Commentary

Artist known as LeBron rocks Garden

Forget for a bit 'The Decision' and Melodrama; appreciate one great performance

Updated: December 18, 2010, 6:03 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The night came crashing down on the New York Knicks with all the force of the Metrodome roof, and suddenly the latest regular-season game of the week and century had less to do with LeBron James than it did Carmelo Anthony.

The fourth quarter was a 12-minute SOS, a garbage-time plea for disaster relief from the Mountain time zone. But as much as the Miami Heat made the Knicks look like a team that needed Denver's Anthony sooner rather than later, Friday night was about the here and now, not the hopeful future or painful past.

James played a beautiful game of basketball in the arena that is supposed to appreciate beautiful basketball like no other. So it would be unfair to the artist and the art to make this Madison Square Garden passion play about the Knicks' fervent pursuit of Anthony or even their failed pursuit of James.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Al Bello/Getty ImagesThe Knicks -- and their crowd -- were simply no match for LeBron James.

With the spurned New Yorkers booing his every touch, LeBron elevated the city game to a place only the Jordans and Kobes could touch. He answered the fans' rage with an efficient, athletic elegance, tempering their emotions until they could jeer no more.

When he was done posting his triple-double -- 32 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists -- in Miami's 113-91 victory, James was asked whether he'd slowly but surely defanged another hostile crowd. James had inflicted enough pain on Gotham in the summer. He was smart enough to keep his answer confined to the court, a safe distance from the stands.

"As a team that's what we try to do," James said, "just try to wear teams down."

James already had laughed last at Cleveland's expense, plowing through the Cavaliers before a full house that would have treated Art Modell a whole lot better.

On Friday night, James toyed with the white-hot Knicks before an audience looking to settle a not-so-old score -- a free-agent courtship that turned out to be a practical joke, one big, exploding cigar.

"No comparison," James said of the reception he received at the Garden and the one he got in his home, bittersweet home.

The fans here booed him on introduction, booed him when he sent his cloud of pregame powder into the air in medicine man form, and booed him again whenever he caught and bounced the ball. Only James didn't respond with the same angry defiance that carried him through the fire in Cleveland earlier this month.

James calmly and coolly played a brand of ball the Knicks can't play, a brand even Dwyane Wade can't play, a brand even Amare Stoudemire can't play. "Right now he's the MVP of this league," James said of Stoudemire.

Only it's hard to be the MVP of the league when you're not even the MVP of a resuscitated Knicks-Heat rivalry.

James claimed that title by making 14 of 23 shots, including half of his six 3-point attempts, and by throwing a midair pass behind his back to an open Erick Dampier under the hoop.

"He's an awesome player," Chris Bosh said. "I'm glad I'm playing with him. I didn't even know he had a triple-double."

That was the best compliment of the night. James forced absolutely nothing across his 38 minutes of play, even when his counterpart, Danilo Gallinari, went off with a 21-point first half.

Despite all the madness around him, James played at room temperature. His stroke on the jump shot looked effortless. His drives to the basket looked controlled.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IILeBron strutted into town and strolled out with a triple-double.

On the defensive side of the ball, James was part of the posse that locked Stoudemire inside a phone booth, leaving him no place to turn. Stoudemire's streak of nine straight games of at least 30 points was left to die a slow and painful death.

The Knicks were the It Team in town entering this game, a show with some serious sex appeal and pizzazz. But they don't play any defense, and the Miami Heat surely do. The Knicks scored 17 points in the third quarter and 17 more in the fourth, and suddenly they looked like the pre-Amare Knicks, the ones who spent two years begging James for some crumbs.

Before the game, James was at his flirtatious best. He tweeted a picture he took of a giant Nike ad near the Garden, the billboard showing his image under the word "Destroyer." An earlier James tweet Thursday night read like this: "NYC!! One of the best cities in the world. Gotta love it."

James didn't love it enough, of course. He tried to explain why in a pregame news conference, speaking into a microphone carrying the Knicks' logo while a banner of Knicks logos served as his backdrop.

"I think they've got a lot of talent, got some great players, some great pieces," James said of the home team. "The meeting I had with this franchise [in July] was great, but at the end of the day, I felt like the Heat organization and the Heat personnel fitted me best and that it was the best chance to win."

James reasoned that his oft-stated affection for the Garden merely reflected the dream of every performer to play the NBA's answer to Carnegie Hall, rather than a desire to play there 41 nights a year.

He denied that he teased New Yorkers in the early hours of his free-agent circus by declaring, "You have to stay open-minded if you're a Knicks fan." James also denied that he ran scared from the pressures of lifting a downtrodden franchise and ending a championship drought in the world's noisiest marketplace.

"It's not a spotlight that I can't handle," he said. "It's not a situation I can't handle."

James thrived under those Friday night. His one and only troubling moment unfolded when he got a foot stuck under a chair on the Knicks' sideline, leaving him hobbling about.

James recovered and finished off his overmatched foe. It was a flawless display of ballplaying grace and no occasion to get caught up in what could have been with James in the past or what might be with Anthony in the future.

It wasn't a time to remind the world of how James embarrassed himself over the summer. It wasn't even a time to point out that James is exclusively a regular-season phenomenon, a stat-mongering Alex Rodriguez or Peyton Manning before they finally won their rings.

It was simply a night to watch greatness rise above the sound and fury. It was a night to appreciate the artist and his art.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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