MIAMI — The people who like to slam LeBron James didn't get what they wanted Tuesday night. James's critics were ready to pounce on him for losing in another NBA Finals series — but the world's best basketball player made them wait. We'll see for how long.
By staving off elimination here with a 103-100 victory in overtime over the San Antonio Spurs, the Miami Heat forced a decisive Game 7 on its home court. Another offseason of attacks for failing to win enough will have to wait. By now, James should be accustomed to being blasted.
No matter how much James does — his list of accomplishments is long for someone who's only 28 — many hoops fans and media members view him as an all-time underachiever. All he did Tuesday was lead a furious fourth-quarter rally and finished with his second triple-double of the Finals. The box score told part of the story: James had 32 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds.
What James did best, however, was overcome his own failings — late turnovers in regulation. His three-pointer with 20 seconds to play pulled the Heat within two. Then the ageless Ray Allen made a three-pointer with 5.2 seconds left, setting the stage for overtime and Miami, somehow, wasn't finished. James helped made sure of it.
Most superstar athletes are graded on their overall body of work. It seems James is judged minute by minute. And nothing he did yesterday matters — unless yesterday was bad for James. These Finals are a great example of the wrongheaded James-has-failed-again thinking.
Following Miami's Game 1 loss, James was singled out for doing too little. James had a triple-double. Granted, James has struggled to score during the series. In three games, he produced fewer than 19 points. He's shooting under 45 percent from the field. Give San Antonio credit for playing great team defense against James. San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich knows a little something about the game.
Still, James' Finals stats illustrate his incredible all-around ability: He's averaging 23.3 points, 10.7 rebounds and 7.5 assists. He was on the floor for 50 minutes Tuesday night. The humility James has shown during Miami's toughest moments against San Antonio is no less impressive.
After Miami's embarrassing blowout loss in Game 3, James shouldered responsibility for the abysmal performance. As the Heat's leader, James should have, especially after he scored only 15 points on 7-for-21 shooting.
Few superstars, however, would have been as candid as James was in blaming himself for the loss. A few years ago, James probably wouldn't have gone there. He showed growth and also walked the walk: James had 33 points and 11 rebounds in Miami's Game 4 win. On Tuesday, James delivered his second bounce-back performance in four games. He's the biggest reason Miami and San Antonio will play a winner-take-the-golden-trophy showdown here Thursday.
A Miami victory would give James the back-to-back titles he has so badly wants. He'd also likely take home his second NBA Finals MVP trophy. And a Heat loss? It would spur a whole lot of chatter about how often James has failed in the spotlight.
This is James' fourth Finals appearance. Since leaving Cleveland, James has guided Miami to three consecutive Eastern Conference titles. Some of the criticism of James would be easier to understand if last season had not occurred. It's like people forget James actually did win an NBA championship.
In winning his fourth MVP trophy this season, James joined Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and Bill Russell as the only players in league history with at least four. Even if James finishes his career with one championship, that would still be one more than Hall of Famers Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Dominique Wilkins won combined.
Fact is, although Jordan made it look easy, it's very hard to win one title, let alone multiple championships. Jordan is the greatest basketball player in NBA history. In six Finals appearances, Jordan never lost. In that part of the game, James doesn't measure up to Jordan. But who does? Even Russell, who won a record 11 titles in 13 seasons, lost once in the Finals.
Jordan possessed an uncommon mix of athleticism, smarts and competitiveness. For his opponents, it proved to be a lethal combination. Jordan wan an original. James is as well.
In the NBA, there has never been a player as big (James is listed at 6 feet 8, 250 pounds) and fast who does so many things at the highest possible level. If you appreciate the artistry of top-notch basketball, it's impossible to miss the beauty of James's game. It's also unfair to ignore James' clutch performances through the years.
In last season's Eastern Conference finals, James had 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists as Miami won at Boston to force a Game 7. His 31-point, 12-rebound outing in the final game helped put Miami in the championship round against Oklahoma City. Earlier this month, James had 32 points, eight rebounds and four assists in Game 7 as Miami outlasted Indiana to win the Eastern Conference. There are big-time playoff performances all over James's resume.
James's missteps tend to stand out more. In the eyes of many basketball observers, James will forever wear a black hat because of his horribly-handled exit from Cleveland (who could forget, "The Decision"). He deserved to get ripped for that one. But it happened almost three years ago. Isn't it time to move on?
Eventually, James should be evaluated on his career. Everyone is. But before we tear down James' legacy, let's give him time to finish building it.