Because we relentlessly write and rewrite the story of LeBron James every single day, every single game seems like the most important one of his life, career and eventual legacy. Every win puts him one step closer to the firmament of basketball gods, while every loss acts as a referendum on his essential vulnerability, his insufficient ferocity, the continued stain he bears for the immorality of his departure from Cleveland, or whatever else the author's selling. It can be hard to keep all these Biggest Games Ever straight, to know what's at stake, to know what matters and precisely how much.
So LeBron, as he does so often for his Miami Heat teammates, made it easy on us Wednesday, calling Thursday's Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs — the final game of the 2012-13 NBA season, an affair that will result in either Miami's second straight title or the fifth championship in the 1 1/2-decade partnership between Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and legendary big man Tim Duncan — "one of the biggest games, if not the biggest game, of my life."
Thanks, LeBron. Appreciate that.
James told reporters Wednesday that his pre-Game 7 prep would be pretty "light-hearted," chock full of time with old friends and family members whom he said would "make me watch 'SpongeBob' or something at 9 o'clock." The jovial off-night would offer the four-time MVP a bit of calm before what he expected to be perhaps the most tumultuous storm he'd ever experienced on a basketball court.
"That's what keeps me — it keeps me — don't want to think about the game too much," James said during Miami's Wednesday practice. "I understand it's a huge game. It's probably going to be one of the biggest games, if not the biggest game, of my life. But I'm going to just keep it the same way I've been doing, and tomorrow night I'll be able to focus in on the job at hand."
The job? Finishing Thursday with one more point than the dudes in black and grey, so that he can finish this remarkable two-year run by bracketing Olympic gold with back-to-back NBA titles, further burnishing his all-time résumé by joining the select group of consecutive champions that includes names like Mikan, Russell, Magic, Kareem, Jordan, Pippen, Hakeem, Kobe and Shaq. (And, lest I be accused of denigrating the game's red-white-and-blue-striped past, the Mel Daniels-Roger Brown-George McGinnis trifecta of Slick Leonard's early-'70s ABA Indiana Pacers.)
Sure, other players earned well-deserved jewelry on those back-to-back Lakers, Celtics, Bulls and Rockets, but those are the names that echo in eternity. By the sheer virtue of his play, James' name already appears in flashing lights alongside those other greats; topping the mountain in two straight years, though, would cement his championship credentials in the minds of those who'll never view regular-season dominance or transcendent individual play as enough in the absence of plural hardware.
"I thought about it, for sure," James said of reaching the rarefied air of back-to-back champions. "It's human nature. I want to go down as one of the greatest. I want our team to go down as one of the greatest teams. And we have an opportunity to do that. Hasn't been many peoples to win back‑to‑back championships. It's so hard. It's the hardest thing.
"I said last year it was the hardest thing I've ever done, winning my first. Last year don't even come close to what we've gone through in this postseason and in these Finals."
The Boston Celtics who pushed James to reach a whole new stratosphere in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals might beg to differ, but James' claim rings true.
Yes, James' numbers are down a bit from last postseason, when he averaged 30.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game on 50 percent shooting, turning in what the admittedly imperfect but often instructive Player Efficiency Rating metric marks as one of the dozen most productive playoff performances in NBA history. But even a dip/shift in James' counting stats born of, among other things, a slight reduction in minutes and a slight shift in role — 25.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 6.7 assists on 48.9 percent shooting — marks him as one of only seven players in league history to put up at least 25-8-6.5 in a postseason. The other six: Bob Cousy (who only played three games in the '55-'56 playoffs), Tracy McGrady (only six for the '07-'08 Rockets), John Havlicek, Paul Pierce, Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson. (If you filter for guys who won at least one round and also averaged at least 1.5 steals per game, as James is this year with 1.8 per, you're left with just Bird, Pierce and 'Bron.)
Plus, James has managed the bulk of those less-than-but-still-historically-great numbers against this year's Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Spurs — three incredibly physical, defensively masterful teams led by brilliant coaches whose personnel posed specific matchup problems for the Heat's preferred pace-and-space system. These are teams with ascendant defensive stars in Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard who seem tailor-made to make James' life miserable, and who have done so, often. These are teams, especially the Pacers and Spurs, that are very, very hard to beat, and in critical moments, James has done so, with giant, stomping games.
Like the 30-10-10-plus-a-game-winner triple-double in Game 1 vs. Indy. Or 32-8-4 and 16 trips to the line in Game 7 against the Pacers. Or 33 and 11 on 60 percent shooting in Game 4 in San Antonio. Or 16 fourth-quarter points on Tuesday in a 32-10-11 performance that puts him alongside Bill Russell and James Worthy as just the third player in NBA history to post a triple-double in a game that staved off his team's elimination.
Getting past the Pacers and, if the Heat are successful on Thursday, vanquishing both Indy and San Antonio becomes all the more impressive considering how hobbled Dwyane Wade has been by a bone bruise in his right knee and, now, a stiff and swollen left knee following a Game 6 collision with Manu Ginobili.
The 2012-13 Wade's averaging five fewer points per 36 minutes in the playoffs than last year's model and getting to the free throw line about half as often as he did last postseason, and at times seems unable (or unwilling) to execute his defensive responsibilities. He's not right now the All-NBA wing partner James had in his first year in Miami and for most of his second and third years. There's an argument that, at this stage of the season, the Heat are playing their best ball with Wade off the floor; that argument becomes unthinkable without James to activate the likes of Mike Miller, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers and Chris Andersen. (And, to be fair, their ability to provide James space to operate.)
James is shooting a bit less but doing so a bit more efficiently, with his True Shooting and Effective Field Goal percentages up a tick during this postseason. He's using fewer Heat possessions but assisting more often; he's guarding Tony Parker more and more and helping the French jitterbug do less and less. And he's doing it all at the tail end of what will wind up being a 99-game season following U.S. national team duty following an 85-game lockout-truncated sprint, coming off a game in which he played 49 minutes and 46 seconds and knows he may well have to go the full 48 (at least) to hold off a Spurs team that didn't come this far and get this close in what might be their last go-round to leave Florida empty-handed.
So, yeah — you can understand why this feels harder than last year. And why, as the discussion of legacies rattles and clanks on while the goalposts for James' greatness seem to keep moving backward, James grasps the enormity of both challenge and opportunity, and presses forward.
"I understand the moment for me," James said. "I've been pretty relaxed, though. I've been pretty relaxed throughout the playoffs. I'm going to be antsy, I'm going to be excited. I'm going to have some butterflies. I'll be nervous. Everything. That's how I should be.
"The moment is going to be grand," he added. "I'm happy to be a part of it."