The Night LeBron James Broke Basketball

by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

“Phenomenal. Amazing. Stupendous. Immaculate. That’s all.” – Chris Bosh

It builds slowly and steadily. A driving layup in the first few minutes. An offensive putback. A rocker-step into a jumper. This is all ordinary. This is just a regular game and regular shots just happen to be going in. The player hits his fifth three in a row. He turns and runs down the floor, expressionless. He’s been great before. Just another game for the catalogue.

You almost don’t realize how special it is until it’s almost over. And then time stops.

“It felt like I had a golf ball and was throwing it into the ocean.”

Everyone, at the same time, has the epiphany. The casual and nonchalant becomes jubilation.

“The excitement from the fans showed me that I was doing something special,” LeBron James said. “Then looking over to our bench, and they were really excited about what I was doing, showed me that I was doing something special.”

The eighth-consecutive three goes in. Points 47, 48 and 49 go up on the board. And so everyone knows that they will remember this night – that it’s a story they will tell and keep on telling until the facts blur into legend. LeBron James goes on to score a career and franchise-high 61 points, requiring only 33 shots to get there, but the technicalities don’t matter at first. The feeling of James hitting that shot, before the number-watching takes over, does.

“When you shoot 8-for-8 [from three], there’s something psychological,” Shane Battier said. “It has more to do with a religious experience than a statistical experience. You’re just so in tune with yourself. You’re not thinking about mechanics, you’re not thinking about fatigue. All you see is the hoop. It’s pure.

“I’m a huge stat guy, but throw the stats out in a moment like that. It’s total consciousness.”

Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford experienced the moment, too. After that, the game changed, becoming something else entirely.

For years the way to defend LeBron James was to sag off and concede the jumper. Gregg Popovich employed the tactic in the NBA Finals and it won the San Antonio Spurs a championship. The Dallas Mavericks closed off the paint and won a title at James’ expense. He was a multi-MVP winner, but there was still a way to, occasionally, stop him. Then last season James became a 40 percent shooter from beyond the arc and his numbers took off. But teams kept sagging off, giving him the shots he was hitting. James had reached a height that defensive adjustments couldn’t reach.

It worked, for a while. The Spurs gave up space on the perimeter and almost won the whole thing until James made them pay. Charlotte tried to do the same last night as Al Jefferson sat back in pick-and-rolls, the league’s most en-vogue scheme, and dared James do shoot. So he did. Again and again. The shots were the shots you want elite scorers taking – off the dribble looks you expect anyone to start missing eventually. Regression never hit, so Clifford was left with no chance. He started double teaming James at mid-court.

“He scored his points in a way that there’s not much that you can do,” Clifford said.

Basketball, for the evening, was broken.

“I’ve not seen that too often,” Battier said of the deliberate double. “It’s a weird defense because nobody is used to playing defense like that. No one else, offensively or defensively, really knows what to do. ‘I’m open, do I shoot it?’ It’s the same for defenders. ‘Do I rotate out to shooters?’ It’s awkward all the way around.”

“It was more of a spectacle than a basketball game.”

“It was the first time it has happened to me since high school where I felt like I was in a box-and-one,” James said.

We’re used to the automatic pass out of the double team from James. So often at the end of game in do-or-die situations the opponent sends the extra defender and James finds the open man. He was criticized for it, but he kept making the right basketball plays. Those passes were written into his genetic code. Monday, James fought nature. It helped that his teammates almost refused to shoot, but following the euphoria of the third-quarter threes there was the strangeness of watching James allow himself to force shots like this.

“I probably had just three or four heat check shots where I was out of rhythm and just taking them,” James said.

These were the games that James’ critics, those that couldn’t help but to compare him to the Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant’s of the world, always wanted. Efficiency be damned, shoot the shots. Be a killer. Even when it happened, it seemed uncharacteristic for James. He took 30 shots for just the third time in a HEAT uniform. He’s only taken 30 shots 32 times in his career. Jordan did it over 160 times. Kobe did it 122 times. Even tonight, James passed 49 times -- his average is 50 -- according to SportVU. People are different, and one doesn’t need to constantly be held up to the personality of another.

If James wasn’t James, this game wouldn’t have been what it was. Players have scored 60 points before, but since the 1985-86 season (as far back as the database goes), nobody has scored 60 on 66 percent shooting to go with seven rebounds and five assists. James might not be one to shoot all the time, and because of that he’s built a game that allowed him to put in one of the most efficient performances ever recorded.

“That’s an all-time game right there,” Battier said.

Time will tell just how where this game ranks among the greats. We can put it into statistical context, but even the man in the spotlight is going to need a night to mull things over.

“I haven’t had an opportunity to soak it in or savor it just yet,” James said. “It is a surreal feeling for me right now. I don’t know when I will have an opportunity to really understand what I was able to accomplish as an individual.”

Something special even for a player that makes such events his specialty. Special enough to steal a breath from thousands of people in various states of not-moving. A performance to remember today, tomorrow, in a year and for some, in a few weeks when it comes time to vote. The Most Valuable Player could be James. It could be Durant. After last night, they are virtually tied in Player Efficiency Rating. But James just reminded us why you don’t make up your mind with a third of a season still to play.

“It’s his trophy,” Bosh said. “You’re going to have to wrestle that thing from his fingers.”

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