Dwyane Wade had a message and a reminder for his teammate when it ended: “Congratulations, LeBron, you just won your first NBA Finals game.”
Either way, win or lose, hoist that big, beautiful gold ball in triumph or humbly bow his head in defeat, LeBron already owns these NBA Finals. They are his the way the 1991 Finals were Michael Jordan’s and the 2000 Finals belonged to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal — the way the entire basketball community anxiously waited to see if the child stars had yet matured into championship adults.
The Heat was too defensive for Dirk Nowitzki and Dallas, and as white hankies rain down from the rafters of American Airlines Arena, Miami moved three wins away from Team Collusion’s stated goal.
Good sign for the Heat: Jose Barea, Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic, who looked like a deer in headlights, missed 17 of the 21 shots they took. Dallas can’t win this without its bench outperforming Miami’s.
LeBron had a nice line — 24 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists to 1 turnover, even if he didn’t score in the fourth quarter until the game was decided.
Now here comes the double-edged sword for LeBron the next two weeks: He needs to close or the criticism won’t cease.
A great, young player only is afforded so many years to grow up and become king before the derision becomes more damning than “The Decision.”
Michael needed a grueling seven seasons to win it all. Kobe needed just four to win a title, but that’s mainly because he had Shaq, who before he won was eviscerated as a B-movie-making, hip-hopping lug more interested in studio time than court time.
When the Lakers won, the wait was over — not just for Shaq and Kobe, but for a league patiently biding its time before another star-laden team could help fill the void left by Michael’s Bulls.
Let’s be clear: A victory by LeBron and his Super Friends is important for David Stern’s NBA, almost as important as it is for the Heat and its 26-year-old supernova. Indeed, as the ball left LeBron’s hand at the end of the third quarter Tuesday night, deep on the right wing behind the three-point line, the league needed that swish almost as much as he did.
Of course this is also about whether the Mavericks can win a title in the Dirk Nowitzki era — whether Dirk and Jason Kidd will join Elgin Baylor, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Charles Barkley as some of the greatest players to never celebrate an NBA championship.
But mostly this is about LeBron. Four years after his last appearance in the championship round, the next two weeks represent a referendum on his progress as an all-time great player. It’s easy to measure.
The Heat wins and he is ready to take Kobe’s place as the most necessary, must-see player in pro basketball. Miami loses, and LeBron is 0-2 in the Finals with two different teams. Completing his eighth season without a title, he would also have been in the league one year longer than when Michael won his first title. Jordan had two championships at the completion of his eighth season.
LeBron is not the heir apparent to Michael, so let’s stop that foolishness now. No, the most accomplished player since Michael will continue to be Kobe, at least until the Heat reels off three or more in a row. But LeBron can already be called the best player since Kobe, and if the Heat beat the Mavericks the baton will be officially passed. The only thing better for the NBA is if Kobe grabs it back in the Finals a year from now.
Part of me wants to see the changing of the guard up close and personal. When Michael took the torch from Magic Johnson in 1991 with an otherworldly performance — the flourish with the left hand when Jordan could have tomahawked the ball through the rim is still an indelible image — there was no question Jordan had assumed ownership of Bird and Magic’s world.
I’m still waiting for that iconic moment from LeBron, that dagger three-pointer to win a playoff game at the buzzer, a dunk with the kind of malice Kevin Durant had for Brendan Haywood in the Western Conference finals.
The culmination of LeBron’s game on both ends, going to the floor for a loose ball as he did in the final seconds against the Bulls in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, hitting all those off-balance, hands-in-his-face long jumpers to fuel a wild 18-3 Heat run to end Game 5 and the series — all of it exceptional and overwhelming for his opponent.
But you know what LeBron’s defining moment in his professional life to date is . . . “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.”
That’s right, a made-for-prime-time special to essentially break up with the team and town that employed him the first seven years of his career.
Oh, the night he detonated in Game 5 of the 2007 conference finals against the Pistons was surreal. But he followed that up with a 22-point average in the Finals against the Spurs, who swept the Cavaliers.
Going into Game 1, LeBron was actually looking for his first Finals win. With four minutes left in the fourth quarter, he had not scored since that three-pointer to end the third. That’s not putting your stamp on the most important game of the season to date; that’s coasting to victory on the back of Dwyane Wade’s jump shot and Chris Bosh’s free throws.
But then, when a championship is three games away, and a fidgety LeBron James has been waiting this long, maybe it doesn’t matter.
Winning it all makes us view players through different prisms, especially the ones who proclaim themselves “King James” before there is anything remotely royal about them.
Win or lose, this is about whether LeBron is ready to ascend the throne that David Stern’s league has all but polished for him.