MIAMI -- LeBron James was accused of taking the easy way to his breakthrough championship, but the last two years have been anything but easy. He was five minutes and 49 seconds away from the brink of his ultimate goal when he found himself sliding and falling to the floor. He lost control of the ball and he had to be worrying if he was going to lose the game and the NBA Finals along with it. Was this how it was going to end again?
"I knew I wasn't injured," he would say in the calm following the Heat's dramatic 104-98 win in Game 4 that leaves them one win away from the NBA championship.
They will enter Game 5 here Thursday with a 3-1 lead, with thanks to a couple of point guards who rarely are allowed to handle the ball, and with thanks as well to the last two years that have galvanized Miami to deal with the leg cramps that brought James down Tuesday night. After he lost his balance and watched his teammates stop Derek Fisher from turning his turnover into a free basket, James pushed himself up, caught a pass from Mario Chalmers and finished it off the backboard. Then he limped back downcourt and 20 seconds later was hobbling to the bench for a time out, during which he laid himself out along the ground in pain.
Someday James may be able to look back on this ending as the strangest kind of favor to his damaged reputation. Michael Jordan overcame the flu once to win a game in the Finals, and maybe, in less dramatic tones, they'll talk about the night James recovered from painful leg cramps to make a huge three that finished the big turn he has been navigating for himself and his vilified franchise over this long redemptive season.
In the arena they were trying to play the normally inspiring and celebratory music that rouses the fans during a timeout, but they weren't buying it. The fans were standing and staring down toward the corner of the court where James was obscured by his teammates. James' basket had given them a 92-90 lead, but his teammates were returning to the floor without him, and in his absence Russell Westbrook was now the best player on the court. He was on his way to scoring 43 points (20 of 32) in a more muscular version of the magnificent game the Heat had endured from Boston's Rajon Rondo in the previous round.
The Heat survived that long night from Rondo, and they would overcome Westbrook, too. "Heat fans, you are the greatest in the world!" someone was shouting into a microphone, when in fact they were quiet and standing funereally. James, who was supposed to bring not one, not two, not three -- you know how the rest of it goes -- was not coming out of the huddle. They watched Shane Battier foul Kevin Durant for the free throws that instantly tied the game.
At 4:36, James limped back to the scorer's table to a roar. He sat hunched forward on the table, watching Durant (28 points as Westbrook's sidekick) draining a midrange jumper to give the Thunder a brief 94-92 lead. There was 2:51 remaining when James found himself alone at the top of the key against Thabo Sefolosha, who surprisingly respected the threat of James to drive. He invited James to step into a three with the shot-clock nearing expiration and that was the shot that might have cemented James' recovery from the mistakes of the previous Finals, when he affirmed the worst opinions of him by not putting up a fight last year. Now he was fighting to give his team a 97-94 lead. He would finish with 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, and his final three was crucial to Miami's game-ending 12-4 run, and so long as Miami goes onto finish the job then that last shot may yet serve as James' answer to all of the questions his own play had raised about him in previous postseasons.
Coming out of another timeout with a 99-94 lead to protect over the final 2:18, James was confronted by Wade (25 points) and then by Chris Bosh (13 points and nine rebounds), both of whom were rallying him to see it through. At last coach Erik Spoelstra removed him during a subsequent timeout with 55.5 seconds remaining, and James didn't fight him. "I didn't fight anything at that point," he said. "I just put the faith in my teammates. I've got a lot of faith in them, and I love them for the way they played tonight."
It became the night when Mario Chalmers overcame a pre-existing 2 for 18 shooting slump to finish with 25 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter. He had studied video to notice that he had been rushing his shots, and now he was able to slow himself down as the pressure was heightened. "He actually thinks he's the best player on the team," said Wade of Chalmers, who led Kansas to the NCAA championship before joining the Heat as a second-round pick in 2008. "What it says on his arm, Mr. Clutch, that clutch gene, you've got to be born with it," said Wade. "And he has it."
No Heat player is criticized more by his teammates than Chalmers, who is routinely lectured or scolded by James, Wade or Bosh on the court after mistakes have been made. It is amazing to see Chalmers survive those verbal whippings with so much confidence intact that he would be able to respond to Westbrook's 17-point fourth quarter by draining a three of his own, followed by a floating jumper midway through the period. While a trainer was kneading James' cramped right thigh in the final minute, Chalmers was returning to the floor to see Wade being hounded beyond the three-point arc by Sefolosha. Wade relayed the ball to Chalmers who drove inside Westbrook and then windmilled a drive over Serge Ibaka to restore Miami's advantage to 101-96 with 44.6 seconds left. A half-minute later Chalmers was sinking a pair of free throws for the five-point lead that essentially finished off the Thunder.
In the first half it was the eight points from rookie point guard Norris Cole that helped Miami recover from an early 17-point deficit, and now it was Chalmers who was turning the Heat's position of weakness into the kind of strength worthy of a trophy.
The difference between these teams was revealed when James went down. If Oklahoma City had the kind of mentality that the Heat have taken on since last season, then the Thunder would be looking forward to Game 5 with an opportunity to take a 3-2 lead of their own. Instead of being inspired by James' ailment to punish Miami while they had this chance, the Thunder looked distracted and unfocused. But it has been that way for three games now. Miami has taken it to them, instead of the other way around.
"I'm feeling a lot better," said James after being rehydrated following the game. "I lost a lot tonight, but I will be ready."
This might have been the Thunder's last chance to prove that the Heat hadn't learned from last year after all. Now all that's left is for them to celebrate the hard work. There hasn't been anything easy about it, and that's why it is going to matter so much when it finally comes to be.