- Rick Reilly, Columnist, ESPN.com
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You wonder sometimes, what kind of mushrooms people are eating.
A reporter the other day asked LeBron James if he's "shrinking" in the fourth quarter of these NBA Finals.
True, James has scored only nine points in the four fourth quarters so far.
And ... ?
If anything, the way James is playing has only made him double in greatness. James' legend isn't shrinking, it's swelling up like a Macy's float.
I'm the last guy that wants to write a glowing column about LeBron James. I hate how he conspired to get to Miami, hate how he took a short cut to a ring. But you'd have to be visually impaired not to see that James is playing gorgeous, selfless, complete basketball.
He is defending first, passing next, screening third and shooting fourth. The man had nine assists in Game 3 and seven in Game 4! He flirted with a triple-double in both. If anything is shrinking, it's whichever poor Dallas Maverick he's guarding. Have you seen the line on the Mavs' No. 2 scoring option, Jason Terry, in the first three games? Thirty-eight percent shooting, four 3-pointers, total, and no buckets in five tries in the final quarter versus TCO (The Chosen One). James has been on him like scales on a flounder. Terry has to leave the building just to get a full breath.
Eventually, LeBron James is going to win enough rings to start a pawn shop. He may win them by scoring like Wilt. He may win them by passing like Magic. He may win them by defending like Russell. What's your point? Aren't they all shiny?
Even Dwyane Wade admits that it's James' team in crunch time.
"He makes the decisions for our team," Wade explained last week. "Whether he wants to shoot or whether he wants to pass. He's a great player. He's 6-8, he can see over the defense and he's a great passer. Normally I was the guy here in Miami. At the end of games I always had the ball in my hand. So it took me time to get comfortable with that and get comfortable with saying, 'All right, LeBron, you take it.' Yesterday, Coach called a play in the huddle for LeBron. He wound up saying, 'No, I want D-Wade to have it right here.'"
By the way, Wade wound up lobbing to The King for a flush on that play.
Besides, statistically, James is a better clutch player than Wade anyway. According to Chasing23.com, James has made "nearly twice as many crunch time baskets [and] shot nearly 10 percent higher in FG" in crunch time in playoff games.
Instead, James is making me-last decisions. Double-teamed with just seconds left in the loser-lays-awake-all-night Game 3, he threw a beautiful corner-of-the-eye, side-wing pass to a wide open Chris Bosh for the winning jumper. Then, at the other end, he clamped down on Terry so hard that Terry -- a pure outside-only shooter -- found himself in a clump under the basket.
People who only care about "points scored" in a box score are the same kind of people who think the waiter made the soufflé.
My God, what's James supposed to do? Dunk from the bus? This is a man who averaged 38 points a game in an Eastern Conference finals versus Orlando and lost. He's relishing a new role.
"LeBron don't have to score to be effective," is how Wade put it Monday.
Does James feel like he can't win?
"No, I did win," he says with a grin. "We won. That's all that it's about."
James told the "shrinkage" guy he was only looking at one side of the floor, only looking at the stat sheet. He's right. The stat sheet is just the problem. James is so ridonkulously talented that we need to come up with new stats for him. For instance:
• SPU -- Shots Passed Up by the man you're guarding because that man knows you're a 6-8, 265-pound freak who can move like a tornado and jump like a Calaveras County frog and would've knocked his shot into the mezzanine.
• PNT -- Possessions with No Touches by the man you're guarding, because that man knows you're going to make him look like Elton John's sister if he asks for the ball.
• LOB -- Minutes the player you're guarding is left on the bench (Players' Decision.)
So, just to recap, LeBron James is:
A. Really, really good at passing (no forward in history has ever averaged more assists, including Larry Bird).
B. Really, really good under pressure in these playoffs. (Remember? In Game 4 against Boston, he scored 11 of the Heat's last 13 in regulation; Game 5 against Boston, Miami's last 10; Game 2 against Chicago, nine of the last 12.)
C. Really, really bad at one-hour ESPN specials.
I get being angry at him for that. I get being torqued at him for ganging up with two of the other top-10 players in the league and crushing all the uncoordinated kids on the playground.
But ripping him for playing beautiful basketball?
That's so dense, light can't escape it.
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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "SportsCenter" and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.
Feel like taking a detour from sane sports? Try Rick's new book, "Sports from Hell."
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