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NBA Finals 2012: LeBron James deserves his due after tough performance in Game 4

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MIAMI — It’s getting harder and harder to keep referring to LeBron James as a king without a throne. By Thursday night, it might be impossible.

With little more than five minutes left in a Game 4 gem Tuesday night that felt as seminal as any elimination game, LeBron came up lame. Carried from the court by Juwan Howard, a hush fell over American Airlines Arena — a worry almost as great as the euphoria that swept over the building when he rushed back to the scorer’s table to re-enter the game less than a minute later.

Hobbling with leg cramps, he could only give the Miami Heat three minutes of physical fortitude and skill before his body betrayed him again and he sat for the final minute. But those three minutes — featuring an assist and a monstrous three-pointer to give the Heat the lead for good — were enough to propel Miami to a three-games-to-one lead over Oklahoma City in the NBA Finals, a deficit no team in league history has recovered from since the 2-3-2 Finals format was introduced.

Whatever his condition and availability for Game 5 here on Thursday night, when the Heat can clinch its second title in franchise history and the first in the LeBron era, he chiseled his name into the annals of clutch playoff performances in June — a Willis Reed Lite moment that goes down as one of his most memorable postseason games and easily his most resilient.

“What did it feel like?” LeBron asked rhetorically. “I mean, I don’t know. I mean, you have to play sports and get a cramp to understand the feeling. It’s basically like your body just shuts down, your legs shut down on you, there’s nothing you can really do about it.”

He returned to the game, the Heat trailing by a bucket, and settled down his team. He dropped in a three-point bomb that made the arena explode with noise. Just like that, the guy who referred to himself as “King James” is within one victory of obtaining the hardware to validate the nickname.

Now comes the bigger question: He’s one victory from winning it the old-fashioned way — by earning it, by going through a gantlet of very good teams and very good players. Will he be able to catch a break in the perception department? Or will the entrenched and jaded among us still root against him because we are unable to alter our Bron-Bron biographies? Can we change the story we’ve imprinted in our mind about LeBron’s petulance, arrogance and braggadocio, stories that don’t quite square with what’s happening at the moment?

Or will we sail right past the notion that the MVP’s heart and head have just about caught up to his talent?

Bottom line, after all the bravado and buildup, after the postseason disappointment and the outright derision that followed “The Decision,” James is moving quickly toward one of those natural NBA ascensions.

Michael Jordan, after all, took seven years to finally scale Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons and be anointed king. Isiah waited for years to get past Larry and then Magic for his championship. In the same vein, LeBron has impatiently waited his turn, eight years and counting.

Other than Boston being a thorn for a couple of seasons, LeBron hasn’t had one or two franchises necessarily keeping him down but instead a more driven and focused player with more experience and fourth-quarter savvy. That player — be it Tony Parker in 2007, Kevin Garnett in 2008 or, last season, Dirk Nowitzki, a player who waited as long as any future Hall of Famer.

Kevin Durant, four years younger, doesn’t have that experience. And as good as Westbrook was in Game 4 — 43 points on jackknifing drives to the rim and stop-and-pop jumpers that swished through all night - the Thunder isn’t ready.

James Harden has given up his Sixth Man of the Year title in this series to Shane Battier, a role player if there ever was one. Forget about all the three-pointers that have splashed down on the Thunder. Battier’s tip off a jump ball to Mario Chalmers in the final seconds ensured this victory.

It was a championship play by a guy trying to give the MVP of the NBA his first title since high school.

Entering Game 4 of the Finals up 2-1 for the second straight year, LeBron and the Heat could have billed Game 4 simply as “Now what?” At the exact same juncture a year ago, albeit with two games remaining on their home court to tighten their grip on the series, so much theater prefaced Tuesday night’s encounter.

LeBron even had a player calling him out prior to Game 4 like he did in Dallas. Instead of Jason Terry saying LeBron couldn’t guard him for seven games, the Thunder’s Serge Ibaka — a member of the league’s all-defensive team with LeBron — said LeBron is “not a good defender,” that he essentially could not check Durant for an entire game, which LeBron called “stupid.”

Okay, it’s not the Bad Boys putting a bounty on Jordan. But you take controversy where you can get it in these heretofore highly respectful Finals.

Game 4 grew nastier, more physical — more personal. At stake was just about everything. Miami loses, and it would have to return to Oklahoma City for a Game 6, to the loudest arena in the league. The Thunder loses, and it would have history weighing it down — an ominous Game 5 that could end its season.

And just as Durant started making big shots, just as another great player was about to threaten to shoot down his season, LeBron found a way to get back on the court and help end this game and close the door on Oklahoma City.

“Between now and Game 5, just try to rehydrate,” LeBron said of his cramps. “I lost a lot tonight, but I will be ready.”

It’s probably the worst thought for the legions of LeBron detractors who have spent much of the past eight years enjoying watching him struggle and ultimately not get the ring, but it’s time to face the truth: It might just be his turn now. As he said earlier in the week, the pain of losing last year — of not doing enough down the stretch — fueled this run more than anything.

If he can walk, he will play in Game 5. If not, he has still set up his team for the first title of the LeBron James era in Miami.

It’s time we all started giving him his due, started celebrating him for the persevering champion he is about to be instead of denigrating him for the scowling, sour-faced runner-up he was.

In sports and in life, they call this moving on. LeBron has. Can you?

For Mike Wise’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

More on the NBA: Heat takes commanding 3-1 series lead Box score: Heat 90, Thunder 88 Post Sports Live: Discussing the Finals Photos: Scenes from the series Complete NBA Finals schedule

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