"There's a point where you decide, 'I have to get my teammates involved.' Then there's a time where you decide, 'I've got to take over this game because I am the best player on this team.'" -- Magic Johnson
That's what we have to ask. What does LeBron James do now to put an end to all the questions about what went down in Game 1?
Should he have taken the shot? Did he really want the shot? Why didn't he take the shot? On four crucial occasions in the fourth quarter he had the ball and on four crucial occasions he passed the ball. Does he really want to win? Can he win? Does he have the will to win?
Seventy-two hours of hell. The nonstop questioning of will, not skill. He heard it all I'm sure. It was impossible to avoid. Sports can be cruel like that.
But now it's time to respond. He has to. The choice is no longer his. Because this game, Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, because of everything that has been said about him since that 79-76 loss to the Pistons -- since most of it is unfair, but valid -- this will be the most important game in LeBron James' life.
I repeat ... now what?
He came out like a man. Seemingly unfazed by how he became the talk of the sports world for three days. Under less pressure (in his mind) than Alberto Gonzales, LeBron spoke: "There's nothing more to talk about so they had to talk about me It doesn't matter to me what other people think about my decision Get a little more involved on the offensive end scoring-wise, try to be more aggressive going to the hole, take a [few] more shots I won't change where I get the ball on offense, at all I could have had some shots but I saw better shots for my teammates We all know what was the best play at that time I see a guy that's open, go for the best play I do a poor job of holding the ball [too long] at times and that allows them to set their defense A lot of people don't give us much credit, at all We don't get much credit and that definitely adds a little bit more motivation for us."
He's seen Peyton Manning go through this for years. Look at Peyton now. LeBron knows that one subpar game won't break him or change his philosophy or approach to the game. Damn what the public and pundits say. But this game tonight will be the one to determine how the rest of the world looks at him until he wins his first ring.
How soon we forget what he did last year during the playoffs. How soon we forget how the same questions existed but then he overachieved by pushing a Pistons team that was supposed to sweep him to the limit in the conference semifinals. How soon we forget that just as credit is given to the man who made LeBron shoot 5-for-15 from floor, credit needs to be given to LeBron for holding Tayshaun Prince to 1-for-11 shooting.
But none of that means anything does it? No one cares. All we know is that he had the ball in his hands twice on two different possessions down by two with under 18 seconds remaining and didn't take a shot. LeBron James' job tonight is to begin to make us forget that.
"Do I think it's the biggest game of his career? Yes," says Kenny Roda, a sports talk show host in Cleveland. Roda knows that of all of the 340 games LBJ has played since he entered the league, this one might be the one that defines him. "He has not disappointed in the past so I don't expect him to disappoint now. For that particular play at the end of Game 1, he didn't make the right decision, but we should judge him on how he responds in Game 2. What did he learn and will he return in Game 2?"
Which brings us back to will. His will. Which is really what this is all about. Can he will victories? The public needs to see LeBron will wins; make shots that he's not supposed to make, take shots he's not supposed to take. Not only the way Jordan did, but the way Reggie Miller did; not just the way Kobe does, but the way Gilbert does. "Your teammates can get better around you in the offseason," Jamal from Cleveland said on an XM talk show. "This is about you!" For LeBron to get past this "ugly episode" in his career, he needs to find a way to impose his will on this series. And to re-establish his legacy and silence the "I told you so'ers" it needs to -- has to! -- begin tonight. The minute he tosses that talcum powder in the air.
Do we believe in LeBron James? Of course we do. We are all witnesses, remember? But this game will be more about how America looks at him for the rest of his career instead of being about Cleveland trying to tie the series. This game is bigger than the Pistons versus the Cavs; this game is about a King's future.
This is the beginning.
Muhammad Ali once said, "The will must be stronger than the skill." Tonight LeBron needs to do his best Ali impression.