Posted May 21 2012 9:47AM
MIAMI -- He spent his private postgame moments Sunday much as he did in Game 4. LeBron James was in a zone, wrapped up in his own world, sitting on a stool by his locker, totally oblivious to the comings and goings of teammates who were anxious to leave Indianapolis in the rearview.
One hand was being used to rest his chin. The other turned the pages of the book, The Hunger Games.
LeBron isn't a teenage phenom anymore, and he's certainly not fighting for his life in these games, unlike the characters of the best-selling novel. At stake is his playoff life and the Heat's survival, not only against the Pacers in this series, but beyond if Miami moves on.
He isn't in Cleveland anymore, dragging a mediocre team through a playoff minefield, because he never had anyone as good as Dwyane Wade as a teammate. Yet Miami finds itself needing more efforts like the 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists LeBron gave in Game 4, not less. Not if the Heat still have championship dreams.
The MVP must remain at MVP level. That's a lot to ask, and not many have managed to pull that off. But without Chris Bosh, and with Wade a lot gimpier than he'll ever admit, and with a supporting cast that hasn't been so supportive, does LeBron really have a choice here?
"I'm happy and I'm blessed I was able to make plays for our team throughout the game," LeBron said after his near triple-double. So what's coming for the encore? Can he match or even top that? Because that's probably what it's going to take to extend the season and give Bosh a chance to get healthy enough to play.
What LeBron gave Sunday -- and really what we've seen from him all year -- needs to be savored. Sure, we've seen it from Jordan, from Bird, from Olajuwon, from a few others. Difference is, those three won championships. They didn't waste their very best on division titles or conference titles.
Wouldn't a championship this season, with a weaker cast than a year ago, with the certainty of a juggernaut emerging from the West, put James on par with some of those others?
Right now, LeBron is Miami's Mr. Do It All. His defense, the most overlooked if not underappreciated part of his game, has never been sharper. The way he chased down Leandro Barbosa and sized up the Pacers guard before swatting away the layup Sunday was Russell-like. Understand, too, that LeBron is checking two and sometimes three positions in this series: big guards, small forwards, even power forwards.
"He's the best player in the game, and you can see why," said the Pacers' George Hill. "You have to constantly be aware of him at all times, on every spot on the floor, because he's capable of hurting you so many ways. Even if he's tired."
He's setting up teammates who don't always make the open jumpers. If Shane Battier could hit threes and the big men could convert layups, LeBron's assist totals would soar. If players could cash in on the attention LeBron draws the way Udonis Haslem did late in Game 4, this series will be over in two games.
LeBron also is being goaded into a confrontation, mainly by chippy Danny Granger, and he isn't allowing himself to be suckered. He knows Miami has no chance if he's ejected.
Rebounding? Well, he grabbed 18 Sunday and has been Miami's most constant presence on the boards. Of course, LeBron is supplying the scoring, despite the double- and sometimes triple-teams, displaying much greater confidence near the rim than he did last summer in that disastrous series against Dallas.
Finally, remember that LeBron is intensely working both ends of the court for 40-plus minutes a night, going for 44 Sunday and later saying he would've gone 48 if necessary.
The MVP is still the MVP. Can he keep that up?
"We know it's a challenge, and we just have to meet it," he said.
The Heat could use more of the poetry that LeBron and Wade gave in the second half Sunday. It's the only way Miami can put distance between itself and the Pacers. Yes, more backdoor cuts, lobs for dunks and half-court hookups would go a long way. Anything less -- and with Wade's inconsistent series that's certainly possible -- and it all comes down to James doing it all himself.
He's done it before. In Cleveland. He wasn't supposed to carry an entire team any more after bolting for South Beach, but things have changed. Until Miami is back to full strength, with Wade and Bosh healthier, James may well have to be the Cleveland version of the Chosen One. He'll need to respond the only way he can.
With so much at stake, these are, after all, LeBron James' Hunger Games.
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