Yoga instructors around the country had to be glowing when they learned how the best basketball player in the world had prepared himself for the biggest game of the season Sunday in his hotel.
“I went to a yoga class at 8 in the morning,” LeBron James said after the Heat beat the Spurs, 98-96, to even the NBA Finals at one game apiece. “It was just me, three other people - and a kid who didn’t really want to do it.”
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say the yoga session did him a world of good. James, the object of social media ridicule after sitting out the end of Game 1 with leg cramps, answered his critics with a predictably dominant effort, scoring 35 points as Miami took Game Two in San Antonio.
The Heat have now won 13 straight times after a loss in the playoffs. It should no longer be a surprise. James and Co. perform at their best in a crisis. But it had to be especially galling for James to hear his competitive courage being questioned after the opening loss.
Other pro athletes questioned whether James could have toughed it out in the opening game, despite the debilitating leg cramps. Random goofballs went on Twitter and made lame jokes about the leg cramps, turning “LeBroning” into a synonym for quitting.
James tried to shrug it off. He called himself “the easiest target in sports”. But you knew he was motivated to remind the world that he’s the best competitor in team sports. For much of the night, he made the San Antonio basket seem like the easiest target in basketball.
He shot 14-for-22 from the field. He made all three of his three-point attempts. James put on a shooting clinic. His first seven shot attempts came from within two feet of the basket, where he is virtually unguardable when he puts his mind to it.
OK, class, now let’s demonstrate our jump shooting form.
James then took his game to the perimeter. His next seven shots were all jump shots of 17 feet or more. He made his first six, scoring 14 points in a dazzling stretch of 2:14 to keep the Heat in the game.
It was reminiscent of Michael Jordan in Game One of the ‘92 Finals against Portland, when he made six three-pointers and scored 39 points.
At one point that night, Jordan looked to press row and gave a sheepish look that said even he couldn’t believe how hot he was.
James responded with a defiant scowl. While he can score seemingly at will at times, he is a consummate team player. The more I watch him, the more I think he’s the most complete player in basketball history.
Making shots is one thing. But for a hoop purist, it’s a pure delight to watch James do the little things, often the most grueling and uncelebrated things, that make his team win.
Just before his outside shooting surge midway through the third quarter, James stood his ground under his own basket and drew Kawhi Leonard’s third foul. It was a subtle but critical play. Leonard, who normally guards LeBron, was sitting on the bench when James caught fire.
At the end of the third quarter, ABC’s Doris Burke asked Spurs coach Gregg Popovich what his objective was for James in the fourth.
“Are you serious?” Popovich testily replied. “I’d like to see LeBron play poorly.”
“Pop” would have preferred not to see James play defense. For much of the fourth quarter, James guarded Tony Parker, the Spurs’ elusive point guard. It’s almost unthinkable for a man that size — James is listed at 6-8, 250, but he’s closer to 260 — to cover one of the quickest little men in the game.
James was up to the task, same as in last year’s Finals. He stopped Parker’s penetrations, forcing him to give up the ball late in the shot clock on several occasions. He made the biggest stop of the game with 1:40 left, stripping Parker of the ball as he drove to the hoop.
There was a lengthy review to see if the ball actually went out of bounds off Parker, but it was irrelevant. The Spurs, leading by one point, had just .8 of a second to shoot, and Manu Ginobili missed a rushed three-pointer.
By now, James was playing the point. Coach Erik Spoelstra had decided to play without a true point guard and let LeBron initiate the offense. Imagine having an unselfish star who can play all five positions and defend everyone from a hulking center to a sleek little guard.
James dribbled up the floor and found Chris Bosh in the right corner. Bosh drilled a three-pointer to give the Heat the lead for good, 95-93. The Spurs, who had won eight straight home games by at least 15 points, seem to come unraveled in the stretch.
The Spurs will rebound. They always do. I still think the Spurs are better, but this is a battle between two very closely matched teams. Over their last 14 meetings, the Spurs have outscored the Heat, 1,386-1,385. You can’t get much closer than that.
Miami is far from a one-man team. Bosh is playing bigger than he has in years, and Dwyane Wade is still a force. But in a matchup of evenly matched opponents, you have to fear the team that has the best player in the world.
As I said before the series, it’s dangerous to underestimate LeBron. He just keeps getting better. After Game Two, he told Burke his shooting was the result of all the hard work and dedication he’d put into the game away from the cameras.
“It’s my job to translate what I do when you guys aren’t around onto this stage,” James said with a smile.
Well said. James has become a bright, engaging spokesman for his sport, a guy who played in two Olympics because he loved the idea of subjugating his individual skills for the group.
It has been four years since his infamous “Decision” to leave Cleveland on an ESPN special. James has evolved beyond that dubious choice, not to mention the petty derision of critics who will never let it go. James has achieved what he wanted when he went to Miami, a chance to surround himself with good players and prove himself as a winner.
James is competing in his fourth straight NBA Finals. The idea that he would beg out of a game because he was physically soft and couldn’t rise to the big moment is laughable, further evidence the Twitter can be the province of fools.