He needed to win Game 2 on Thursday more than Kevin Durant or Dwyane Wade or any of the other famous names at the NBA Finals. And yet he appeared to be in control of an all-meaning fourth quarter as he never had since his infamous move to Miami two long Julys ago.
"It meant everything,'' James said of the Heat's 100-96 win to even the Finals at 1-1 before they regather with the Thunder for three straight games in Miami. "We had played too well in the first 36 minutes to let this one slip away from us.''
He was emerging as a more athletic version of Magic Johnson that the NBA scouts had envisioned going back to his teenage years. As each possession grew more important than the last, he dribbled from atop the three-point line in his Magic crouch, milking away the seconds before sizzling a backhand pass across the court, or driving past Thabo Sefolosha or James Harden to earn layups or those free throws that now promise to define him. Or so he hopes.
At last he had become the big point guard who could see the entire floor in the biggest moments of the biggest game, and his options had never been so abundant as they were now. James had Wade encircling him as a ruthless and versatile finisher who would strike for 24 points and five assists, and he had Chris Bosh as a third option to generate 16 points and 15 rebounds.
The big difference was in LeBron himself. After operating from the perimeter in a Game 1 loss, in which he played to the style of his former self, he opened Game 2 by setting up near the basket and attacking whenever possible. The Heat opened a crucial 18-2 lead, but more impressive was their finishing down the stretch as Russell Westbrook and Durant threatened to see if the Heat would wilt.
It's still early, and there will be many more fourth quarters to be dueled against Durant, but this was the kind of result James had been seeking on the biggest stage, and it was the kind of leadership that made his teammates want to sign up with him. They have been in this together for two years of vilification and second-guessing, and neither Wade nor Bosh has ever publicly regretted having attached his good name to the nasty carnival that has been created around LeBron. They've had faith that a night like this would come.
Already the Heat had recovered from previous series deficits against the Pacers and Celtics, which renewed their faith in James' leadership. After trailing 0-1 in these Finals, they sat through what coach Erik Spoelstra called a "nauseating film session'' to review their opening-game mistakes, which included too many jump shots and not nearly enough transition defense. Later Wednesday at practice Spoelstra called the "red team'' of starters onto the floor, and Bosh walked out with James and Wade to signify that he was ready to return to the lineup in his comeback from an abdominal strain that just last month had threatened to sideline him for the remainder of postseason.
Now consider the strong Game 2 start of Wade, who has been suffering through so many poor first halves in this postseason that he took it upon himself to work out hard on the court in the hours before this game Thursday. He went at it for close to 45 minutes, as if he wanted to make sure he was ready to play from the jump, and the early reliability of Wade and Bosh (10 points and 10 rebounds at halftime) provided Miami with a 17-point lead by the 10th minute.
James didn't explode for his now typical 32 points, eight rebounds and five assists. He has tried that explosive, face-up style in the past and has seen that it hasn't taken him nearly as far as he needs to go. No, this was a steady raining of points that was depressing to the Thunder for its monotonous consistency. He missed more shots (12) than he made (10), but he was 12-for-12 from the free throw line. He backed in when he needed to, as he had taught himself to do over the past year following his fourth-quarter collapses against the Mavericks in last year's Finals. He looks nothing like that lost soul anymore.
"We want to play to the identity of who we are,'' Spoelstra said after this win.
It was one of his talking points, but it's also true that the Heat identity has been under construction constantly and was evolving even as this game moved from the third quarter and into the fourth. That was when Miami's early lead had been sliced again and again by the first-half scoring of Harden (21 points overall on 7-of-11 shooting) and then the second-half bursts of Durant and Westbrook, who combined for 44 points after the intermission.
When they joined together last season, James and Wade in particular were supposed to form the most frightening transition pairing in the NBA, and they were expected to play fluidly together in pick-and-roll. But that original vision has changed realistically and for the better.
In this series they found themselves ironically trying to slow the game in order to keep Durant, Westbrook and Harden out of the open floor. Instead of running pick-and-roll with Wade, James spent the second half working off screens supplied by Bosh or crucial first-year teammate Shane Battier, whose 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting included a banked-in three-pointer from well behind the arc to boost Miami's lead (momentarily) to 90-83 with 5:08 remaining.
After all they've survived over the last couple of years, the Heat were never going to allow themselves to be routed by the Thunder. Could they, however, close out on the league's most difficult visitors' floor?
Wade would make a couple of high-difficulty turnaround jumpers in the final six minutes. But the conclusion to this win was going to be supplied at both ends by James.
"When I shoot double-digit free throws,'' James said, "that means I know I'm being aggressive when I'm getting to the rim.''
When Wade lost possession at midcourt to provide Westbrook with a transition dunk to narrow Miami's advantage to 94-91 with 1:47 to go, James responded with the kind of play that was supposed to be beyond him. He drove to his left, peeling away farther from the hoop than most of his previous runs, and banked in a ridiculously hard fallaway jumper.
At the other end of the floor he had been guarding Durant for much of the fourth. Durant would finish with 32 points despite persistent foul trouble, and James had come off him to deal with a penetrating drive by Westbrook that was kicked out to Durant for a three-pointer to make it 98-96 entering the final half-minute. James was angry with himself for that mistake, and when he failed to answer with a three of his own, he knew the Thunder would spend the final 12.3 seconds running a play for his Durant.
"He got a small step on me, I just wanted to try to keep a body on him, make him take a tough shot,'' James said.
Durant's run at the basket stalled up against James, and his shot front-rimmed. So now the ball is in Durant's court, first of all to prevent a Miami sweep at home, and then to give his team a 3-2 lead for its anticipated return to Oklahoma City. Durant is his generation's Kobe Bryant when it comes to winning games at the end, but now he faces a new challenge. For James has learned how to control the pace of play, and at last to finish what he has started.