With less than two minutes left, James kept his dribble when he received the ball just left of the circle. He glided to his left, the shot clock ticking down to four, three, two. He elevated for a mid-range jump shot from about 15 feet away — something a veteran like Tim Duncan would take with the time running down, right down to using the backboard.
The free throws were bigger, believe it or not.
When James drew the foul at the end, he stared down his apparent fear: the charity stripe, 15 feet from the rim. A free shot — which gave him no alibi if he missed. Just him and the ball and his greatest foe: LeBron James.
“I get the sense sometimes he doesn’t want to go to the free throw line,” Jack Ramsay, the NBA analyst who calls Heat games and does the national broadcast on ESPN radio, said before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. “I don’t know what it is, being up there all by himself or what. But sometimes I’d wish he’d just embrace that part of the game.”
If Game 2 is indicative of anything, he’s on his way.
The most frustrating thing as a basketball fan is to watch a much more athletically gifted and skilled player eye his defender on the perimeter and, just when that cat-quick move is about to be made — just when the guy guarding the superior athlete is about to be juked from his high-tops — the superior athlete settles for a long jump shot.
It’s the lazy ballplayer’s way out, and it’s happened so often with Miami the past two postseasons. For the legions that jeer LeBron and Team Collusion, it’s probably ecstasy because it’s the one surefire way for a reeling team to get back in the game with Miami.
For the hoopheads among us, it’s hell — the equivalent of stepping on the out-of-bounds line before a three-pointer — just brain lock, lousy mental toughness.
Fortitude upstairs at the end of games is the only thing missing from James’s repertoire. (Okay, a back-to-the-basket move — a go-to move that’s smooth and in the flow of the game, something that doesn’t resemble a rodeo bull angrily trying to buck its rider, would be nice, too.)
If LeBron is on his way to conquering that, and he went a long way Thursday night, the Thunder has a much tougher road ahead than imagined.
Durant finished with 32 points, coming on strong at the end again despite being in foul trouble for much of the game. But LeBron’s line — 32 points, eight rebounds, five assists and that 12-for-12 mark at the line — meant more.
“When I shoot double-digit free throws, that means I know personally I’m being aggressive when I’m getting to the rim,” James said. “At the end of the day, it’s helping our team.”
After all the K.D.-Can’t-Be-Stopped hype after Game 1, the MVP answered by seizing home-court advantage and overcoming his worst fears in the final seconds.
Memo to everyone waiting for LeBron to fail: Touche.
It’s now officially a series.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns visit washingtonpost.com/wise