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NEW ORLEANS – When the NBA All-Star Game had reached the cusp of winning and losing, LeBron James stopped for a fleeting moment and momentarily considered the path of least resistance.
Perhaps with Amare Stoudemire defending him, James could simply shoot one more jumper Sunday night. The clock had just dipped inside the final minute, the ball was in his hands and the ultimate truth was that it wouldn't be long until those Western stars would be running back to stacked teams, until the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons would return East with the thickest rosters in the conference.
It wouldn't be long until James was fighting those long odds with the Cleveland Cavaliers again and perhaps everyone should understand how that shapes his thinking, how that sharpens his greatness. No, LeBron James doesn't do the path of least resistance.
Yes, maybe LeBron James could've let one more long jumper go, but the All-Star Game was tied, and James was probing with the ball across midcourt with the deep-seeded knowledge that no one in the game is harder to stop as a pure physical phenomenon. It takes profound basketball courage to step into his way, and James kept going now, kept that dribble drive alive and a thought flashed to his mind in the moment with Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki on the move.
"When I (saw) those bigs coming, I didn't want to lay the ball up," James said.
So, he dribbled hard and gathered himself and it was clear that no one had the stomach to stop James when he wanted to make the East's 134-128 victory his own. Stoudemire had been left in his wake, Duncan stopped short and Nowitzki ducked out of the way and James rising and rising and rising until he pushed Nowitzki down with his left hand and thundered the ball through the rim with his right.
It wouldn't be long until these pulsating final minutes of this fabulous All-Star Game ultimately belonged to the genius of its Most Valuable Player with 27 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. It wouldn't be long until commissioner David Stern passed him his second trophy at 23 years old, and the world would see who the star of stars was again at New Orleans Arena.
"LeBron is a freight train when he goes to that basket," West coach Byron Scott sighed. "He's so big, and so strong – so quick and so powerful. It's hard to stop him when he gets the momentum going like that."
His singular peer on the planet, Kobe Bryant, made a brief appearance for the West and quickly retired to the bench with his busted up pinkie. When the All-Star Game traded foolery in the fourth quarter, James had the final minutes on a yo-yo. He started the night tossing lob dunks to Dwight Howard and turned to sharp-shooting Ray Allen in the fourth. In a season when the Western Conference has never been so superior, the great equalizer turned out to be James, who makes a living doing more with less in Cleveland.
In the flurry of trades that have changed the landscape of the league, James delivered an unmistakable message: "When the postseason comes, you've got to come get it from us."
What James means is this: You've got to come get it from me. Everyone else is getting new toys with the trade deadline approaching Thursday, but it looks like James is stuck with his perpetually pedestrian supporting cast in Cleveland. Yes, the Cavaliers made it to the NBA Finals a year ago, but everyone understands there was an element of smoke and mirrors, that standing pat in the Eastern Conference promised to be perilous with the transformation in Boston and with tweaks in Detroit.
Over the summer, LeBron, Bryant and Jason Kidd were grumbling teammates with Team USA. Bryant wanted out of Los Angeles. Kidd wanted a trade to Cleveland. And James just wanted someone to share the burden with him. Well, the two point guards whom Cleveland GM Danny Ferry had tried to obtain for two years – Kidd and Mike Bibby – are on the way to Dallas and Atlanta.
When those stars left Las Vegas over the summer, they talked glumly about returning to teams with unworthy talent. Now, James leaves New Orleans and nothing's changed in Cleveland. Ferry has tried tirelessly to find him a point guard, but the Cavaliers have uninspired young talent and veteran contracts that won't expire for two years, leaving little value now.
When most of his All-Star pals are making runs with new teams and new toys, it's back to reality for LeBron James. There are so many better teams in the NBA now, but it gets harder and harder to make the case that there's a better player.
In his job, James is forever required to take the hard road to victory and that is so much of the reason he had the ball in the final moments Sunday night, with an improbable victory over the West within reach. James looked at those two 7-footers and another just two inches shy, and understood that he was going to the rim, that he was going hard and daring someone to stop him. Once again, LeBron James doesn't do the path of least resistance.