Thursday, May 19, 2011

LeBron James Is Built to Lead Heat When Stakes are High

When it was over, relieved of the anguish and heavy burdens to reclaim his identity as the playoff scene transformed into hyper mode, LeBron James was calmed following his vicious dominance, perfectly sending a wave of promise that shifted the Miami Heat's personality in a fierce series.

The latest news on James -- from freakishly driving in traffic to outplaying the Bulls' swarming defense to producing his ferocity and creativity with the ball -- is that he awakened and responded by hurling a three-pointer and a difficult fallaway jumper over Rose to give the Heat a substantial two-possession lead as time dwindled in desperation. When he advisedly knocked down a deep jump shot to give Miami a nine-point lead with 47.3 seconds left on the way to an 85-75 destruction of the Chicago Bulls at the United Center and stole homecourt advantage -- after putting back his own miss on a previous shot -- there was a sense of confidence.

Yes, he is a clutch performer after all. This was for the people who've disrespected James and said he'd never be a finisher. For once, he revealed to the world that he is fully capable of taking over a game single-handedly, and is properly fitted to rise as a reliable superstar. And what we know about James is that he is a carefree, freakish athlete. What's most notably is that he is a godlike ballplayer, a global icon, but is mostly forgotten and has been perceived as the most hated villain in sports since the uncivil departure last summer during his dramatic and weird free-agency madness.

Either way, that is, the world scorns James deeply, not an all-encompassing icon we once adored when he was the portrait of an honest savior with loyalty and unselfishness in a town where much misfortune left the angry fans fretting about the gloomy age, a region deprived of a major professional championship since 1964. But we as people shouldn't hold grudges forever, particularly when James apologized for "The Decision," a reckless extravaganza that seized airwaves for which he proffered an announcement nationally on his choice to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.

For the first time in his embattled NBA career, after his credibility ravaged and fans lost tremendous respect for him ever since he broadcasted his narcissistic telecast in an abnormal manner, James is distinguished as the evilest villain and traitor for leaving his native state Cleveland. With the game tied at 73-73 with over four minutes remaining, managing to take over in pressured situations of the fourth quarter, James scored nine points in three minutes -- worthy of a respectful nod, simply for carrying his team in Chicago.

It was another tense and overwrought night for the Heat, a formidable challenge on the road against the stingiest defense in the league, which impelled Miami to adjust to the Bulls' defensive schemes. So there is Tom Thibodeau, in his remarkable rookie season as Chicago head coach, leading the unbeaten Bulls with the best record in the NBA. As the Bulls reminded us in Game 1 of their regular-season sweep over the Heat, James perfectly ended the lingering debates on whether or not the Bulls can sustain improbability and remove the underdog label.

The unfolding of Game 2 is where the Heat sent a statement ideally by justifying they are resilient and intrepid in the postseason after struggling and lacking chemistry and unity, with such a quirky mindset in the regular-season. The night for the Heat was about survival, keeping hopes alive while in contention for an NBA championship, and Miami proved it is built to win a title and survive on the road in a tight and tense playoff game Wednesday night. Wade, as we know, was tangled with Omer Asik when Asik blocked Wade in the final quarter of an intense game, a period that the Heat missed shots to begin the fourth 1-for-9 in field goals.

Wade was bloodied when the Turkish center had blood gushing from his chin and down his neck. To stop the bleeding, Wade was attended to on the sideline and was provided a sleeve to cover the wound on his elbow, forcing Erik Spoelstra to call a 20-second timeout with under five minutes left. By the time he returned, Wade blocked a desperation three-pointer attempted by Derrick Rose with less than two minutes left. From there, the Chicago faithful began filing out of the quiet United Center, although Taj Gibson almost beheaded and dunked on Wade for a breathless panorama Sunday, although Rose won the Most Valuable Player award and is the most spectacular point guard to watch these days.

Fortunately, for Wade, he scored 24 points on 8-of-16 shooting and had nine rebounds against a flexible defense and the younger and more athletic Bulls, unlike the Celtics in the semifinals mainly because of oldness and lethargy. There was no time for the Heat to disappear, but to finally come alive and bounce back from an inferior performance -- killing off the criticism and verbal attacks. Before we consider that the Heat are girly, before we ridicule and strongly present animosity toward James, we should give credit to the explosive forward who can gracefully move the ball. Before we belittle the Heat -- when they're playing and running the floor -- we must admire that Miami is composed of talent and creativity, sometimes enough originality to be more creative than Apple.

"The fourth quarter was Miami defense," said James, who had nine of his 29 points in the fourth quarter. "There wasn't much offense out there, but when we play defense like this, we're tough to beat."

So, while the series shifts to Miami for Game 3 Sunday night, the best-of-seven series is tied and already epitomizes a longer series than usual in one of the craziest Eastern Conference finals ever. One of the reasons the Heat played so well, as much as the franchise located in South Florida continues to make progress in each contest, was James respectively and even the robust Udonis Haslem, who has recovered fully based on his prowess to stand as a factor in the readiness of a playoff spurt. So it's good to know that James, who would respond disappointed over a painful Game 1 loss, unwilling to trail in the series 2-0 and back down in the fourth quarter when the stakes are higher, scored nine of Miami's last 12 points. Certainly, the Heat found a closer in James in these playoffs.

"LeBron was very good on both sides of the ball," Spoelstra said. "He had to guard virtually everybody on the floor and rebound and make a lot of plays for us on the offensive end, and do it for 45 minutes. The only thing I kept reminding him every timeout is, 'You cannot afford to get tired. For us to have a chance to win, we cannot have you fatigued.'"

There was no time to feel sorry for Derrick Rose, finishing with 21 points on 7 for 23 shooting but now is a good time to applaud James, not weeping over too much playing time, not griping over dropping successive games and not complaining over touches. Meanwhile, the Bulls had no answer for James or Haslem, who began the season as a starter but missed much action nursing a torn ligament in his foot. And now suddenly, he scored 13 points and gathered five rebounds in 23 minutes. With him, he changed the tone of the game and defended the paint brilliantly, and then delivered an array of jump shots that defined a relentless comeback when he rejoined the lineup a week ago.

The one sequence where he blocked Rose, then run upcourt in transition for a fast-break dunk and 3-point play, benefited the Heat and transformed the momentum in the fourth. In the same game, James stripped Luol Deng twice, coming on one possession that organized a fast break layup on the other end by Wade. Then came Haslem levitating on another fast break dunk, and the Heat extended the lead to 67-56 with a 10-0 run.

“The thing I’m exploring the most is getting back to our game,” Spoelstra said. “And it’s not about who. It’s about what. It’s what we’re capable of. We’re an aggressive, hard-hitting, physical, defensive team. We did not show that obviously in Game 1, particularly on the boards. But that is not our nature.”

This series is far from over, but at this rate, the Heat are unbeatable. This could be the moment when James prove he is worthy. This could be the moment when James unleash to the world that he is a clutch performer. This could be the moment when James puts Cleveland on hush mode. Not counting a championship ring.