And LeBron James is pretty good at basketball.
As the Miami Heat’s win streak grows, now at 23 straight games following Monday’s comeback win over the Celtics, the deniers of James’ all-time greatness have lost all credibility. Despise him all they want, but James’ critics cannot blame slanted officiating or a star-studded supporting cast for his performance anymore without sounding like someone grasping for reasons to dispute what is clearly reality.
“He’s the best,” Heat teammate Shane Battier said. “You never take that for granted. Shame on anybody that takes No. 6 for granted, because he’s a special talent.”
With 10.5 seconds on the clock on Monday, James took the ball and hammered home Battier’s point. Jeff Green played an outstanding game, scoring 43 points on just 21 shots, and for more than three quarters he was the best player on the floor. In a tie game, though, with Green defending James on the left wing, the player who has risen head and shoulders above his contemporaries rose head and shoulders above Green to rattle in the game-winning shot.
The Celtics had one more opportunity, with Paul Pierce‘s go-ahead 3-point try flying off the mark, but the point had been made. Other players may have nice games, but in those decisive moments when games are won and reputations are made, James now stands alone.
The highlight of the night will be James’ utter destruction of Jason Terry, who valiantly stepped up to challenge James on a lob dunk attempt in the second quarter. James caught the pass from Norris Cole and easily threw it down as Terry ricocheted off his body and onto the floor, where James stood over him for a beat, relishing the moment. The move earned James a technical foul, but he probably felt it was a worthwhile trade-off for posterizing Terry, who is one of the Heat’s most vocal detractors.
Still, wild dunks say little about actual basketball skill. If they did, Gerald Green would not have racked up so much D-League experience in the last three years. Before James’ slam, DeAndre Jordan and Harrison Barnes were the leading contenders for dunk of the year, and nobody considers either of them an all-time great so far.
Instead, James won the game down the stretch in less exciting ways — some subtle, some not. He brushed aside Brandon Bass, who defends James about as well as a 6-foot-9 power forward can hope, for a finger roll to pull Miami within three points. He found Dwyane Wade sneaking behind Avery Bradley for a layup to cut Boston’s lead to two points. He recovered his own missed layup, on what probably should have been called a shooting foul, for the game-tying tip-in. Then came the jumper over Green.
“Aside from his physical skills, he plays the right way,” Battier said. “He’s an unbelievable teammate. He plays to win. He’s unselfish. That’s what makes him special. He wants to win, and he’s an ultimate competitor. He’s the total package.”
No matter how many game-winners or smart plays he makes, James will never satisfy a sizable subset of NBA fans. That is fine. From the smattering of No. 6 Heat jerseys among the green at TD Garden on Monday, James has his share of fans even in the hostile environs of Boston.
Remember, however, that there were those who said Michael Jordan was too selfish, Kevin Garnett too unselfish and Wilt Chamberlain too mercurial to ever rise to the level of the great players in NBA history. Eventually, those critics were either drowned out or forced to admit the obvious. Like the stars before him, James is earning legendary status, regardless of whether we choose to acknowledge it.