So now what do we do? Should we say that this was "just Game 4" and "just the second round," and downplay LeBron James' one-man obliteration of the Pacers? Should we say he is lucky he didn't have to hit a game-winning shot? Should we play the Fun With Stats game and point out the Heat only outscored the Pacers by four points with LeBron on the floor, while they were plus-17 with Mario Chalmers?
Or ... well ... here is a crazy idea: Can we just acknowledge that we are witnessing the most gifted player in basketball history?
You don't have to like him. You don't have to cheer for him. But if you care about basketball, I hope you can appreciate him. Don't let the cynics and the haters and the screaming clowns take LeBron James away from you.
He beat the Pacers in almost every way a basketball team can be beaten. He scored in the post. He blew through the lane. He made passes the Harlem Globetrotters wouldn't even try. He defended in all sorts of ways -- catching up to Leandro Barbosa to block a layup, fronting David West in the post -- and hit floaters and slammed dunks, and in the final minutes, there was LeBron James bringing the ball up the floor.
There has never been anything like this guy. James has the Bryant/Jordan athleticism in Karl Malone's body, with the court vision and passing skills of a point guard. He is the only player in the last 30 years who could, if he chose, lead the league in scoring (he did that once), assists (he could do it if he tried, because of his size, vision and the fact that defenses have to stop him from scoring first), or rebounding (if he focused on it like Ben Wallace and Dennis Rodman did, then why not?).
He finished Game 4 on Sunday with 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists, one of the greatest triple-doubles in playoff history. Yes, I know, officially it is not a triple-double because he only had nine assists. I don't care, and here is why: In the first half, James got the ball in the low post, turned to shoot, realized Louis Admundson was hovering above him, ready to block his shot, then passed across court to Mike Miller for a wide-open three. How he saw Miller, I will never understand. But he did, and the pass was perfect. Miller -- who was brought to Miami solely to hit the open threes that come from playing with James and Wade -- missed this one. Not LeBron's fault. I'm counting that as an assist.
So what do we do? We look at this unprecedented combination of basketball genius and ... harp on the only flaw we can find. He doesn't seem to want the ball in crunchtime. There is some legitimacy to the complaint, but if this is what defines his game, there is something seriously wrong with the sports world.
If LeBron keeps this up ... well, even if he does, the Heat might not win the championship. With Chris Bosh sidelined, this Heat team needs LeBron every bit as much as his last few teams in Cleveland did. Maybe more.
This is funny, and it feels like karma, but it's the truth: LeBron James left Cleveland because he was tired of trying to carry his team to a championship, and now ... he still has to carry a team to a championship, but people won't acknowledge that because the concept of Miami dominating the league with those three stars is ingrained in our brains. We have assigned them the role of heavy favorites (to be fair, this is the role they assigned themselves) and we like them in that role because then if they win it's because they gamed the system in free agency, and if they lose, then HAHAHAHAHAHA THEY LOST AGAIN.
If you watched the Heat objectively this year, you know this is not a special team. Miami has two great players, one very good one and a bunch of parts that were lying around in Pat Riley's garage. And now the very good player is in street clothes.
So now what? Are we too busy complaining about the flaws to appreciate the diamond? If the Heat win the title, I can already feel the coming storyline: LeBron "learned" to deal with pressure because we held him accountable. The critics weren't wrong, because critics are never wrong, according to critics.
The truth is that the sci-fi performance we saw Sunday has some precedents. You might think nobody has ever done this before. Guess what? LeBron has done this before.
I know that doesn't fit with the image of him in the fourth quarter, passing the ball to a teammate so he can use both hands to hold his teddy bear. But it's true. In 2009, he had 41 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Orlando. He followed that up with 44-7-12 in Game 4, and 37-12-14 in Game 5. In Game 6 he only scored 25 as his team got eliminated ... and the storyline was that he wasn't a playoff performer. I wish I were making that up.
James averaged 35.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, 7.3 assists and shot 51 percent from the floor in the 2009 playoffs, and in the public's memory, he didn't get it done when it counted.
In 2007, he scored his team's last 25 points in an overtime playoff win over the Pistons. I repeat: HE SCORED HIS TEAM'S LAST 25 POINTS. This was before we decided he was not a winner. I was there, and I've never seen anything like it. The Pistons had won a championship and nearly won another with their defense. Tayshaun Prince, one of the brightest players in the league, was guarding him. And LeBron looked like a cyborg.
The legacy of Michael Jordan colors our view of LeBron, in ways we probably don't even realize. It was Jordan who convinced us (through his play) that in basketball, the best player is supposed to win the championship. He made us believe that the best player is supposed to take the last shot, because he hit so many of them; this is why people mostly forgive Kobe Bryant for forcing so many shots late in games, while we rip James for passing too much. Sure, Bryant hurts his team, but ... he cares!
Well then, you should know: James is younger than Michael Jordan was when Jordan's Bulls won their first title.
I don't think James will win six, because most players won't win six. Jordan's sidekick, Scottie Pippen, was younger than Jordan; Wade and Bosh are both older than James. The NBA is too deep now, with too many star talents, for James to win six titles in eight years like Jordan did.
I hope he wins one, though. I hope it because, while James may be a bit narcissistic, there are a lot of narcissists in the world, and while he may be a bit insecure, there are many more insecure people, and while I hated The Decision, there are a lot of lousy television shows in this world. There is only one guy on the planet who plays basketball like this. Enjoy him.