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Shaun Powell

With LeBron sidelined by a leg cramp, Mario Chalmers came up big to give Miami a 3-1 series edge.
With LeBron sidelined by a leg cramp, Mario Chalmers came up big to give Miami a 3-1 series edge.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

LeBron, Heat come up clutch to get one step closer to title

Posted Jun 20 2012 11:51AM

MIAMI -- The only other time LeBron James was sent to his knees in agony, roughly a year ago actually, he didn't get up. He curled himself into a fetal position and stayed that way all summer, pummeled by a left-right combination of epically bad fourth quarters and a lost championship and a public relations season from hell.

But Tuesday? Dropped by a leg cramp? Carried off the court with five minutes to go? Getting pressed on the bench by frantic trainers, who treated his leg like a tube of toothpaste? Feeling the deep sting of the cramp? Hearing the frightening moan of the crowd, who sensed doom at that point? Watching his team lose the lead?

"He was just trying to will his body to get back in there and make something happen," said coach Erik Spoelstra.

Well. If that's what he had to endure to grab this game and series by the throat, then fine. James wasn't going to be denied. He would not be curled again; he would be cured. This isn't 2011. The calendar has flipped in his favor. And so, it seems, has the NBA Finals.

When James shook off the injury and checked back into a tight Game 4, everything changed. For him. For the Heat. He promptly plunged a 3-pointer right through the Thunder's heart. Then his teammates took the cue from there and fell in line, mainly Mario Chalmers, and now Miami is one win from doing what it was specifically created to do.

With the Heat up 3-1 in the series after the 104-98 win, the curtain is starting to close for Oklahoma City and a new one is opening for Miami.

Sports is funny that way, isn't it? All the depictions, the narratives and the image created for this team by an annoyed public and partly by the Heat themselves, it's starting to crumble. A year ago the Heat and especially James were being laughed at, lampooned, picked apart for their frailties and mostly cited for their failure in the clutch.

But what you saw at the end of Game 4, well, that ... was ... clutch.

That was Wade picking up the slack when James went down. That was Chalmers, the team's designated punching bag, shaking off a poor shooting stretch with some gutsy baskets in the stretch. That was Shane Battier deflecting a stray jump ball into the hands of Chalmers. And obviously, that was James, hobbling onto the court to continue assembling what would be, if he pulls this off, the NBA's Triple Crown: Season MVP, Finals MVP, championship.

The coronation could come Thursday. Or maybe in Oklahoma City, if necessary. Either way, considering no team has rallied from such a deficit in the Finals, and because it's tough to imagine Miami losing three straight, there is the inevitable sense that James and the Heat are ready to bring in the bubbly.

And just think, the precise moment when James cramped with the Heat clinging to a 92-90 lead and Russell Westbrook going nuts, this series could've gone the opposite way. A wave of worry swept through the Heat bench when James, who has never had a serious injury in nine NBA seasons, was carted over.

"We were just trying to make sure he was OK," said Chris Bosh. "And then he kind of gave us the nod that he needed to stretch and that he probably wasn't going to come back the next possession."

Udonis Haslem: "He's a freak of nature but he's also a human being. This could happen to anybody. Even him."

James: "It's like your body just shuts down, your legs shut down on you."

Well, he had enough lift in his legs to launch a 3-pointer that broke a 94-94 tie, on a shot that wasn't exactly Willis Reed dramatics but close, given the circumstances.

"The ball was swung to me and the shot clock was winding down," James said. "I just wanted to step up and try to make a play with the limited mobility I had. I just wanted to give our team a lift. I'm a competitor."

On a night when Westbrook carved up the Heat for 43 points, the most important point guard on the floor was Chalmers. He scored five points in the final 44 seconds with James, cramping up again, back on the bench for good.

And so the script about James, who finished one rebound shy of a triple-double, is being furiously rewritten as you read this. After dealing with the backlash caused by his own PR sins, James is on the cusp of change. Some of that change has come from within, after a summer of reflection following the disturbing Dallas loss, when he decided to put his mind "in a better place."

This season he captured his third MVP and heard fewer boos and dealt with less distractions. He rallied the Heat early in the postseason after Bosh was lost with an abdominal strain with some bombastic performances against Indiana and Boston. And finally, a guy who suffered a brain cramp last summer overcoming a leg cramp.

It's all setting up nicely, isn't it, this redemptive chapter in the Life of LeBron?

None of his teammates had any doubt any of this was possible, even when he went down in Game 4.

"He's our main guy," said Haslem. "Even if he has a half leg, we'll lean on him and he'll hold us up."

Yes, James has held up, after all. Nothing seems to be strong enough to drop him right now, not an OKC team considered the pre-Finals favorite, not runner-up MVP Kevin Durant, not a jolt of pain. LeBron James is proving to be indestructible, quite an accomplishment for a guy who a year ago was all broken up.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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