MIAMI – Half a ring, one Eastern Conference star had snickered upon LeBron James' descent into these Miami Heat. Such staggering star power surrounding him, this Big Three promising years and years of bludgeoning basketball, the suggestion was that this unprecedented alliance could ultimately impede the planet's best player of copping complete championship credit.
Where was the easy path now? Where was the mirroring greatness of Dwyane Wade, the spectacular, sleek Chris Bosh? For the purposes of these Eastern Conference finals, there's no more Big Three. There's LeBron James and a roster of players. The Heat go as far as James brings them, and that could still be a championship.
Wade's body is battered, beaten and becoming an albatross on James' championship chase. Bosh is shrinking to the physical challenge, his might and skill failing the Heat and turning him downright useless in these Eastern Conference finals.
The Indiana Pacers were threatening to steal Game 5, threatening to push the Heat to the brink of collapse and the Big Three no longer existed as a thermonuclear threat.
James walked out of the halftime locker room with his past and present colliding into the moment. For the mindset of a shared burden that delivered him into the arms of the Big Three, James suddenly had never been so alone as part of this starry ensemble.
To thrust himself and these Heat into tomorrow, LeBron James found himself reaching back into yesterday.
"I just went back to my Cleveland days," James said.
Back to Cleveland: More Michael, less Magic. Back to Cleveland, where the burden hung like an anvil over him. James dictated terms of engagement in the third quarter Thursday night, a magnificent, moving tribute to his historic talent. James was everywhere. James did everything. James had 16 of his 30 points, four of his eight rebounds and four of his six assists in the quarter to obliterate the Pacers.
Miami defeated Indiana 90-79, and it has to be numbing to these Pacers to understand they've largely shut down Wade and Bosh, yet still trail 3-2 in this best-of-seven series.
There was James, Udonis Haslem and a dose of Mario Chalmers for the Heat. Haslem stood on the baseline, caught the MVP's passes and dropped 16 points on the Pacers. That's all. "He's a one-trick pony," Indiana's David West said of Haslem. "But we have to take it away from him."
James makes it so easy for everyone else: Just do one thing reasonably well – shoot, rebound, defend, pass – and he'll do everything better than everyone else on the floor. This time, James scored. This time, the unselfish act was to be selfish with his shot. He was out of his mind, and it was a wonder to watch. He talked trash with Lance Stephenson and pounded his chest and dug down deep into a defensive crouch to inspire these Heat.
Birdman Andersen could be suspended for thrusting the Pacers' Tyler Hansbrough onto the floor. There were technical fouls and shoving, tough guys on tough guys.James wondered, he said, "if the guys would just follow me." All of the Heat, they rallied for James. They started to defend with tenacity, doubling on 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert and pushing him further and further out. All around them, hell was breaking loose.
"I got cheap-shotted," West said.
He blamed Chalmers, but mostly West was worried over the way James had so thoroughly destroyed the Pacers with so little assistance. Once, NBA players believed James to be vulnerable, liable to crumble on a moment's notice. Now, they watch him fortify himself, watch him become bigger and better when winning demands it out of him.
LeBron James moves one victory from the NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs, and everything's changed in his third season here. The burden's different, but the mandate remains: Beyond winning, nothing else matters in this grand experiment. With help – and without it – James promises to be the most harshly judged player on the planet. His story, his talent, demands it.
"That's what I came here for, compete for a championship each and every year," James said.
One of James' greatest gifts is understanding what's needed from him on that journey and when; his timing is forever impeccable. Out of halftime, James walked into American Airlines Arena and suddenly transported himself back in time. Once more, Cleveland. Once more, Michael instead of Magic. Miami needed everything out of him, needed his genius best, and it left one more team in its wake.
No more half-a-ring jokes out of his peers, no more suggestion about anything other than this: LeBron James' dragging these Heat to the championship finish line, with the Big Three a distant memory. There's just James and his imagination in these playoffs. There's just James and the understanding that his co-stars are no more in this series – and maybe no more in the NBA Finals.
This had been a throwback night for James, a throwback performance. All the good out of Cleveland had come rushing back to him, had come tumbling down upon him with the Heat. The Big Three's done and gone in these playoffs, leaving James' relentlessness, resolve and peerless talent to deliver these Heat.
To hell with a half ring – the greatest player on the planet is earning his way and earning a most historic standing in the sport. No more Big Three in this series, just James and the Heat's role players. No more Big Three, just LeBron James and a burden for victory that he never, ever imagined here.
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