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LeBron James enters Game 5 with everything (and nothing) to prove

For a brief moment Sunday night, the hardships in LeBron James [1] world went away: the overwhelming pressure to win a championship, the incessant questioning of his fortitude, and the expectations. Everything vanished when he buried a 3-pointer to tie Game 4 at 89 with 38 seconds to play in regulation.

Suddenly, James went from goat to G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time, for the uninitiated). More importantly for James, in that instant, there was just tranquility. But moments later in a flash it all came back, as James passed the ball to Udonis Haslem [2], who was forced into a low-percentage jumper that missed, and the game went into overtime.

“We ran a set where I was coming up for a pick and roll with [Dwyane Wade [3]] and I slipped out and [Wade] hit me,” James said of the final play of regulation. “I was on the left wing, and for the most part everyone else was on the right side, and I had a one-on-one before [Kevin Garnett [4]] came and decided to double the ball.

“I dribbled the ball middle and I saw [Haslem] circle underneath,” he continued. “[Garnett] got a hand on my wrist when I tried to make a pass to [Haslem], and we didn’t get off a good look.”

Just like before he hit the 3-pointer, it didn’t matter that James ranks second all-time in PER (player efficiency rating), trailing only Michael Jordan [5], or that his career average of 27.6 points per game puts him third behind Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain [6], or that he is one of only six players in league history to average 27 points, seven boards and six assists in a regular season (The others? MJ and Jerry West [7] each did it once, John Havlicek did it twice, Larry Bird [8] did it three times, and Oscar Robertson [9] and LBJ have done it in a whopping six different seasons), or that he already has as many MVP trophies (three) as Bird and Magic Johnson [10] did in their entire careers (and by the way, James is still only 27 years old). Nope. None of that matters. For James, the beat goes on and on (and on).

This, of course, is nothing new. In the 2006-07 season, James led the Cavs to the Eastern Conference finals against a heavily favored Pistons team. In Game 1, with Cleveland down two and time running out, James penetrated and found an opening in the lane, but rather than try his luck at the rim, James kicked the ball out to a wide-open Donyell Marshall for a potential game-winning 3-pointer. The shot rimmed out and James took some mild heat (pun intended) for deferring, but ultimately many treated the moment as a learning experience.

But that was five years ago. And as with everything, the expectations — whether realistic or even warranted for that matter — for his evolution to become the Next Great One have manifested, leaving scrutiny to ensue. The lack of a title, the lack of awareness in the clutch, his tendency to defer (as he did in 2006-07 and in Game 4) overshadow his accomplishments.

And in terms of Game 4, what was worse for James is that he didn’t get to avenge his shortcomings in overtime after fouling out for just the fourth time in 796 career games. Instead, he looked on from the bench as Wade missed a 3-pointer that would have given the Heat a victory and 3-1 series advantage heading back home.

“I know how to play the game of basketball,” James said. “I don’t need the advantage of holding somebody down or pushing somebody down. I don’t foul out. If I’m going to foul out [on] that sixth foul, I wished I earned it.”

Really, those last four words seem to sum up everything right and wrong about James’ career. If he wins a title, critics will invariably point to his cohorts — Wade and Chris Bosh — and subtract their contributions from his accomplishments. Whether this is right or not is completely subjective. Bird had Kevin McHale [11] and Robert Parish [12], Magic had James Worthy [13] and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar [14], and even Jordan had Scottie Pippen [15]. On the other hand, Bird never voluntarily teamed up with Dominique Wilkins, Magic never sought Bernard King [16]‘s help, and MJ enjoyed beating Patrick Ewing [17]‘s Knicks too much to ever consider joining forces.

James’ public relations staff hasn’t exactly been lighting the world on fire to combat this perception. Off the court, everything in colleague Ben Rohrbach‘s dissertation [18] stands and has made James the NBA’s No. 1 villain. What’s odd, though, is whether James really even earned that title, or the vitriol he receives on a regular basis. Looking back, he was kid in his mid-20s who wanted to play basketball with his buddies in South Beach. Could he have been more diplomatic going about it? Sure. But frankly, I’m convinced most people regret certain things they did in their mid-20s.

After the Celtics [19] took Game 3, the Heat locker room was loose and (relatively) worry-free [20]. The vibe following Game 4 was completely different. The first question to James was about something he isn’t accustomed to, fouling out. “Do you really want me to answer that question?” James irritably responded.

For James, suddenly, the realization slowly set in. … So much had happened, but nothing had changed.