Posted Jun 15 2012 6:53AM
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Changing minds nine years deep into one of the most scrutinized careers in the history of sport is not the goal LeBron James set for himself this season. He knows better than to even bother.
As absolutely spectacular as he has always been, James will likely never be the player his critics want him to be.
They demand an emotionless, 6-foot-8, 250-pound human destroyer with little regard for anything that stands between him and the basket. They want to see a player who is as devastating in the final, tense seconds of a game as he is during its lighter moments, when his mind-boggling abilities are on full display without any added pressure.
Instead, they've had to settle for the game's most imposing force of nature who, no matter what he does, never quite seems to measure up to his critics' ideal.
Real or imagined, the notion of a supremely talented superstar who gets rattled at the most critical moments of games is the lasting impression so many of his detractors cling to where James is concerned.
And truth be told, it's become easier to rely on the fiction involved in the James myth after all these years than anything you might have actually seen. He can own the floor for 46 minutes, yet all anyone wants to talk about is the final two minutes he spent caught up in the matrix.
But Thursday night, with the Heat's season, his legacy and the franchise's championship hopes caught up in a late-game swirl against the Oklahoma City Thunder, James delivered the defining plays and points in a 100-96 Game 2 win that evened the series at 1-1 as the stars from both sides take their talents to South Beach for Games 3, 4 and 5.
The Heat let a 13-point advantage slip away in their Game 1 loss. James wasn't about to let it happen again.
"We played too well in the first 36 minutes to try to let this one slip away from us," he said. "We knew we were going to keep fighting. We knew they were going to keep fighting. They've been doing it this whole postseason against all teams they've played against, especially on their home floor. We just wanted to make one or two more plays than they made and come out with a victory, and we were able to do that."
One or two more plays from James, it turned out, was all it took.
He banked a jumper off the glass with 1:26 to play that pushed the Heat's lead to five points, 96-91, with Kevin Durant and the Thunder charging late.
He followed that up with two free throws, his 11th and 12th-straight makes, with 7.1 seconds left to ice the game.
He was locked in at a time his critics insist he always drifts away.
"He's been doing it in so many different ways in this playoff run," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Sometimes it's been the rebounds, sometimes he's had close to 20 rebounds, defensive plays, attacking the basket, big threes. He's at that point right now [where it's] whatever it takes."
If that means James has to resort to playing the role of the physical bully, so be it. He shot 8-for-10 from the floor in the restricted area while going just 2-for-10 outside of it -- although, his lone make outside of the paint Thursday night was an off-balance banker he drained while drifting to his left with just under 90 seconds to play.
James wasn't perfect, far from it. After all, he did take that ill-advised 3-pointer with 14.9 seconds to play and survived a no-call on a Durant shot attempt with 11 seconds left, a shot that had it gone in and the Thunder somehow completed their miraculous comeback, would have instantly transformed James from the hero to the goat.
He got his shot blocked four times, with Serge Ibaka getting him with two highlight swats -- one on a James drive to the basket where they met at foot above the rim on the second-to-last possession of the first quarter and another with 3:28 to play in the game when an Ibaka spike of his layup attempt triggered a Thunder fast break.
That said, if this was James' latest attempt at freeing himself from the late-game demons that have haunted his game in recent years, overall it was a masterpiece.
Clearly, the Heat wouldn't have made it this far without James, the league's reigning and a three-time MVP, putting together a torrid stretch in these playoffs.
James has been absolute monster this postseason, scoring 30-plus points in eight of the Heat's last nine games and 10 of their last 12. His 32 points, eight rebounds and five assists in Game 2 served as the perfect example of how effective he can be when he plays to his advantages.
Tracing his current run back to the Heat's 2-1 series deficit to Indiana in the Eastern Conference semifinals, it's been one unbelievable effort after another. James is averaging a ridiculous 32.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists while shooting 52.1 percent from the floor during that 12-game stretch, easily one of the best of his career.
He's carried the load for the Heat through Chris Bosh's injury crisis and Dwyane Wade's identity crisis. When their season seemed on the brink and they were facing a 3-2 deficit against Boston in the conference finals, it was James who came up with that "ugly-faced" 45-point, 15-rebound, five-assist storm in Game 6. That performance woke the Heat up as they finished off the Celtics in Game 7.
His will and his determination against the Thunder in Game 2 proved to be the difference. The Heat led by as many as 17 points and had to withstand rally after rally from the Thunder. The Heat's answer almost each and every time was a James drive to the basket, feeding him in the post or a play made off of one of his assists.
With the Big 3 playing with a renewed energy and realizing that they're the ones (unlike the Thunder) who have been here before, James served as the catalyst on a night when Wade (24 points, six rebounds and five assists) and Bosh (16 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks) finally played their parts.
The Heat won a game here. the series continues on their terms now, with them controlling the home court and their own destiny.
James has lived his entire career in the spotlight, but it'll be hotter than it's ever been between now and the finish. His triumphs will be celebrated like never before, just as his failures will be examined like never before.
We'll find out in the coming days if James has what it takes to finish the deal this time, and perhaps silence a critic or two along the way.
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