MIAMI – Early in the fourth quarter of Sunday's Game 1 win, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra looked the NBA's MVP in the eye and said, "You cannot get tired."
Normally, LeBron James starts the final quarter on the bench, but the coach decided the game was too close, Chris Bosh was out with an injury and, as Spoelstra put it, "We needed him."
James did not get tired. He had 16 points in the fourth quarter alone to help his team run away from the Pacers. The newly minted MVP was unstoppable down the stretch.
But why did it even come to this?
Game 1 was surprisingly close throughout, and the Heat didn't take control until the final minutes. James scored only six points in the first half. He attempted two free throws. It seemed like every play was James hustling the ball up court, slamming on the brakes, peeling back and then throwing it to someone else. That's even what happened leading up to Bosh's injury: James was close enough to the basket to finish or draw a foul, but he deferred and Bosh got hurt underneath the glass. This isn't to say James is responsible for a teammate's injury – he wasn't – but a bull in a china shop shouldn't be so hesitant to, you know, break some things.
We all know the answer: James wants to be the consummate teammate. But Wade, who is a consummate teammate, is almost always ferocious. "Flash" bolted for the basket from the beginning of Game 1 like a dad who saw his infant about to fall down the stairs. He went to the line 14 times and made 13 of his tries. There's no reason James shouldn't do the same. The calls that went for Pacers center Roy Hibbert in the first round went against him Sunday, so it's not like the referees aren't going to give him the benefit of the doubt. James himself calls the Heat "an attack team," and it shouldn't take a close playoff game and an injury to a teammate for him to attack. Go to the rack, go to the stripe, go to the Finals. Period.
The Pacers deserve credit for hanging so tough. But the Heat had leads of 35 points or more in their first two games against Indiana this season. The Pacers were playing in their first ABC game since 2006. In a home game, after an MVP ceremony which the visitors were forced to watch, the Pacers should have been bulldozed. James should have had plenty of time to "get tired" in the fourth quarter. Bosh's injury put the Heat in a spot, but Miami was losing the entire time the starting center was in the game.
Hibbert said it best of LeBron: "He's like a freight train coming. You can't second-guess. You have to get between him and the basket. You're going to get called for the foul or you're going to get dunked on."
When an All-Star center faces that kind of prisoner's dilemma, the game should be impossible for him. And in the end, it was. James was phenomenal in a fourth quarter that traditionally hasn't belonged to him. He never had to make a clutch shot, which is what everyone is waiting to see in these playoffs, but he was dominant. His defense was suffocating. Danny Granger was held to seven points and didn't seem like he was anywhere on the floor. It just seems strange that James' surge took so long. Even at the end of the third quarter, with the game going back and forth, James false-started on a drive, faded away and shot an airball. The home crowd, all decked out in white MVP headbands to cheer their superstar like 19,000 John McEnroe worshippers, groaned in frustration.
Watching James is like watching a Ferrari stuck in traffic. You know what it can do, and you want to see it happen, but the driver just revs and moves along. Meanwhile the other guy, Wade in the black Lambo, veers into the breakdown lane and guns it, well aware that he can pay any ticket.
Is the bar too high for James? Are the expectations too far-fetched? Isn't 32 points in a playoff game enough? Sure. But LeBron James has three MVPs now, and no less than David Stern put his name in the same sentence on Sunday as three-time winners Magic and Larry. James is that talented. He's perhaps the most gifted basketball player ever. But instead of being the gift that keeps on giving, he's the gift that keeps refusing to take.
Maybe one day he will be able to FINISH and be crowned what he THINKS he is... the greatest..