Game 6 of the Finals was the perfect illustration of the gap between the player LeBron James wants to be and the player he needs to be. He wants to be the greatest. He needs to be the best.
The LeBron of the first three quarters looked for the open man, made sure his teammates got into the flow, played tough defense, threw deft passes, set timely screens. The LeBron of the fourth quarter and overtime bulled to the basket and scored every time he felt like it.
It's no coincidence that Miami came back in the fourth quarter and won in overtime.
Here is the difference between the greatest and the best.
We think of the greatest in terms of art. We see Bill Russell swooping in to block a shot, Magic leading the three-on-one break, Jordan switching hands in midair, Dr. J going through a wormhole under the basket and scoring on the other side.
In those terms, LeBron has a chance to be the greatest of the greatest. Nobody else (except, possibly, Oscar Robertson) has been so good at so many parts of basketball. In any given game LeBron can be the best scorer, the best passer, the best defender, the best rebounder, the best shot-blocker. He wants all those things. You can tell by the way he plays. He wants to be known as the best all-around basketball player of all time.
I don't mean that as a selfish thing. Just the opposite. Displaying all those gifts makes LeBron the ultimate teammate.
We talk about Tim Duncan as the Big Fundamental, but nobody makes more sound plays than LeBron. If you froze the tape at any moment in a game and asked a coach "What should LeBron do right here?" that's what LeBron will do. He plays the correct note every time.
But if you listen to enough music, pretty soon you figure out that the correct note is not always the right note. It's a wondrous thing to hear a tight band playing in the pocket. But it's breathtaking to hear a great soloist coming over the top.
And in basketball, sometimes the only way to win is to take a solo. That's what it means to be the best -- to take the moment and grab ahold of it.
I believe a wise man recently said, "This game has always been, and will always be, about buckets." Sometimes the Heat doesn't need LeBron to be the greatest multitalent of all time. Sometimes they just need him to get buckets -- go to the hole, make layups, draw fouls, get out on the break and finish. LeBron is a beautiful passer. But he's always passing the ball to someone who's not as good at making baskets as he is.
I think LeBron feels it's selfish to dominate games that way. I suspect he thinks it's boring, too. And I wonder if some tiny part of him thinks it's unfair to be faster than all the strong players and stronger than all the fast ones. I believe LeBron, in the long term, wants to be seen as the greatest. But I don't know if, night after night, he wants to take over the game and be the best.
That's why it feels like LeBron -- and by extension, his team -- has an on/off switch. That's why he sometimes acts like the swordfighters in "The Princess Bride" who -- surprise! -- aren't really left-handed.
He knows the way basketball is supposed to be played, in a coach's mind and in his own dreams. It doesn't involve hammering down low over and over again, dominating with strength instead of skill, taking so much of the beauty out of the game. I don't think LeBron wants to win that way. But it's the most likely way Miami can win.
If you win enough, greatness comes with it. In the moment, though, that's hard to see. It has to be especially hard for someone who sees the floor in ways the rest of us never will.
LeBron took over Game 6 at the end, just as he did in for that whole Game 6 against Boston a year ago. Both times, he had the same grim look on his face.
It must disappoint him to set aside his greatness in order to simply be the best.
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