A long time has gone by - almost exactly three years - since I was as excited for a pro basketball game as I am for Miami-Indiana tonight. It is Game 7 of a series that almost nobody expected to go seven, but that's not why I'm excited. It's a matchup between two teams that have built up some hard feelings toward each other, which should lead to an intense and thrilling game. But that's not why I'm excited either.
No, I'm excited because, tonight, LeBron James is alone. And he knows it.
One way or another, that will lead to something epic.
The last time I was this excited for an NBA game was on May 11, 2010, when the Boston Celtics were playing at the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of their playoff series. The series was tied 2-2. It was the pivotal game. I grew up in Cleveland as an obsessive fan of all things Cleveland - and while some of that obsession has faded, it rears again in force when a Cleveland team threatens to win a championship. No Cleveland team has won a title in my lifetime. I'm 46 years old.
Right, it was all LeBron. But . oh . LeBron. He was so good, so absurdly good, the best scorer on the floor, the best ball-hander, the best passer, the best rebounder, the best defender, the best everything. He was the kind of good that made us believe he was a comic book hero, yes, he was Batman - you would just flash the bat signal and he would save the night. On May 11, 2010, the bat signal was beaming brightly in the Cleveland sky. I honestly could not wait to see what magic he would pull off.
And then, well, LeBron was absolutely terrible.
None of us would want to be judged by our worst moment or poorest game. But it did happen. That night in Cleveland, LeBron James looked entirely beaten. His elbow supposedly hurt. His emotions were supposedly twisting. There have been many theories. But, bottom line, he was like Maverick in Top Gun - he would not engage. He shot the ball four times in the entire first half. He shot three for 14 and barely seemed interested. It was just so shocking. The Cavaliers lost by 32 and after that game James sounded odd.
"I spoil a lot of people with my play," he said defensively. "When you have three bad games in a seven-year career, it's easy to point that out."
I've always believed that the way LeBron James felt then - the Cavaliers lost the series two days later in Boston and James, who did have a triple double, stopped trying with a minute left in the game - had a lot to do with his now-famous decision to take his talents to South Beach. I think he felt very alone. The Cavaliers had surrounded him with a few name players but never with much of a team. Those teammates looked to him always to save the day. The city of Cleveland, so desperate for a champion, loaded all of their hopes and love and expectation on his shoulder. He had called himself King James, but I always thought he really wanted to be a musketeer. He plays a magnanimous game.
So he went to Miami to join the great Dwyane Wade, they added the semi-great Chris Bosh, and they called themselves the Superfriends, These Three Kings, and LeBron joked about winning, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven championships. "The way we're going to challenge each other in practice, once the games start, it's gonna be easy," LeBron said to a roaring Miami crowd.
That seemed to me to be at the heart of things: I think LeBron wanted it easy. And that was kind of unseemly and infuriating. LeBron James is one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived. He isn't supposed to be looking for the easy way. I rooted against him those first two years with vigor.
Then, one day I stopped rooting against him. That happened during last year's playoffs. The Heat was playing Boston, and the Celtics had Miami down three games to two. The game was in Boston, and I settled in to see what LeBron would do.
He responded with what is probably the single greatest individual game I'd ever seen under pressure. He scored 45, grabbed 15 rebounds, added five assists, but even extraordinary numbers do not capture the way he dominated every moment of that game, how he willed the Heat to victory like I had hoped he would will Cleveland to victory two years earlier. At that point, the fun of rooting against him just kind of drained away. What was the point of rooting against that sort of magnificence? I knew the Superfriends would win the title after that, and they did. I figured they would probably win a bunch more. He was probably right. Not two. Not three. Not four. Indeed.
Then came this year, and the inevitable dominance. The Heat won 27 in a row. They won 45 of their last 48 games. They were certain to breeze through the playoffs, to dominate the NBA Finals, to win it all in a breeze. They still might win. But it won't be a breeze. Something unexpected happened. This Indiana series happened.
And it isn't just that the Pacers have played gutsy and intense basketball. It isn't just that Paul George has proven to be a force of nature. It isn't just that Roy Hibbert has overpowered games with his defensive presence. It isn't just that David West will occasionally just take over. The Pacers have been something else.
It is also this: LeBron James finds himself alone again.
Look around: Dwyane Wade looks hurt and old and unsure - when LeBron James joined the team, there was a lot of talk about which one of them would be the Alpha Dog. The last two games, Wade has shot six for 19 and looked to be almost beside the point.
Chris Bosh looks invisible. He took just eight shots in the Game 6 loss (and made one of them) but then he only took seven shots in Game 5, and six shots in Game 4.
Ray Allen, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, is so far off that every one of his shots feels like a wasted one.
And so, we go into a Game 7, with everything on the line, and once again it is all about LeBron James. He's the best basketball player on planet earth, and I don't think anyone is even close. One of the things that makes him so magnificent is his unselfishness; he always seems happier to set up open teammates than he is making the big play himself.
But tonight: It won't be about finding open teammates. Tonight, it won't be about sharing the stage. Tonight, everything falls on LeBron, just like three years ago in Cleveland. Who knows what will happen this time? Who knows what he will do? Whatever happens, it will be something to see. Whatever happens, it won't be easy.