We don't talk about it too much anymore, given the acrimony left behind in Ohio and LeBron's eventual success in Miami, but on May 22, 2009, his Game 2 winner tied the Eastern Conference Finals at 1-1, and shook off his rep of shying away from the big shots for good, or at least until whatever the hell happened in the 2011 Finals. It felt big.
The LeBron trolling had a different tenor back then, before his stature caught up with the pace his game had set years ago. It was an open question whether all of our eyes and box scores and instruments of measurement were lying, and really, behind it all, LeBron was just a chump who could dunk a little. It was stupid, and it changed, for 14 months or so at least, on one shot, which was also stupid, but at least set things more or less right with the world.
(You can see the gallery of that night, on Shots, here, or by scrolling below.)
Brian Windhorst, then of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and now known more among Heat fans as a man employed to follow LeBron around and tire iron his ankles, was moved to write bad poetry:
It was the silence that was so piercing.
As the ball arched through the air and carried the Cavaliers' championship hopes, it was so deathly quiet inside The Q that you could almost hear the red lamp on the backboard buzzer come to life.
Even the blasted AP recap did its best Once more had Dwight Howard taken the child of the gods to hell and back impression:
Michael Jordan no longer has the most famous buzzer-beater in Cleveland sports history.
The Shot has been topped.
LeBron James made one better. ...
From 23 feet — matching his jersey number and Jordan's — James hit a shot that will go down as one of the defining moments in a career that's just hitting its stride.
It's probably worth at least nodding to the fact that, even here at the height of the LeBron's first career, he'd already trained us to expect him to be incredibly fucking boring. Here's Bethlehem Shoals the night of:
The Magic have been better in this series than they've been at any time during the season (or playoffs, of course). That Turkoglu shot, a mirror image of Lewis's heroics from Game 1, looked like it had capped off, or kicked off, a new glory era for the Magic. No matter how unlikely it all seemed, it would be damn hard to argue with after this. I know that athletes can taste victory, but for once, I understood why that language exists.
But the Magic don't have LeBron James. And while we know stars can lose, upsets can happen, and our preconceptions can be wrong, James is the ultimate superstar. In that, he's both breathtaking and boring. We're watching a career unfold that's already HOF-bound, maybe even the best ever, and yet it all feels so inevitable. And so it was with that shot. Of course James would make it and put everything in its right place. The second — and yeah, it was literally a second — the ball went his way, you thought "this is how it's supposed to happen, isn't it?" You realize that "scripted" and "storybook" differ only in connotation.
It had to happen, and as shocking as it was, you could only be so surprised. But isn't that what makes LeBron so ridiculous? He's conditioned us to not only expect the impossible, but take it for granted.
LeBron has never wanted for praise, but until that shot, he hadn't really been knighted as an all-growed-up NBA star; he'd simply been a manchild beating the shit out of his elders. Even after putting in 49 the game prior, and the 47-12-8 under his belt that year, and after scoring the last 25 over Detroit in 2007 on the way to the Finals. You could make a case stick on LeBron if you squinted just right. Yeah, but he's a frontrunner. Yeah, but that Pistons team was broken. And this shut that down.
It didn't last exactly like that, of course. The Cavs dropped the next two, and lost the series in six, getting closed out by a 40-14 from Dwight. LeBron was gone a year later.