OKLAHOMA CITY — Lead melting away, all the baggage of not finishing in the fourth quarter, the MVP stepped to the free throw line and — miracle of miracles — made both.
Bron-Bron looked almost all grown up, didn’t he?
Feet squared. Elbows in. Breathe and release. All net. Zero alligator arms.
LeBron James made his free throws, all four in the fourth quarter, 12 for 12 overall in the Miami Heat’s Game 2 victory on Thursday. More important for his team, they heard the most beautiful tribute imaginable in the NBA’s rowdiest arena: silence.
“I mean, I’m a confident guy,” James said afterward. “So you go to the free throw line, no matter how hostile the environment, and try to knock them down.”
This didn’t come down to a questionable non-call when Kevin Durant went to the basket and was slapped by James with 9.9 seconds left; Oklahoma City finally lost a home game for the first time this postseason because of two reasons: lousy offensive execution and LeBron making the plays that mattered.
The arena was pulsating with sound again just like late in Game 1, the Thunder was coming on strong again and a double-digit Miami lead was dissolving again. The glaring difference between Games 1 and 2, though, was defined by the barely audible sound of the public address announcer muttering the same name, over and over, in an almost clinical monotone:
Russell Westbrook levitating above the rim; Kevin Durant’s rise-and-fire jumper; James Harden launching that left-handed rainbow from his hip. It didn’t matter. Each basket, every run, was met by the equalizer from LeBron.
Miami’s victory to even the NBA Finals at one game apiece had much to do with Dwyane Wade waking from his slumber, finding his rhythm and range and delivering the kind of respectable performance befitting a Finals MVP of just six years ago.
But this was more about LeBron, his single-minded focus to make the tough shots, lower his head and shoulder and realize he is too big and strong to be guarded by anyone on Oklahoma City’s roster.
“You can’t just put one guy on me and allow him to be on an island and defend me one-on-one,” James said. “It’s about being aggressive and taking what the defense gives me. ”
There LeBron was with less than five minutes left and Chesapeake Energy Arena going berserk, all 18,000 standing as the Thunder began to rally from 17 points down in the first half and 13 down in the fourth quarter.
He could have spotted up and shot the ball, released a series of behind-the-arc bombs that careened badly off the rim. Why not? It’s happened before, all those fourth-quarter meltdowns of the mind and the soul.
A careless last minute led to Durant suddenly cutting the deficit to two points, inciting a prolonged ovation. When LeBron took one of those ugly jumpers and missed, the Thunder called time for one more shot. But Durant missed on the way to the rim. Was he fouled? Maybe. But LeBron still had to corral the rebound. He drew a foul from Westbrook.
Seven seconds left. The thought on press row was whether James would miss one or both; it occurred to almost no one that he would actually sink two to make it a two-possession game and put Oklahoma City on ice.
He did. Ballgame. Last-minute ghosts banished for the moment.
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