LeBron James gets up close and personal with the O'Brien on his 20th Sports Illustrated cover. (Image via SI)
It's been a whirlwind week for LeBron James, beginning with his Miami Heat coming back from the brink in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals last Tuesday to force an all-the-marbles matchup with the San Antonio Spurs that ranked as arguably the biggest game of his life. As you probably know, James' Heat won Game 7 to earn their second straight title, with James picking up his second straight Finals MVP trophy en route to a long weekend full of champagne, celebration and crouching, among other things.
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James hit 12 shots in his 37-point, 12-rebound Game 7 performance, with perhaps the biggest coming with just 27 seconds left on the clock, when the star rose and drained a 19-footer to give Miami a two-possession lead that the Spurs would not overcome. As our own Eric Freeman wrote, "The shot wasn't as dramatic as Michael Jordan's 1998 winner over Bryon Russell or various other jumpers from NBA Finals lore, but that doesn't make it any less impressive."
As it turns out, Eric wasn't the only one thinking of MJ in the aftermath of LeBron's game-sealing dagger. From the wonderful Lee Jenkins' profile of James in the forthcoming July 1, 2013, edition of Sports Illustrated — which marks the 20th time LeBron's been featured on the magazine's cover — via SI's The Point Forward blog:
[...] with 33 seconds left, Miami was only up by two, and James bounced the ball on the blazing Heat logo at midcourt. He was back in the ring of fire. With the floor expertly spaced by [Head head coach Erik] Spoelstra, guard Mario Chalmers darted up from the post to set a screen on [Spurs forward Kawhi] Leonard at the left elbow, and James bounded around it. [Tony] Parker switched onto him, but James planted his left shoulder into Parker’s chest, sending him stumbling backward. Leonard recovered, tossing out a hand to contest, but James did not hesitate. He pulled up from 20 feet, easy as an August afternoon at St. V, with the same result. “I know it wasn’t the magnitude of MJ hitting that shot in ’98, but I definitely thought about him,” James said. “It was an MJ moment.” He paused as a turn of phrase came to mind. “It was an LJ moment.”
James has, of course, been compared to Jordan incessantly over the course of his NBA career — and, in truth, going back to his high school days at St. Vincent-St. Mary's in Akron, Ohio, where he was proclaimed to be the next heir to Air's throne despite featuring a facilitator's floor game frequently much more reminiscent of Magic Johnson's than Jordan's.
Over the years, James has at times bristled at such comparisons. Earlier this year, he shrugged off Jordan's assertion that he'd pick Kobe Bryant over James if given a choice due to the Los Angeles Lakers star's five championships and made some waves with a terse Twitter statement:
I'm not MJ, I'm LJ
— LeBron James (@KingJames) February 13, 2013
And yet, while James has done his level best to try to separate his on-court accomplishments and continually rewritten/revised legacy from the one already etched in stone by Jordan, he's also acknowledged the Hall of Famer as one of his childhood heroes (“Mine was Batman, mine was Transformers and Michael Jordan") and the impetus for wearing No. 23 in high school and during his time with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and telling Turner Sports' Rachel Nichols that he revisited Jordan's legendary Finals performances throughout the Heat's postseason run.
There's nothing wrong with this, of course; if you want to go down as the greatest basketball player of all time — which James has admitted is his goal — Jordan is obviously the legend you've got to topple to become the king of the mountain. Only time will tell whether we remember James' Game 7 clincher with the same sort of reverence as we recall the greatest moments of Jordan's career, but it was unquestionably the peak individual championship-level play of James' career thus far.
The challenge for James — and for all others hunting down history — is to continue replicating such pantheon moments in critical, title-in-the-balance situations, creating debate not only as to whether that play was as good as one somebody made before you entered the league, but whether it was even your best in a do-or-die situation. The race to G.O.A.T. status is a marathon that includes countless sprints; LeBron's finish to Game 7 is just one brief burst along the long and winding road.
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