When LeBron James drove to the hoop for the winning layup with 3.2 seconds left to lift the Heat to a one-point win over the Magic on Wednesday, the strangest part was how easy it seemed. James' confident slash through the defense gave Miami its 16th straight win and put it in position to clinch a playoff spot Friday.
At 28, James finally has it all. He spent his first seven seasons as Cleveland's hometown hero, a beloved phenom stuck with a messy supporting cast and saddled with the hopes of a downtrodden city. When he left for Miami, he joined an outrageously talented team but became public enemy No. 1 to NBA fans, who cast him as a vain choker hiding behind talented teammates. The Heat's NBA Finals loss in 2011 brought an outpouring of schadenfreude, and James faced disproportionate ridicule for falling short.
But James' 2011-12 season seems to have broken the spirit of his detractors. He earned an MVP trophy for a great regular season and then turned up the dial in the playoffs with several otherworldly performances, culminating in a triple-double in the championship-clinching game.
Now that James has his ring, the doubters are exhausted with trying to find fault in him and beginning to appreciate the beauty of the Heat's dominance. Freed from the burden of being a villain, James is thriving, on pace for career highs in field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and rebounds per game. Everyone loves a winner, and the positivity around the Heat is pushing James higher and higher.
- Elliot Smilowitz