It looked like the worst possible timing for LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Tied in the fourth quarter of Game 4, with Russell Westbrook in the midst of an 11-straight-points onslaught and just under six minutes left to determine whether Miami would hold a 3-1 series lead or the Oklahoma City Thunder would get all-square at two games apiece ... and this is when that body betrays him?
After two Westbrook free throws knotted the game at 90 midway through the fourth, James found himself one-on-one with Kevin Durant, looking for a chance to answer. He dribbled right, gained the lane, looked to turn the corner and ... crumpled to the deck:
Derek Fisher — once again, seemingly in defiance of logic, on the court late in a pivotal NBA Finals game — made the steal and raced down the other end looking for a two-point lead, but had his shot erased by Dwyane Wade, leading to Mario Chalmers finding a still-hobbling-in-the-front-court James for a quick layup, followed by some more hobbling.
After Westbrook's first miss of the fourth was rebounded by Chris Bosh, Miami called timeout and James hit the deck again. He had to be helped off the court by a Heat trainer and teammate Juwan Howard, massaged on the sidelines as fluids were poured down his throat in an attempt to loosen the lock-up and get him back on the floor for the final five minutes of Game 4.
Following a 75-second stint on the sideline that saw OKC re-take the lead at 94-92, James returned to the court. Seventy-five seconds later, he put the Heat up for good:
"Bang" is right, Mike Breen.
The straightaway 3-pointer over Thunder defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha gave the Heat a 97-94 lead that they would never relinquish. When the cramping returned and sent James back to the sideline for the final minute, the combination of several huge plays by Mario Chalmers (25 points on 15 shots, including 12 on 4-for-5 shooting in the fourth quarter) and an awful, unnecessary Westbrook foul in the waning seconds closed things out.
Miami took Game 5 104-98, took a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals and took one more step toward lifting the O'Brien, which they can do Thursday night. James finished with 26 points on 10-for-20 shooting, 12 assists, nine rebounds, two steals and just three turnovers in more than 44 minutes of work. He was, again, sensational. As advertised, if not more so.
On the 3-ball: You can kill Sefolosha for not pressing up on James a foot behind the arc if you'd like because, after all, James' cramping made him a less likely driver in that situation. But it's worth remembering that LeBron had missed all three long balls he'd tried to that point in Game 4, that he'd missed 10 of 12 to that point in the Finals, and that he's shooting just 26.8 percent from distance in the postseason. You'd like to see a closer contest, of course, but as poisons go, Sefolosha seemed to pick the right one. But sometimes you just have to credit the guy who hit the shot; sometimes, there's a man ... well, he's the man for his time and place. On Tuesday night, in Miami, with a chance to nail down a 3-1 lead, LeBron was that man.
And, to be honest, it was kind of weird to see LeBron James as, for lack of a better term, "just a man." When you watch him play, it's hard to envision him being hurt by much of anything; at this point, even the elbow injury he suffered two summers ago and that reportedly impeded him during his final postseason as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers seems more like a narrative device, a plot element needed to draw a line under that season and his time in that city, than it does something that actually happened. (This is dumb, but this is how memory works sometimes.)
James often appears to be a single, seamless, perfectly constructed piece of equipment. The shots of him on the floor Tuesday night reminded me, if only for a second, that he's actually a complicated collection of piston-pumping sinews, inflamed muscles and over-leveraged ligaments, any of which could go at any time. Just like the rest of them; just like the rest of us.
And in a weird way — one perfectly captured by Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski after Game 4 — that might be James' biggest win in all of this:
For all the things that LeBron James had been on this grand championship stage in his career, there was something fresh for him on Tuesday night, something people hadn't seen so much: Vulnerability. He'll forever be considered a freak of nature, but he had never been so profoundly human on the court. This was his basketball life here, and he's made it so much easier for people to pay its proper homage now. In whatever way James has gone down, he has gotten up again.
Now, he just needs to get up one more time. The Thunder will be waiting, and so will we. Thursday night can't get here fast enough.