
Playoff games are supposed to provide definitive answers, not leave us with more questions than ever. And yet, with the Heat looking like the better team through most of the game, the Mavericks tied the NBA Finals at two games apiece Tuesday night. Right back to where we started. It's a three game series now, and it makes no sense.
Especially with Dirk Nowitzki playing with a 100-degree fever and looking like a complete mess for most of the game, the Mavs had no business winning on Tuesday. Every time Dallas made a shot, it felt like some grand triumph. Every time Miami scored, it felt like the beginning of an avalanche.
That dynamic describes the series in general. When Dallas wins a game, we pinch ourselves and say, "Do you believe in miracles?" When Miami wins, we shrug our shoulders and say, "This isn't magic, the Heat are just the better team." But the avalanche we've been waiting for hasn't happened yet. Which brings us back to LeBron.
Every day it seems like there's a new referendum on LeBron James. Just look at the NBA Finals. First there was Game 1, where he andlooked unstoppable, and a title (or three) looked inevitable. Then Game 2, when he disappeared in the fourth quarter while Nowitzki took control and led one of the greatest comebacks in Finals history. In a matter of days, LeBron went from G.O.A.T. to goat.
Then Game 3, when LeBron played lockdown defense throughout the fourth quarter, threw a perfect behind-the-back pass tofor the win, and a reporter asked him in the postgame press conference whether he was shrinking from the moment. Cue the referendum again. "He's doesn't have to be a scorer to be dominant," most folks agreed. "Did you watch him on defense? Did you see the game-winning pass? Anybody can see how good he is." Back to the G.O.A.T. Every time we think we've learned something about LeBron, the conversation changes.
All this back-and-forth may seem like a curse, but if anything, it's a testament to LeBron's gifts. A lot of folks nitpick the guy just because of The Decsion, but ultimately, basketball fans agonize over this stuff because there are only a handful of players with the chance to be this great. People don't spend hours debating Chris Bosh's legacy. LeBron gets the attention for a reason.
The debates will always rage about whether he's shrinking for the moment or delivering in a different way. You can't talk about LeBron James without measuring against the greatest players ever to play the game, because measuring him against his peers is just beside the point. So we ask ourselves. Is he a more athletic Larry Bird? Could he be better than MJ? Or is he a more talented?
And just when you thought the scale was narrowing for LeBron--he'll either be better than MJ and Bird or every bit as good--the NBA Finals have given everyone pause. Now we're back to square one, wondering how, exactly, a player can be as dominant as LeBron was in that Chicago series and as invisible as he was in Game 4.
Let's be clear: He didn't just "shrink" from the moment on Tuesday. He shriveled and then disappeared. He shot 3-11 and had just 8 points, and he was invisible in the final minutes. "I've got to do a better job of being more assertive," he said afterward. Um, yeah. Assertive at all would be a start. You don't win Finals games flopping like this. At best, he settled for a long, contested jumpers. More often, he just refused to attack at all, deferring to Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh.
"I definitely didn't play great offensively," he added afterward.
...Or defensively. While he pulled a disappearing act on offense, Jason Terry made a fool of him on defense, and again, King James just looked frozen. Just watch Dirk Nowitzki's game-winning lay-up, where LeBron literally doesn't move as he stares at Dirk winning the game.
It's all kind of incredible.
This is the same guy who prompted me to call him the best player on earth two weeks ago. "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 also have games like Tuesday, apparently.
"Maybe this is all premature," I wrote then. "Lord knows we've had about five false starts with the LeBron Era in the past." And now here we are. Dirk Nowitzki's outscored LeBron James 44-9 in the fourth quarter of the NBA Finals, and the series is (somehow) tied.
It's one thing to have a bad game on a big stage, but Tuesday's display was more like surrender. It left us speechless for all the wrong reasons. How can someone that good be so incredibly irrelevant?
"What even... Did something happen?"
The greatest players in NBA History have always boggled our minds the way LeBron did against Chicago. But there's another kind of player that's just as incredible. Guys like Vince Carter, who have more talent than seems humanly possible, but somehow find a way to squander it. Whether they don't care enough, they don't work enough, or they're not tough enough. They never quite capitalize on the opportunity.
Where LeBron falls on that spectrum is up to him, and a lot comes down to what happens in the next three games of the NBA Finals. So we're back to where we started. Everything we learned in thatseries is meaningless now, and even Game 1 seems like weeks ago. But while thousands of words get spilled about his legacy today, Game 5 is just a day away.
Who knows whether he can take control of this series and his legacy all at the same time. The opportunity's still there, and now he can try to capitalize. But really... that's the thing.
Tuesday, he didn't even seem to try. In sports, that's the worst legacy of all.