MIAMI – LeBron James told himself: Get up and walk to the sideline. All around him, there were trainers and teammates to lift him up, but his muscles burned, his legs locked and his desperation to defy the pain was met with the body's resistance. He had been standing on his own in the biggest moments of these NBA Finals, rising above everyone else, and his inclination was natural in the closing minutes of Game 4: All these times he had gone down, all this pain and angst and LeBron James had wanted to get back to his feet and keep hurtling toward his championship destiny.
"I wanted to walk to the bench, but my legs wouldn't allow me," James said late Tuesday night.
For the instances in the past when his will, his spirit, his psyche failed James, this was a transformation. Those impediments weren't bringing him to his knees, but instead now served as a means to push him to his feet. Away James had gone to the bench, crumpling onto his back, cramps coursing through his legs. Five and a half minutes left, all hell breaking loose in a telltale Game 4 of these NBA Finals, and the most indomitable body this sport has ever seen betrayed him.
"He's a freak of nature," Udonis Haslem said, "but he's still a human being."
They worked furiously on his legs, unloaded fluids down his throat and finally hurried him back to the scorer's table. All around him, the Heat were making plays to hold back these Oklahoma City Thunder stars, holding on until James could limp back into this 104-98 victory, and summon the strength for one moment to punctuate the victory, the championship coronation coming for him.
Twenty-four feet away, the shot clock bleeding down and those wobbly legs secured James as the ball left his fingers for a 3-pointer to make it 97-94, make it the Heat's game for good, make everything end in the kind of neat, tidy bow of what's turning into one of the grandest MVP performances in Finals history. James had gone for 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds, and the final furious minute had to be played with James on the bench, with Mario Chalmers closing out the Thunder and a spectacular 43 points out of Russell Westbrook. In the end, James' beleaguered legs collapsed beneath him as he tried to stand and cheer that dizzying, delirious ending out of Chalmers.
For the way James had carried these Heat, they carried him on Tuesday night. They lifted him into the air, marched him to the sideline and turned those last few minutes into a referendum of how badly they wanted to return the favor to him. Now, Miami has thrust itself into a 3-1 series lead, and it'll have the chance on Thursday night to be champions.
This wasn't Willis Reed or Isiah Thomas. He simply had cramps. Nevertheless, this was still the framing of a moment for LeBron James. His moment, and he had earned it. In his theater on the shores of Biscayne Bay, this was the ultimate command performance. As much as anything, this was the imagery that leaves an imprint for everyone when recalling his breakthrough championship season: James goes down on the basketball court, but no longer stays there.
There's something physically indomitable about him, and that's why it's jarring to see him stay down. He had pushed and pushed, controlling the action with the passes and shots, with rebounds and stops, at a turbo speed. Before the game, James had told his teammates: "You should be totally exhausted after this game," and now he had fully embodied it.
"Kind of ironic," Chris Bosh said. "For him to set the example, that was huge for us."
One game away now, one victory, and it's hard to imagine the Heat collapsing now. They've controlled the final minutes of these three consecutive victories, largely because James has shown the poise, the composure, that comes with his failures. The young Thunder are discovering that the NBA rarely allows the skipping of steps. There's a process to the passage of champions, and Westbrook and Kevin Durant are merely starting out on it. For James, he's close to completing his championship journey.
"He just kept going, and his body gave, his body said, 'No more,' " Haslem said. Perhaps it was inevitable, and yet the Heat found a way to reciprocate James' magnificent season and peerless playoff run without him on the floor. He hated the idea of it, but there was the trainer, and teammate Juwan Howard, scooping him up in the middle of AmericanAirlines Arena on Tuesday night and bringing him back to the bench. James had leaned on them, the way they were always leaning on him.
Yet, these Heat have been there for him. They've had his back this season. When Howard witnessed a young Pacers player, Lance Stephenson, trashing James, Howard chased him around an arena in Indiana for two full days. "We've been through a lot of pain that's physical and emotional," James Jones said. "Even when [James] doesn't have anything left in the tank, he finds a way to come in and make a huge shot."
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As much as ever, LeBron James has inordinate pride in his ability to do for himself, his teammates, his franchise, in ways that he was never equipped in the past. From his desire to play in the low post and use that body, to a far deeper sense of self, it is easy to understand James' resistance to let someone else carry him. Once, James could be needy that way, grateful to be bailed out, to have an excuse, because these championship fourth quarters could be nightmares for him. No more. Maybe never again.
Basketball never brought him adversity until later in his life, past his prodigy teens and his glorious rise to stardom in the NBA. The arduous climb to champion has been profound, and painful, and finally it revealed itself in the final minutes of Game 4. He had pushed and pushed, and something wouldn't let him through those final minutes without a bigger dose of pain. James bellowed into the Miami night, and tried to get up, and couldn't immediately do it. He needed some help, and it wouldn't be long until he summoned whatever was left within him, checked back into the game, and delivered the 3-pointer that could ultimately be remembered for shooting these Thunder out of the NBA Finals.
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.
Back on his feet, and back to the cusp of his championship destiny.
Almost there now.
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