By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
There’s little doubt that Miami Heat superstar LeBron James is a lightning rod for basketball fans and no matter what he does, it makes headlines around the world.
Of course, the debate over who is a better player — LeBron or Michael Jordan — continues and should for at least another decade or so when James finally hangs up his expensive shoes. But it’s probably only then when a accurate measurement of the two Hall of Fame careers can be placed side-by-side and one may actually outshine the other.
Right now, Jordan’s incredible resume speaks for itself — with six championships and six NBA Finals most valuable player awards tucked away in his bulging briefcase. To Jordan backers, there’s no debate now — with the incredibly physically gifted James just starting to pad his resume with NBA titles and individual awards. Jordan has already been there and done that, and to many of Jordan’s colleagues and coaches, including Phil Jackson, the 6-6 MJ is the best to ever play the game.
Still, even with only one title under his belt and another one within his grasp, James is considered by some NBA fans to be the best ever, or at least the most dominant. He’s already captured four MVP trophies for the regular season and one for the NBA Finals. At 6-foot-8 and with the guard skills of Magic Johnson and strength of power forward Karl Malone, James regularly threatens to post triple-doubles any time he steps onto the court.
In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers, James had 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists as well as the game-winning basket just before the buzzer as the Heat pulled out a 103-102 overtime victory in Miami.
To some, it was James doing what James does best, doing whatever it takes to win a game. And James’ supporters will point out that he hit the game-winner, not giving the ball up to a teammate to decide the contest. That was a knock on James before he claimed his first NBA title last year.
But before those fans get too worked up, James made a layup to win the contest — not a clutch pull-up jumper or 3-pointer with a Pacers’ defender in his face. It was basically a wide-open layup when Indiana star Paul George misread the inbounds pass to James, who took advantage of the defensive mistake and then drove to his left past George for the game-winner.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel was criticized for taking out 7-2 center Roy Hibbert prior to the play, with only 2.2 seconds remaining on the clock. But it shouldn’t have mattered who the other four defenders were with George on the play since no one provided helpside defense on the James’ drive, and he easily went all the way to lay in the ball off the glass.
Someone should have hustled over to force James into a tougher shot, a possible charge or maybe a last-second pass off. No one did, so credit James for the great read and game-winning basket. With only 2.2 seconds remaining, the Pacers should have forced the Heat to shoot a perimeter shot and take their chances.
If you’re Indiana, which has the better odds — someone from Miami hitting an outside shot to win it or giving the 6-8 James a chance to go all the way to the basket?
For his part, George had a terrific performance, with 27 points, and matched up defensively on James for a lot of the contest. And his own clutch shot, a 32-foot 3-pointer with 0.7 left in regulation to tie the score and force OT, was a lot tougher than James’ game-winner. But that’s how the game goes, with a lot of peaks and valleys, and often with the smartest team winning because it makes the key plays down the stretch.
James is a much-better player today than he was two years ago when the Heat lost in the NBA Finals. That’s when he stuck more with a perimeter game, looking to shoot the long jumper or pull-up to win it. And when he didn’t make those extremely difficult shots, his critics blasted him.
But in that offseason, James continued to work hard and developed a strong post game to add to his skill set. Then last year, he led the talented Heat into the NBA Finals and dominated with a potent inside-outside effort while earning his first title ring.
This year, James has continued to grow in confidence and play smarter in the clutch moments. He finally figured it out, that if he took advantage of his physical strengths and basketball skills, he could do almost anything he wanted to do on the court and opponents could do little to stop him.
That was on display in Game 1 with 2.2 seconds left and almost everyone in the building knowing James would get the ball.
George did his best, but in the 2013 edition of James, you can’t make mistakes against him or he’ll eventually burn you.
In a nutshell, the game came down to that final play and James proved Jordan-like in getting it done — finally, and there could be a lot more of them over the next decade.
Will it lead to more NBA titles as James chases MJ’s collection? Probably. But it’s certainly going to add fuel to the debate over who is the best player to ever have played in the NBA.
Right now, MJ’s chilling and enjoying what he accomplished. He’s also an intelligent man and very aware of the talented James sprinting his way — and who knows, in another decade, Jordan’s closest challenger might have enough hardware then to make the debate one that could go either way.
Email Tribune-Herald sports editor Bill O’Rear at email@example.com.