He had 30 points in the first half and 45 for the game, but you knew that already. Every time LeBron James does anything, we know about it instantly, a second later everyone's talking about what it means, and the next day everyone's arguing about it. This has been LeBron's reality for the better part of a decade.
All Game 6 does is explain why.
Sure, you could say that he's the first superstar who's spent his entire professional career at the center of the Internet's 24/7 news cycle, and that's part of what created this phenomenon. Then The Decision obviously pushed things to a new level. Race probably has something to do with it, too. LeBron looks a lot more like Jim Brown than Tiger Woods, and if you don't think that threatens a majority of sports fans at least on a subconscious level, then you've probably not checked Twitter recently. He also understands exactly what he's worth, and isn't afraid to exploit his leverage. That threatens people, too. So there's probably a combination of oversaturation, resentment and subconscious fear, all of which have helped make him the most polarizing athlete in generations.
But none of it happens without his game. He's never at the center of a news cycle if his game didn't give us a reason to pay attention. ESPN never brokers a deal to air The Decision, and instead of the empowered black superstar threatening a revolution, he's just another gigantic pro athlete blending in with a thousand others.
All the LeBron hysteria exists because for years we've expected games like Thursday night. And when he's in the middle of a game like he had Thursday night, we forget about all the hysteria.
I was talking to a friend of mine in China this week, and somehow we got to talking about LeBron, and my friend said, "I love how LeBron basically just plays to his averages every night." It's true. Look back at these playoffs. Save for a 40-point game against the Pacers, LeBron scores about 30-a-game and grabs 10 rebounds. Never much less, never much more.
You'll find plenty of people who say those numbers are pretty outstanding and here he is in the Eastern Conference Finals a second straight year and we shouldn't be so hard on him and LeBron's playing a game he can't win. But come on. LeBron's a great player regardless, but the greatest players hit another level in the playoffs. Maybe not every night, but enough nights to where you're not left wondering whether they held anything back. LeBron hasn't quite gotten there. "Scorched earth" hasn't been a setting on LeBron's dial for a while now.
You watch LeBron play for the Heat in the playoffs, and it's not so much wondering whether he's holding something back, but knowing he is and wondering why. What happened to the guy who averaged 38-8-8 in a series against the Magic? The guy who scored 29 of the last 30 against the Pistons? The guy who could single-handedly unleash hell almost at will?
Last week Tom Ley coined the term "F--k You Basketball" to describe what Rajon Rondo did in Game 2 against the Celtics. It was perfect:
Rajon Rondo put up 44 points, eight rebounds, 10 assists, and three steals while committing just three turnovers. He played every single minute of a game that went into overtime and was undoubtedly the best player on the floor on a night that included five future Hall of Famers.
"It was some of the best fuck-you basketball you'll ever see," he added.
Until Game 6, when LeBron came in facing all the same outrageous, mind-bending pressure he usually does, only he decided to play better than he has his entire playoff life. He played 45 minutes, scored 45 points, made 15 rebounds look easy, posted up and abused anyone the Celtics put on him, hit backbreaking jumpers all the second half, reduced 20,000 Boston fans to stunned silence, and got the biggest win of his Heat career.
THAT is how you play f--k you basketball.
Maybe LeBron plays this way for the next three weeks and wins an NBA title. Maybe Game 5 against the Celtics in 2010 becomes a bookend to Game 6 in 2012, and he turns a corner from here and goes on to exceed all the insane expectations all over again. Or maybe that's pretty much impossible at this point.
Either way, I really didn't think he had it in him anymore. Even for one elimination game. He's one of the most self-aware superstars we've ever seen, and there's probably room for a little psychology as to why, after having the world openly root against him for two years and turn even his smallest failures into cause for media-wide celebrations, he might hold something back in vulnerable spots. Or maybe it's playing with Dwyane Wade that sorta keeps him restrained. Whatever it is, sometimes he just seems too detached to ever fully engage.
Part of this bizarre reality of his is probably my own skewed perception, reading LeBron's life like a mood ring or something. But part of it's real. Where legendary Sports Illustrated photographers aren't allowed to speak directly to him anymore, and Sports Illustrated writers come to his house and there just happens to be a book on the table that's a perfect metaphor for his struggles with identity over the course of his time in Miami. LeBron's life sometimes seems like a balance of carefully contrived interactions and hopeless isolation.
In a weird way, it makes you sympathize with the player who inspired a 69-year-old photographer to lament, "My God, I've been around Michael Jordan, but with him nothing even came close to this."
I think I've written more about LeBron than any other athlete in sports, and that's probably true for a lot of other sportswriters over the past few years. And I swear I didn't start out writing this expecting it to be another stupid overwrought essay about LeBron James, but it's just impossible to have a serious conversation about LeBron and separate him as a player from the oceans of peripheral bullshit that've engulfed the past few years of his career.
Except for 45 minutes Thursday night, when none of it mattered.
When instead of floating in the corners during the biggest moment of Miami's season and opening the door for endless questions, LeBron was posting people up at the free throw line, taking people off the dribble, nailing jumpers in people's face, and playing f--k you basketball at its finest. At one point during the second half Thursday, I just burst out laughing and high-fived a friend sitting next to me.
At his best, LeBron doesn't mean anything. He's not the face of Everything Wrong With Sports or some budding global icon. He just makes the rest of us feel lucky to be watching. I don't know if he can do it again Saturday night, and he definitely isn't going to play like that every game, so one way or another, the burden of all this bullshit will probably continue for him and us both.
But at least for a night, we got a chance to remember why we cared so much about LeBron in the first place, and he made you forget about everything that's gotten in the way since. And it was awesome.