Before Game 6 of the NBA Finals turned into a masterpiece of basketball drama …
Before the game was lost, won, lost and won again by the Miami Heat …
It seemed a tipping point had been reached in the career of LeBron “King” James.
Facing elimination to the San Antonio Spurs, led by age-defying Tim Duncan, James was like nothing we’d come to expect: Not the best player on the planet, not the best player on the floor, not even the best on his team.
He’d missed nine of his 12 shots in the first three quarters. And Spurs defenders were giving him a disrespectful cushion, daring him to take perimeter jump shots.
But he was missing at the rim on drives, too, hoping a foul would be whistled to bail him out of botched layups. At times it appeared he was starting to complain to the refs about being fouled before he even missed the shot.
And in more of an indictment, it appeared he was allowing his slumping confidence to act like a sixth defender on the floor.
Stakes were compounding all the while, and probably bouncing around in his mind.
It would be his third Finals loss in four appearances.
Was it time to put an end to the Michael Jordan comparisons?
Was it time to suggest that the tattoo across his back (“Chosen 1”) overstated his status? Maybe it would be better changed to “Among The Top 5 or 6.”
Was it time to inform the Emperor – King James – that he was without clothes?
Or at least without a headband?
And although James’ fourth-quarter revival did not exactly start with the moment his ever-present headband flew off and revealed a hairline in transition, hoop historians will remember it thusly.
James scored 21 points in the final 18 minutes of regulation and overtime to spark the Heat’s 103-100 win, forcing what promises to be a memorable deciding Game 7 on Thursday night in Miami.
He also had four turnovers and a couple of bad misses in that span, and the most important shot was a 3-pointer by Ray Allen with 5 seconds to go in regulation, and not one taken by LeBron.
But the difference was that he was once again playing aggressively. The way he described it afterward, he was “laying it all on the floor.”
Which makes us wonder: Where was he “laying it” before? Where does he go in those other times?
In some games it’s obvious, because he contributes through defense and assists; he dishes off on a drive rather than finish strongly in an effort to keep teammates involved.
Suddenly, he can reset a competitive circuit-breaker. He’s done this before.
Remember the third quarter of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Indiana? When Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh went MIA, James spit some profanity in the huddle and took over the game with 16 points and four assists in the quarter.
James’ periods of greatness are enough to counterpoint the moments of mere excellence … of mortality.
How much can we fairly expect? And when is being the best player in the game not enough? The answer, apparently, is when the only comparison left for fans and analysts to make is to Jordan, the best ever.
James doesn’t foster the comparisons, but he elevated the discussion when he signed with Miami in 2010, and in the excitement of the moment predicted multiple championships “… if we take care of business and do it the right way.”
But a loss in Thursday’s game will leave James with three disappointments – two with his Big 3 cohorts Wade and Bosh – and one trophy.
Which LeBron will it be? Dominant or dormant? Either way, it will be yet another defining moment in James’ career.
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 dave.boling@ thenewstribune.com @DaveBoling