Hail to the King. (Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports)
With the "best basketball player in the world" conversation having begun to focus heavily on the red-hot Kevin Durant in recent weeks, LeBron James has burned a fair few calories of late working to reassert his NBA primacy. Over the past couple of days, the Miami Heat star and four-time NBA MVP has offered a private-but-public showcase of his athleticism before confidently claiming a Dunk Contest crown for which he won't compete, said he should have been recognized as the league's best defensive player in each of the past two years, and made sure we know he aims to go down as one of the four best players in NBA history when it's all said and done. (Which, y'know, we already knew.)
As ever, though, the best way to remind folks of just how game-tilting a force you are is to show them through your actions, and James did just that in the late stages of the Miami Heat's Wednesday night visit to Oracle Arena to take on the Golden State Warriors.
After Warriors All-Star guard Stephen Curry had toyed with Heat defender Mario Chalmers to draw an and-one on a running layup and hit the freebie to give Golden State a 110-108 lead over the Heat with 14.6 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Though Miami had timeouts at its disposal, head coach Erik Spoelstra didn't call one, allowing Chalmers to bring the ball up the court with the shot-clock turned off and the Heat needing two to tie. Warriors Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green shadowed James from the backcourt across the timeline, but James cut hard to get the ball from Chalmers high on the left wing with nine seconds left and Green sank into the paint, leaving Iguodala in one-on-one coverage. With the seconds ticking away, LeBron had to make a play ... and he did.
James danced, dribbled, jabbed, bounced to his left and rose up with a fading 3-pointer that traveled over Iguodala's outstretched arm and splashed through the net with 0.2 seconds remaining to give Miami a 111-110 lead. He then calmly walked back down the court, took out his mouthpiece, stared down the crowd at Oracle Arena and began to celebrate, pounding his chest and lowering the roof like Nick Van Exel.
One of the loudest and proudest gyms in the Association had been reduced to rubble in the flick of a wrist, as Oracle's faithful could only muster a choice word or two in response to James' final-second 27-foot step-back. The Warriors couldn't convert a lob-and-redirect with their remaining two-tenths of a second, and James and company walked out of Oakland with a 111-110 win, their 10th in their last 13 games, to improve to 37-14.
After playing 41 minutes to secure a win over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, James logged 42 minutes and 16 seconds on Wednesday, including all 12 minutes of a fourth quarter in which he scored 13 points and matched Curry (10 points, three rebounds, two assists in the final frame) every step of the way. Miami needed everything James had, too, as they played again without injured shooting guard Dwyane Wade (scratched with a sore left foot) and were left reeling after letting a 21-point lead disappear behind a torrent of buckets by Curry, David Lee, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson in a 33-9 run that left Golden State leading early in the fourth.
And yet James' all-court efforts nearly weren't enough, as it was his missed free throw with 25 seconds remaining that left the door open for Curry's running bank-shot to give the Warriors the lead. As he explained after the game, he wanted the opportunity to "redeem" himself on the final possession and that he was "going for the win the whole time":
You could certainly argue that LeBron got the opportunity to redeem himself because the Warriors didn't do enough to force the ball out of his hands. While you wouldn't want Thompson to double off Chalmers in the near corner to give James a high-percentage outlet, the Heat had three players bunched fairly tight along the far side of the floor, with their (reputed, anyway) most dangerous shooter, Ray Allen, stationed as far away from James as possible and unlikely to be able to receive or do anything meaningful with a feed as the clock ticked down beneath three seconds with James fading left 27-feet away. It would stand to reason that coach Mark Jackson might have liked to see Green slide left to help Iguodala, leaving Barnes and Curry to zone up on Allen, Chris Bosh and Shane Battier for a few seconds in the interest of putting additional pressure on Miami's best player.
In his post-game comments, though, Jackson credited his man with a valiant effort before heaping praise on the shooter. From Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News:
-Q: Can you ask Iguodala do anything more than he did against LeBron on the last play?
-JACKSON: No, I guess nit-picking you don’t want to give up a three. But when you think about it and look at the play, it was great defense, with a great contest.
At the end of the day, we witnessed greatness. A special player, an all-time great, made a big-time shot. [...]
it’s pick your poison. And we were willing to live with defense on him one-on-one. Once he caught it… the defense was very good. Andre did his job. He made a great shot. I mean, a great shot.
Jackson also offered his two cents on Wednesday's topic du jour:
-Q: Is LeBron on Mt. Rushmore?
-JACKSON: I really don’t think it’s fair to have a Mt. Rushmore because you’re leaving… like even LeBron’s Mt. Rushmore, he left some incredible basketball players off that mountain.
But whoever you want to put up there, might as well start chipping away his face. The guy in my opinion is the greatest small forward that’s ever played this game and he will be in the discussion with anybody that played the game when it’s all said and done.
That is an incredible basketball player, complete basketball player, with no weaknesses and no flaws.
Or, as James' Duke-educated teammate put it:
Battier says LeBron is no cosmic accident: “Proof there is a God.” (Battier majored in theology at Duke.)
— Joseph Goodman (@JoeGoodmanJr) February 13, 2014
James finished with a game-high 36 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists, two steals and just two turnovers in his 42-plus minutes, while Bosh (19 points, five rebounds, two assists, two blocks) and the bench tandem of Michael Beasley (16 points on 7 for 11 shooting) and Norris Cole (10 points, two assists) helped the Heat draw within 2 1/2 games of the Indiana Pacers for first place in the Eastern Conference as they head into the All-Star break.
Curry led Golden State with 29 points on 14 shots, going a perfect 4 for 4 from 3-point land, with seven assists and five rebounds. He also led the Warriors in appropriate post-game reactions, according to Antonio Gonzalez of The Associated Press:
"That was like the ultimate buzz kill," Curry told teammates in the Warriors' locker room. He could later be heard shouting "Wow!" from the showers.
Sometimes, "Wow" is all LeBron leaves you with.
If the clip up top isn't rocking for you, feel free to check out the game-winner elsewhere, thanks to frank den.
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