NEW YORK – As LeBron James lifted higher and higher, he cocked the ball behind his head and reached back further inside Madison Square Garden. Pass stolen, Carmelo Anthony doubled over in angst, and James had come to deliver the perfect punctuation on one more peerless performance.
Higher and higher, James elevated in the final seconds of a virtuoso victory over the New York Knicks on Sunday. Higher and higher over purposeless debates of financial ransoms for pointless dunk contests, higher and higher over a sport that struggles to find context and comparison for the way with which his greatness has separated him, LeBron James floats above it all: untouchable and impenetrable.
These final minutes of a 99-93 victory were pure genius inside the Garden – the scoring and passing and devastating defense leaving him with 29 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and a block. Out of an athlete for the centuries, this has been a season for the ages.
Fourteen straight victories for the Heat, and the Knicks were left understanding the truth: Only way they'll beat Miami in the playoffs would've come in the third quarter when James tumbled out of the sky, onto the floor and clutched his left knee. Only way is if James doesn't get up again. Only he did on Sunday – and destroyed the Knicks.
For all the belief that the implementation of a new collective bargaining agreement will ultimately cost Miami the financial freedom to surround the best player with the best supporting cast, the Heat's Shane Battier agrees that the singleness of James' talent – the guarantee of championship contention, his unselfish play, his team-centric ideals – make him immune to some changing economic realities.
In an NBA where more good players will be made to play for far less money on far shorter deals, James will be a bigger magnet than ever, right?
"Yes, with an asterisk," Battier said. "It'll help him if he's in a warm city. I love LeBron, but if LeBron asks me to go play with the Anchorage Bears of the Alaskan Basketball Association, that'll be a tough sell for Mrs. Battier.
"But he's the only guy that commands that respect."
When Battier says Anchorage, let's be honest: He could be saying Cleveland. These days, James is a far more evolved, more connective star, but the reluctance of star players to join him in Cleveland four and five years ago doesn't disappear should he return to the Cavaliers in free agency in 2014.
Wherever James goes, that team will be instant contenders. Nevertheless, the arrivals of the Ray Allens and Battiers at South Beach are important illustrations of the lures greater than his talent. For everyone else who insists that Heat president Pat Riley is vital to James' future, make no mistake: Staying with coach Erik Spoelstra will mean even more to James' future.
Spoelstra's been tough enough to stand firm with a mercurial star, and innovative enough to expand the Heat's offense and defense to deepen James' impact on winning and losing.
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Before Miami, James could be so easily distracted in the 24-7 news cycle of minutiae. These days, ESPN analysts are baiting him with a $1 million offer to participate in the dunk contest on All-Star weekend. This isn't the 1980s and early '90s, when even superstars needed All-Star weekend to market themselves.
Those days are over, and James has come to understand that with him, less is more. Once, the contest was necessary for Michael Jordan, but today's stars – least of all James – don't need it.
"Right now, it doesn't stand anywhere," James said Sunday. "Right now, I'm focused on what we're doing as a team."
How did it work out for James the last time that network sucked him into a made-for-TV event? He doesn't need Magic Johnson's money, nor ESPN's, nor a dunk contest that's far beneath him now. James doesn't need to walk directly in Jordan's footsteps to someday overtake him, except solely in the chase for championships. Everyone will forever try to make James take that bait, but these are different times for a star, and he can blaze a trail his own way.
For now, little else matters beyond dominating night after night, beyond surrounding himself with great coaches and great teammates. All these foolish distractions about dunking, all these future financial pitfalls of the CBA, and yet James appears relentless in his resolve to keep rising higher and higher.
Finally, there's James floating through the most rarified of air, suspended above the fray, unwilling to let himself get dragged down into the clown shows. Here, LeBron James is untouchable.
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