Someday, LeBron James is going to win a championship. He is only 26 years old, and he currently has as many NBA championships as Michael Jordan did at that age. When that happens, we won’t forget about his performance in the Heat’s 105-95 loss to the Mavericks tonight, but it will be folded into a narrative. It will be Act 1 of the LeBron Journey, when he learned What It Took to become a champion. It’ll be his lowest professional moment and the beginning of his redemption. That’s going to happen when (if? maybe?) LeBron wins a title. His performance in these Finals will be sanitized, scrubbed, the beginning of the comeback. So … enjoy this now. We expect you are. We certainly are.
Yes, the sports world is so aflame in schadenfreude at this point that it’s hard to remember that the Mavericks won, that Dirk Nowitzki has secured his legend, that Jason Kidd finally has his ring, that Mark Cuban celebrated the championship he has spent millions upon millions to procure in just about the most classy way imaginable, making commissioner David Stern give the trophy to Donald Carter, the original owner of the Mavs. (Carter is the former owner of the team that Cuban gets along with.) Dallas was a worthy champion, and people only give such a halfhearted compliment to the winner when they were desperately cheering for their opponent to lose.
That is what everyone was doing tonight, and you could almost include the Heat, who looked nervous, tight, and terrified the entire second half. Particularly the fourth quarter, when, on one memorable possession with four minutes left, they passed up about six different open shots, dishing it around for someone else to take the shot, as if the ball contained anthrax, or maybe just a naked photo of a congressman. The possession ended, as it had to, with a turnover.
That possession, and the fourth quarter, was not entirely LeBron James’s fault. But that’s all anyone cared about. LeBron hears so many voices in his head screaming at him to be transcendent that he forgets it’s enough merely to be great … that is, to be LeBron. Collectively, it’s fun for people to root against LeBron in part because of all the hubris that led him to this point, but mostly because we’re pretty sure he can hear us. That was never more evident than tonight, when he once again shrank at the worst times. Our sports culture is so obsessed with Michael Jordan or, more accurately, the narrative we’ve created for him that LeBron’s attempts to find the best shot, whether he’s shooting it or not, are more unforgivable than if he were to take twenty shots and miss them all. And look at this stat from Nate Silver: “For the series, Heat were outscored by 36 with LeBron on the floor. But they outscored Dallas by 22 with him on the bench.” Good gracious.
It’s probably not fair. It’s certainly going to feel silly when LeBron eventually wins that first title. But for now? For tonight? For this Heat season, that began with that night on ESPN and went through the welcome party and the “it’s King James” and the mock cough … It feels good. It feels like justice.