LeBron James started the game by pressing the ball against the floor and snapping it shotgun-style between his legs to his waiting quarterback, Mario Chalmers. A full month after the Super Bowl, this was LeBron's football Sunday inside Madison Square Garden, an event with a most fitting and predictable end:
James spiked the ball hard against the court at the final horn, sending it high above the ballplayers around him. No end zone dance was required.
On a day he shook off a frightful plunge from the sky, James reminded everyone that he's not merely a high-flying acrobat who inspires the starstruck likes of Magic Johnson to offer him a million bucks to dunk, but a 6-foot-8, 250-pound tailback who's harder to bring down than Adrian Peterson.
He also reminded the Garden crowd that it could be a painfully long five, six or seven years in the Eastern Conference, just as it was in Michael Jordan's day. The New York Knicks had a 14-point halftime lead, had Carmelo Anthony playing at the top of his game, even had Jason Kidd back from the dead, and in the end, none of it mattered.
Miami had LeBron on its side -- that's what mattered.
With 1:38 left in the Heat's eventual 99-93 victory over the Knicks, James scored the decisive basket by gathering a head of steam in the open floor, driving to the basket despite the presence of the 6-foot-6, 220-pound J.R. Smith and sending the Knicks guard reeling on his lefty layup. Smith ended up on his back, as flat as one of his tattoos.
It was another fitting scene in the Garden, as Smith was the one who earlier had clipped a midair James, high above the rim and fixing to oop another alley. LeBron crash-landed on a left leg that buckled in such a way that might've left a torn ligament in some, a hyperextension in others.
Only James, chiseled in Greek-god form, is the world's most flexible block of granite. "I'm fine, Coach," he told Erik Spoelstra. "Don't even think of taking me out."
James immediately responded with a made jumper off the inbounds pass. He fell on his rump, got up and played 43 minutes in all -- contributing 29 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 monster rejection of Tyson Chandler and 3 steals to the cause. His final theft came off a lazy Smith pass and led to a ferocious windmill dunk.
A statement in light of the Knicks' two 20-point victories over the Heat earlier this season? LeBron added the football spike just in case the losers missed it.
"He does it all," Shane Battier said. "It's not only his physical gifts, which are obviously unparalleled. But he just makes so many basketball plays that most people would never make.
"That's his greatness. We're lucky to see it only a few times in a generation. You're talking about Michael and Magic and LeBron, guys like that. So we don't take him for granted. I'd advise everyone else not to take him for granted, either."
The Knicks fan has seen this movie before, with Jordan as the lead antagonist, the bad guy who gets the girl in the end. That's how it felt Sunday in the building when James got it going on offense, when he decided to hound Anthony on defense, when he decided he was sick and tired of hearing about the Knicks' two blowouts -- one with Melo, one without him.
It felt like the Knicks -- winless in five playoff series against Jordan -- are destined to never beat this guy, either.
Before the game, Knicks coach Mike Woodson declared his team "a contender regardless of our ups and downs." After all, the Knicks had been built just like the 2010-11 Mavericks team that beat the Heat in six.
Melo was Dirk, and Kidd, Chandler and the Knicks' own Jason Terry, Smith, were hired to prove all over again that a team can win a title at the expense of the Justice League, South Beach branch, with one superstar and the right supplemental parts.
But the 2013 LeBron, defending champ, is a more formidable opponent than the 2011 LeBron, an uncrowned king forever reminded of his big-game flops. So even when Kidd, who turns 40 this month, played a game out of his Hall of Fame prime, James did everything but laugh it off.
He spoke of the time he dunked home a long alley-oop pass from Dwyane Wade on a first-quarter fast break, beating a sleeping Anthony down the floor. James explained that he never stopped sprinting when he saw the Knicks doing a three-quarters jog. "I mean, I'd seen three Knick guys in front of me," he said, "but I felt I could beat them down the court. It was more like four or five. ... [Anthony] didn't see me take off, and then once he'd turned and seen me, it was too late."
It might already be too late for the Knicks now that the 28-year-old James has claimed his championship ring, allowing him to make a relatively burden-free run at the game's greats. In the pursuit of multiple titles, James will never have trouble recruiting players to sign at a discounted rate. Battier, the most team-centric of Mike Krzyzewski's team-centric Duke Blue Devils, maintained that LeBron's selfless approach to the game endears him to ambitious role players everywhere.
"LeBron wants to be one of the guys," said Battier, who made all four of his 3-point attempts against the Knicks. "He's the guy, there's no question about it, but he wants to be one of the guys. That's rare. He and Yao Ming are the two superstars I've played with where that's who they are, and it adds to their legacy.
"I love LeBron. If LeBron asked me to go play for the Anchorage Bears of the Alaskan Basketball Association, that would be a tough sell to Mrs. Battier, but he is the only guy that can command that respect. The only guy. ... That's the reason why I signed up."
James is the reason Battier and others take a little less money than they can score elsewhere. So when James went down in a heap in the Garden, Battier said, "I feel like a parent who's watching their son play wide receiver in the NFL, go across the middle and get hit. You're just like, 'Man, get up. Get up. I don't care if you make the alley-oop, just get up.'"
James got up and proved he's the one who delivers the hits, not the one who takes them. In the winners locker room, where he sat with huge ice wraps around his knees and his feet in a tub, James allowed he was a bit concerned that the plane flight to Minnesota might stiffen up his left leg. He sounded confident he'd find a way to play when Miami tried to secure its 15th consecutive victory.
On the other side of the Garden, Woodson didn't sound as certain about someday solving the 6-8, 250-pound riddle before him. Asked if there's anything a coach can do to stop the world's best player at the peak of his powers, Woodson conceded, "You are not going to figure it out."
Tough break. The Knicks haven't won it all in 40 years, another way of saying that LeBron James is the last thing their fans needed.