Facing elimination on the road at the hands of the Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat had to have a sensational performance from LeBron James on Thursday night to keep their season (and the idea that their three-man power trip can produce titles) alive. What they got ... I mean, "sensational" scarcely covers it, right?
With what seemed like the entire sports-aware world training their eyes on James, eager to see how he'd respond to the pressure of another elimination game on the road (where he hasn't fared so well in the past) and whether he'd sink or swim in a big moment, LeBron chose another option — he soared. He was everywhere and everything for the Miami Heat on Thursday night, the primary and really only reason for a 98-79 win that will send the Eastern Conference finals back to South Beach for a deciding Game 7 on Saturday night.
James snared a game-high 15 rebounds, grabbing more than one out of three available Boston misses (of which there were many) while he was on the court, combining with Udonis Haslem (nine boards in 23 minutes, eight on the defensive end) to all but keep the Celtics off the offensive glass (the C's had zero offensive rebounds in the first half and just six second-chance points in the game). He dished five assists, leading to 13 points, including three 3-pointers for Mario Chalmers. He turned it over just four times in nearly 45 minutes of floor time, despite handling the ball almost constantly and using more than 37 percent of Heat possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.com. He controlled the game summarily, from the opening tip until he finally went to the bench with Miami up 22 and 3:11 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Oh, and he scored. A lot. Forty-five points on 19-for-26 shooting to go with his 15 and five, a stat line rivaled in a playoff game only by Wilt Chamberlain. BDL Editor Kelly Dwyer implored Twitter followers on Thursday night to "forget the makes" and watch how LeBron worked off the ball, how he set up his defenders and flourished in the post, how he integrated himself in the offense even when he wasn't orchestrating a basket. That is fine, but also, that is crazy. Remember the makes. Watch them all again, above.
Watch how he scored from everywhere — 4 for 4 at the rim, 3 for 4 from between three and nine feet away, 5 for 6 from between 10 and 15 feet out, 5 for 8 from between 16 and 23 feet out, and 2 for 4 from 3-point range, according to Hoopdata's shot location statistics, and from every part of the floor, according to his Game 6 shot chart. Watch how he grabbed the game by the scruff of its neck early, taking seven shots in the first 12 minutes and making six of them, and never let go.
Watch the quiet confidence in that jumper, the repeated delivery, the hand grabbing the rim and the eyes barely bothering to register who was in front of him. Watch the total mastery of the moment, a moment many thought might be too big for him, and remember why everyone hates him — because he can do this.
Game 6 won't silence LeBron's critics. Too many of them are too set in their positions on his play, and in the moments of analysis following Thursday night's virtuoso performance, an awful lot of them were already suggesting that it won't mean anything if he doesn't equal or better the task in Game 7. These are the stakes he's playing for and that is the level of the conversation — in the eyes of the world, LeBron James is only as good as his next historic, devouring effort. And while on some level that has always been and will always be unfair, it's also understandable; at this stage, only championships will stir haters' hearts, because there is nothing else that LeBron can show us that he hasn't already.
But none of that should cloud our memories and distract us from reality — we just watched one of the best and most meaningful single-game playoff performances of many of our lifetimes. If you doubt that, well, just go back up top and watch again. You'll come around.