The Sixth Man: James quiets the critics

6/8/2012 8:00:06 AM

If we're all being honest, win or lose, LeBron James has been the best player on the floor in every single game of the Eastern Conference finals.

With his freakishly long arms that can seemingly reach around any defense, Rajon Rondo does a nice Mister Fantastic impression now and again, but as good as Boston's point guard is at times, comparing him to James is like saying my 2008 Saturn Ion is comparable to a Lamborghini.

The three-time and reigning MVP, however, is held up to a ridiculously high standard ever since his ill-conceived ESPN hour-long vehicle called "The Decision," in which he spurned Cleveland to take his talents to South Beach, turned him from one of the most loved sports figures in this country to one of the most reviled.

Comedian and talk show host Jimmy Kimmel summed up the country's dislike of James when he and the Miami Heat came up short to Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in last season's NBA Finals, Tweeting "70 years after WW2, LeBron James has America rooting for the German. Congratulations."

James is a big boy and made his own bed so this is not a plea to feel sorry for "The King," it's simply a recognition of his greatness whether you like him or not.

Championships don't define careers completely. If they did, we would recognize solid role players like Derek Fisher and Robert Horry as better than superstars like Elgin Baylor, Charles Barkey, Karl Malone and John Stockton who never grabbed the brass ring.

Basketball is a team sport and always will be. Sure, James' legacy likely will never be complete until he captures the Larry O'Brien Trophy, but we're talking about a legend in comparison with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant.

If James retired today with nary a championship, he would still leave the game as one of the best who ever lived, and he proved it again on Thursday during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals in Boston when he turned TD Garden into a House of Horrors for the hometown Celtics, who were run off their own floor, 98-79.

James set the tone in the opening moments and compiled 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, numbers that haven't been seen since Wilt Chamberlain did it in 1964.

"He was absolutely fearless tonight," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "And it was contagious.

"He is arguably the most skilled player in this league and he was able to showcase a lot of that tonight. We needed every bit of it."

LeBron shot 6-for-7 from the floor and netted 14 points in the first quarter, helping the Heat to a 16-point lead. There would be no deferring with the Heat's season on the line and James amassed 30 points by the half.

"I was aggressive from the opening tip. I went out and played as hard as I could," James said. "I just tried to make plays and give our team a chance to win, and I think I did that tonight."

By the end, LBJ was a sensational 19 of 26 from the field and never saw the bench until Spoelstra decided a 22-point lead with a little over three minutes remaining was enough breathing room to give his superstar a rest.

James' 45/15/5 was better than Boston's entire Hall of Fame "Big Three" of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (31 points, 13 rebounds, two assists). His main antagonist in the series, Pierce, was held to nine points on a dismal 4 of 18 performance from the field.

The lift was there on Thursday for James and everything was splashing through the net -- jumpers, fadeaways, contested shots, it didn't matter.

"I don't know. I will tell you every game is its own (thing)," James said of his performance. "I will continue to try to be aggressive. I will continue to try to play at a high level like I have done this whole postseason."

The dirty little secret for Miami, however, is that the Heat are completely reliant on their superstars and aren't a very good basketball "team." It's a three-man club down to 2 1/2 as Chris Bosh continues to try to get back in game shape from his lower abdominal injury.

The Heat will need another superlative effort from either James or Dwyane Wade, who has been ordinary in this series, to win a Game 7, whether it's on the shores of Biscayne Bay or not.

Normally a brilliant coach like Boston's Doc Rivers would head to the film room and start thinking about adjustments after a loss like the Celtics suffered in Game 6, but Rivers should know this isn't about a defensive tweak here or there.

When James' jumper is falling, it's shock-and-awe time for any opponent. You might as well waive the white flag, keep your head down, wait for the storm to pass and assess the damage afterwards.

So Rivers' lone adjustment for Game 7 will be to try to get people to stop tugging on that cape.

"I hope now you guys can stop talking about LeBron and how he doesn't play in big games," Rivers said. "He was pretty good tonight. Now that's to bed."

And that's Doc's best chance -- hoping the giant who shows up on Saturday is sleeping.