It’s easy to forget, on nights when AmericanAirlines Arena is pulsating with sound, the Pacers are getting pounded and LeBron James and the Heat are on their way to a third straight NBA Finals, that two years ago LeBron was thought to be too psychologically small for these moments — that he gakked against Dallas, refusing to even take rudimentary jump shots and drives in the final minutes of the 2011 NBA Finals.
The Heat lost, four games to two, and it was open season on Team Collusion and its most polarizing star — LeBron, Mr. Take His Talents to South Beach.
But Monday night, that same player let the game come to him. He let the basketball do the work, zinging chest passes as soon as it touched his fingertips. LeBron used an economy of movement, playing the perfect floor game for 32 points, four assists and eight rebounds.
Wild, no, the epitome of choke just two postseasons ago has now morphed into the epitome of clutch. These moments don’t suffocate him anymore; he savors them like all the greats.
No one has taken a team to three straight Eastern Conference finals since you-know-who in 1998. No one has had a streak of dominance in the NBA like this since the Lakers went to three straight Finals from 2008 to 2010, winning two of them.
“I know he didn’t play many, but what was M.J.’s record in Game 7s?” LeBron wondered before he stepped into the trainer’s room, because that’s what the greatest players of their generation do: try to find comparisons to people they took the torch from.
The answer is 2-1; Jordan was so dominant his Bulls teams were only taken to Game 7 three times. Kobe Bryant is 5-1 in Game 7s, 3-1 without Shaquille O’Neal. Larry Bird was 6-2, Magic Johnson 3-1 — though they and Jordan all played in Game 5 eliminations.
LeBron is now 2-2, 2-0 in Game 7 of the conference finals since he came to Miami. The masses will talk and write today that Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh finally showed up when the Heat and LeBron needed them most, that Miami’s triumvirate of stars who opted to play together amid much hyperbole in the summer of 2010 finally behaved like a Big 3 instead of LeBron’s one-dimensional Cavaliers hanging out for a prolonged period in Dade County.
But this was LeBron’s series and LeBron’s game. He started to push the train in the second quarter, catching an alley-oop from Norris Cole somewhere near the scoreboard. He pointed to the sky before Cole’s pass. His eyes got big. By the time he caught the ball at its apex, LeBron’s eyes were looking down inside the rim when he caught and dunked it and a throaty roar was unleashed.
By the time he dropped in a jumper behind the free throw line with about eight minutes left, the lead had grown to 20 points. Paul George never exploited Wade like he should have, almost going at the banged-up Heat guard laterally instead of putting his head down. Roy Hibbert was a ghost in the post at times, as his Pacers teammates forgot they had a 7-foot-2 key to the series inches from the rim.
No one will remember it now, but Monday night doesn’t happen for the Heat if LeBron doesn’t win Game 1 — a game in which the Pacers had the Heat cold. Except LeBron froze for a second with 2.2 seconds left as his teammates scurried around wildly.
Then he popped out toward the ball, exploded to the rim and scored with his left hand, his off-shooting hand, at the buzzer, to virtually steal a game Indiana should have had.
The Pacers essentially had to win five games to win the series after that because they had done everything to take one except stop LeBron. That everyone simply chalked that up to a bad coaching decision by Frank Vogel or a bad defensive breakdown by George says more about how we’ve taken LeBron’s greatness for granted.
That a guy no one used to think of as money in the big moments could win that game by getting to the rim in the final 2.2 seconds — and it was viewed as effortless and easy — says everything about LeBron’s ability to grasp clutch moments instead of choke on them.
“It’s humorous looking back on it that that was once questioned,” Erik Spoelstra said.
The Heat coach was referring to the false notion that LeBron wasn’t a big-time pressure player.
“He was was there in moments, big moments, Game 7s before he even got here. That’s who he is. Our confidence level coming after Game 6 in large part was from him. He was picking everybody up after the game.”
Whatever the case, LeBron now gets it. When he was asked about his ability to get his teammates to maintain perspective before Game 7, he said, “It’s a message to myself, first of all. I started to put it in my head after we lost the Finals to Dallas: Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
“Go out there and just play basketball, something you know you can do. And then just kind of let the game flow.
“And if that message gets out to teammates and relaxes them, then so be it.
“You know, there’s always bigger things in life besides basketball,” he continued. “Certain situations come up during the season and the playoffs that remind you that this is just the game of basketball.”
By remembering that, by not getting caught up in silliness of the They’re-Going-To-Ask-Why-We-Can’t-Win-The-Big-One-Again-If-We-Lose hype, he overcame the only player to hold him down: LeBron James.
Now it’s the Spurs, the team that swept him and the Cavs in 2007. The chic pick is suddenly San Antonio, because the Spurs are rested and the Heat is beat up and coming off this grueling Pacers series that went the distance.
As much sense as it makes, it’s still impossible to bet against the best player in the world with home-court advantage, coming off the momentum of a Game 7 his team dominated.
LeBron’s team wins, in six games. The man is now at the height of his powers, and even he admitted going on midnight Monday on the dais that he blew by the one guy who could check him two years ago in the offseason.
“Ever since I lost the The Finals to Dallas, my mindframe changed that offseason . . . I think the zone and the comfort level I’m in right now happened because Dallas beat us.”
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.