On Sunday night, Kawhi Leonard did an incredible job guarding LeBron James. He blew up screens, forced him toward help and ultimately, compelled James to take difficult, contested shots. It worked except that it didn’t.
As epitomized by LeBron’s pull-up 3-pointer with 6:08 left in the fourth quarter of the Miami Heat's 98-96 NBA Finals Game 2 win over the San Antonio Spurs, there wasn’t much Leonard could do. He shielded LeBron away from a Mario Chalmers screen, then angled him toward the sideline as the shot clock dwindled, but James still got off a shot. The ball swished as the buzzer sounded, and a snarling LeBron stomped past some courtside fans who looked none too happy.
Just as there’s often a futility in guarding the game’s best player, there’s a futility in hating him too. Can there be much joy in despising someone whose victories are so rote? Hating a winner seems like a losing battle. LeBron had 35 points on 64 percent shooting, something only Shaquille O'Neal has pulled off in an NBA Finals. And yet what’s crazy about the stat line is how routine it is. It’s a good game for LeBron, but well within the realm of normal.
It’s obvious what compels the San Antonio fans who hold up “LeCramp” signs and mock the Game 1 sequence where an injured athlete was carried to the sidelines. They want their team to win. But what about the others who would rather see LeBron fail? What’s in it for so many to root against the best individual expression of the sport?
That question is hard to answer, but it doesn’t seem to faze the Heat at this juncture. In 2011, the criticism amplified as LeBron played worse and worse in the Finals. Since then, his moments that inspire doubt and derision are usually quickly met with games like this.
On a smaller scope, Chris Bosh is going through a similar rinse cycle of, “Doubted, prevails, doubted.” He has been assailed for being soft, for playing like a 6-foot-11 guard. The two were ripped in tandem when LeBron passed to Bosh for an errant corner-3 in Game 5 against Indiana.
You could almost hear the screams of anger when, at 2:07 left on Sunday night, a LeBron pass led to a Bosh corner-3 that clanged out. Immune or oblivious to the pressures of what the Heat should or shouldn’t do, LeBron promptly found an open Bosh on the next possession. It was the right play, irrespective to popular opinions of who should or shouldn’t take the big shots.
Bosh sank the 3-pointer, and the Heat seized a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Playing like a 6-foot-11 guard has its benefits. You’re watching one of the most versatile big men in the game. It’s strange that he’s also one of the most mocked.
The Heat have survived the storm of criticism of 2011 much the way their Finals opponent continues to succeed. Both teams trust each other, trust the process, and strive to make the right play, ego be damned. Internal trust can triumph over the world’s sometimes not-so-favorable opinions. Well, at least your trust has a great shot of triumphing if you have the era’s best player on your side.