In sports, there’s a long-running argument that involves whether one team won a game, or the other team lost it. Now, unless that game featured some historically bad choke job or heroic effort, the answer usually lies somewhere in the middle. And yet, in the wake of last night’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, all the talk seems to be centered on the Pacers. On Frank Vogel’s strategic ineptitude. Or Roy Hibbert not speaking up. Or Paul George’s critical defensive lapse.
But let’s not forget one other key thing here.
LeBron James is a demigod on the basketball court. And that’s just not something any game planning, or play drawing or even 7 feet and 2 inches worth of physical resistance can make up for. Last year’s Game 6 versus the Celtics was undoubtedly one of the all-time great playoff performances. That was LeBron James transmogrifying before our very eyes. It was Neo in the Matrix realizing his ultimate potential. Last night, LeBron James was the Matrix Reloaded version. The one where he takes on 10,000 Agent Smith’s in the form of every last drop of Pacers effort and reinforces what everyone — the Pacers likely included — already knows in the back of their minds: There is nothing that can stop this man.
With a hobbled Dwyane Wade and a hurting Mario Chalmers not doing much to help, LeBron James endured every one of Indiana’s haymakers. From David West’s efficient hot streaks, to Roy Hibbert’s glasswork to Paul George’s late game heroics.
None of it mattered.
Even with just a click over two seconds left on the clock and a Miami crowd (the ones who weren’t texting or incessantly kissing their arm candy every two seconds) looking increasingly panicked, it all seemed inevitable. This wasn’t the LeBron James, bending the court to his will and eviscerating the Celtics from a year ago. No, this was perhaps an even more sinister version. One that calmly walked onto the court with the game on the line, looked the Pacers in their eyes, and then proceeded to rip the hearts out of their chests without even a hint of emotion. LeBron James may have crushed the Celtics last year, but he did something even more ruthless to the Pacers. He crushed their spirits.
The stat line read nice and neat. 30-10-10. An almost ideal set of numbers that seems befitting of the player that embodies basketball perfection. Whatever you think of LeBron James, ‘The Decision’ or the ridiculous Miami pep rally that welcomed him to South Beach, it’s become impossible to deny even for the staunchest detractors – LeBron James has become the player we all knew he could be. Indeed, we are all witnesses.
It’s hard to see the Pacers rebounding from such a devastating loss. It’s a game that created a ton of ‘What if’s’ and ‘Could haves.’ One would assume that for the Pacers, that kind of mental anguish is an even greater source of pain and frustration than any of the physical problems that LeBron James’ speed, strength and outright dominance creates.
Many will say that the Pacers let this one slip away. Maybe they did. But one look at LeBron James’ face after the final buzzer sounded said it all – it’s not just this game. This series is over.
Back in the 2007 Finals, after the Spurs administered a basketball clinic and took apart the Cavs in four games, cameras caught Tim Duncan talking to James in the hallway outside the locker room. Giving James a kind of big brother talk, Duncan said, “Thanks for letting me get this one, this league is going to be yours in a few years.”
It may have taken a little longer, but Duncan’s encouragement was prophetic. The league is firmly in the grasp of its most brilliant player. And likely, Duncan will once again meet LeBron James in the Finals. So one has to ask, if James can be as imposing as he was against Boston last year, and as masterful as he was last night, how good can he be with something else motivating him: