In case you didn't hear, LeBron James was back in Ohio facing the Cavs Wednesday, and at this point there's just no better show in sports than watching LeBron play basketball. What happened Wednesday was just more proof.
The game started with a 30-minute delay because of CO2 Cannisters leaking onto the court, and it only got stranger from there. The Cavs were (somehow) dominating, and for the first time in two months the Heat looked like they were finally having an off night. Midway through the third quarter, a Tyler Zeller three-point play gave Cleveland a 27-point lead, the crowd was going insane, and for Miami it looked like one of those crappy, forgettable nights that happen to even the best teams. After 23 straight wins, Miami was due for one of those nights.
Then theMiami Heat happened, and LeBron happened. They started chipping away and, with LeBron at the center of everything, the ball started whipping around the court and every other possession ended with a wide-open Heat jumper. LeBron's most impressive play of the night was actually a cross-court pass from the opposite post that hit a wide-open Ray Allen for three. Ray missed the shot, but it was still the most ridiculous pass I've seen all year. And the Heat just kept coming.
Soon the Cavs lead was 20, then 15, and then 12. By the time Miami cut it to single digits, the Cavs were already dead. By that point it was just a question of how.
How: Aside from grabbing what felt like 25 rebounds over the final two quarters and leading the ball movement that created wide-open looks against a helpless Cavs defense, the comeback peaked in the fourth quarter with this sequence:
- LeBron caught an inbounds pass, pivoted out behind the three-point line and stared down CJ Miles for a solid three seconds before draining a three in his face.
- He caught an awkward lob from Mario Chalmers during a 2-on-1 fastbreak, missed the layup, but muscled everyone out of the way for a loose ball on the floor and an easy putback.
- Two plays later, a pull-up three. Tie game. LeBron stopped to stare at the crowd.
- And then, after Shaun Livingston gave the Cavs hope with a made jumper to retake the lead, LeBron came back down and hit one more three to take the lead right back.
Cleveland never led again. And that's how LeBron James murdered a basketball team Wednesday night, just like he'd done to the Celtics two nights earlier.
It was so ruthless. But this is just what he does now.
LeBron had 7 points, 5 assists and 2 rebounds midway 3Q. He finished w/ 25* points, 10 assists and 12 rebounds. Heat win.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) March 21, 2013
The comeback itself was its own kind of insanity, but what was crazier was sitting at home and rooting for LeBron to pull it off. Imagine that three years ago, when LeBron first came back to Cleveland and the whole world rooted for the Cavs to pull off a miracle.
Here, the Cavs were pulling off a miracle, and somehow I was sitting at home rooting for LeBron to wake up, get diabolical, and silence everyone.
People HATED LeBron. I hated LeBron. Not just because he left Cleveland, or The Decision, or the way he disappeared during that one Celtics series, or his insufferable Free Agency World Tour, or the scores of questionably sourced stories that made him seem like kind of a douchebag, or his phenomenally tone-deaf first year in Miami that confirmed our suspicions, or the NBA Finals disaster that shocked even his deepest skeptics. It wasn't any one thing, but all of it together. There was just too much BS we had to buy into with LeBron and not quite enough payoff.
Now it's all different. We're done asking stupid questions about whether he can win a title, whether he's everything that's wrong with sports or whether he's worth the hype. It turns out LeBron has turned into exactly the player the hype promised us all along, and somehow even better. At any given time on any floor in the NBA, he can be the most dominant defender, passer, rebounder and scorer. Wednesday, he was all of those things.
It was perfect that it happened in Cleveland, too, to make this all a little more obvious. Nobody was rooting for Cleveland to pull off the miracle because it's not about Cleveland anymore. Any opponent becomes irrelevant when someone's playing this well. It doesn't matter if we all love Kevin Durant, or what a win would mean for Cleveland. We'll all be secretly rooting for LeBron by the end, just because he's that incredible, so we want him to be as incredible as possible, just to say we saw it. With that said, Wednesday reminded of another game I'd seen as a kid.
Bill Clinton and Gheorghe Muresan were in the house that night. It was Feb. 21, 1997. The Bulls were in town, and the Bullets were working with a nucleus of Rod Strickland, Calbert Cheaney, Juwan Howard and Muresan, because life was just great. Chris Webber was hurt. The next day was my 10th birthday, and my birthday present that year was a trip with my dad to Bulls-Bullets at U.S. Air Arena in Landover, Md. And even Clinton made that horrible journey from D.C. to Landover, so you knew it was a big game.
Every Bulls game was big by that point. The Bulls were defending champs, Michael Jordan was the biggest star on the planet, we knew we were watching one of the greatest players ever and every game he played was its own piece of the history.
Jordan struggled early that night, so Scottie Pippen picked up the slack with 20 points in the first half, keeping the Bulls comfortably in control. Then the Bullets made a run to make it a one-point game in the fourth quarter, and it looked like the game might get interesting.
Then Michael Jordan happened. He scored the next 15 points for Chicago in the fourth quarter, ultimately finishing with 36 points and scoring 18 of the Bulls' final 22 points. He also guarded Rod Strickland and shut him down over the final six minutes.
I don't actually remember much from the game. The details come from this Baltimore Sun recap I found Wednesday night. But I remember what a big deal it was having the President at a Bullets game, and I remember the D.C. crowd going nuts for Jordan throughout that fourth quarter. Nobody in the stadium even pretended to care about the Bullets, including my dad. More than anything else, I remember afterward, walking through a massive Landover parking lot with my dad telling me over and over again how lucky I was to have seen Michael Jordan play in person.
That's where we are with LeBron. Where the perfection's effortless, the execution's ruthless, and it happens basically every night. Whether he can match Jordan's success is a whole different question, but we're already seeing him match the dominance. Maybe it'll change, maybe he'll stop playing like this, maybe he'll never win another title for any number of reasons. But that's where we are at exactly this moment. We're just lucky to be watching. He's our Michael Jordan, and if that sounds completely blasphemous, it's also pretty obvious.
I hate even bringing up the Jordan conversation because it leads to all kinds of stupid arguments. But still. It's a stupid comparison, but it's quickly becoming the only comparison. We've seen plenty of great players in between Jordan and LeBron, but there hasn't been a force of nature like LeBron James since Michael Jordan. If that's not technically a fact, then hopefully it's a feeling we'll all agree on soon.
I'm too young to remember whenever it was that people stopped bitching about Michael Jordan being a selfish asshole who can't win and started gushing over his every move, but we're all old enough now to laugh at all the past LeBron bitching and enjoy what he's doing this year. And understand exactly what he's become in today's NBA.
That old article on the Bullets game ends with a quote from Phil Jackson. As he says of Jordan, "There is a point in the game where he is going to take over and destroy a team."
You gotta admit, it sounds awfully familiar.