INDIANAPOLIS – LeBron James sprinted onto the court, boos smattering his Miami Heat, and hundreds of miles away, his old NBA franchise once more sunk in a piteous state. The NBA’s generational player continues to outlast whatever venom opposing crowds give him, continues to vindicate his free agency decision of 2010, but time and time again the Cleveland Cavaliers validate everything for him.
Winning and losing.
In New York on Tuesday night, the Cavaliers captured a third No. 1 overall pick in four years, with nothing of credence to show for their absolute luck since James bolted for Miami. Cleveland’s new general manager, David Griffin, promises to be a tactful, forceful decision-maker. Between he and Mike Brown, only one man was destined to stay on the job, and Griffin won over Dan Gilbert.
Cleveland wasn’t competing for the No. 1 pick, but rather a season of growth, of displaying the talents of recent high-lottery draft choices, of a potentially legitimate opportunity to sway James back home. No. Instead, they were disjointed and vaulted themselves into the pity and disbelief of personnel around the league. All these franchises awaiting their big break, and the Cavaliers struck gold again?
James ran on the court for pregame warm-ups Tuesday, unaware and disinterested of the Cavaliers’ predicament. He and Dwyane Wade put forth an authoritative two-man game, 22 of their total 44 points coming in the fourth quarter of an 87-83 comeback win on the Indiana Pacers in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. This was classic LeBron and Wade, classic Miami Heat evisceration of a team with execution, delving into their magnitude of playing gears.
No one dared ask James about his old team before his walk alongside Wade out into the warm night, but word of the Cavaliers’ No. 1 pick in the June draft spread among Miami players within the locker room after Erik Spoelstra’s postgame address, a source said. James has a march to the NBA Finals on his mind; young, fellow Ohio native Norris Cole has a third championship in his grasp. To pay further thought on a side topic would be a disservice to this chase.
Over and over, Wade fulfills James’ faith when he most needs him. They’ve come to develop such stable chemistry, Wade claims he always knows where “6” is on the court and James always knows where “Flash” is. Wade is the sidekick James never had anywhere else, and they’re now fully mature on the court. Fully bloom.
“LeBron and Dwyane, they talked about schemes in huddles, about what we’re going to do on the offensive end,” Rashard Lewis said. “Those guys kept their composure and we followed. They took it home for us.”
These Heat never folded, and Wade remembered a time when this core group would have panicked under the stresses of the road and double-digit deficits. He recoiled memories when James became disoriented on the floor, when the 2011 Finals changed so much of his demeanor about the sport.
Now, James directs everyone from Wade to Cole, and there he was informing Cole near the end of the third quarter Tuesday about a new defensive assignment: Stephenson. He had lit up the Heat for 23 points into the fourth, but Cole did a masterful job of centering his body, getting low and stifling his scoring. All LeBron’s idea, Cole said later, and James stuck with the credit.
“His leadership really went to another level,” Wade said of James.
“The ball is in our hands, and that’s what we wanted when we came here. That’s what we envisioned, having two guys able to be dynamic at the same time.”
Four years into this partnership, and Wade and James still emit statements to validate why they joined together in South Beach. Except every action delivers it for them, moments where one tells the other, “I got your back.”
Here was a superb case: James had grabbed a rebound and darted full throttle to the other end with over three minutes remaining in Game 2, and he had viewed an open lane. He elevated as a defender trailed but couldn’t lift into the layup, and so the shot cascaded short on the backboard. Yet, Wade trailed him, tip-dunked and clinched an 80-75 lead.
“99.9 percent of the time when he’s one on one with someone,” Wade said, “we take our chances.”
“But we covered for one another,” James said.
All the way in New York, the Cavaliers’ vice president had discussed the upcoming draft as the most talented pool since 2003. Since LeBron James. He didn’t need them, but all along, they so desperately needed him. And in the end, perhaps Cleveland will find an All-Star caliber player in Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins or Joel Embiid.
The league’s generational star ran on the court Tuesday night, overcoming series holes and authoring a marvelous stretch of crunch time basketball. Sure, his old team’s relapse in the NBA draft lottery had entered the minds inside the Heat locker room after tying the conference finals, 1-1. Only LeBron James is re-writing and enhancing his legacy now, and the Cavaliers keep validating every part of his decision for him, hundreds upon hundreds of miles away.