As LeBron James plotted and schemed to find his destination as an NBA free agent last summer, his execution couldn't have been worse. A decent, good-hearted man, he managed to alienate every sports fan that values the concepts of respect and humility.
Still, the man had a dream, and it was realized Monday night in Boston. The Miami Heat do not yet have their berth in the Eastern Conference finals, not yet, but Game 4 against the Celtics represented the essence of James' vision.
The fact that it happened in Boston -- a 98-90 overtime win giving Miami a 3-1 series lead -- was indescribably important. That's where LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers came up empty, time after time, and there were those who questioned whether James could ever have an impact in that building.
He had more than impact Monday night. He owned the place. As much as Dwyane Wade was brilliant (28 points) and Chris Bosh was invaluable (20 points, 12 rebounds), LeBron had a 20-point first half that served as a formidable, ominous answer to the inspired play of Rajon Rondo.
Against most teams, with Rondo fighting off the pain of a dislocated elbow and contributing in every conceivable way, the Celtics would have taken a massive lead on the strength of pure emotion. It was James, methodically scoring both inside and out, who kept the first half close (Boston led, 53-50) and didn't let up, finishing with a game-high 35 points.
Let's take a moment to marvel at Rondo's performance. He wore such a stoic look, denying the Heat even a glimpse of his torment, you wondered if he'd somehow crafted a miraculous recovery. He brazenly dribbled with the left hand, used that shattered left arm to deflect a pass, picked himself off the floor after a couple of brutal spills, even threw a sweet lefty dish that set up a couple of Kevin Garnett free throws.
But the pain was killing Rondo. It had to be, and most the Celtics had admitted during the off-day workout that they'd stopped trying to figure him out. "If everybody's going to wear white, Rondo's going to wear green," said Ray Allen. "He's a ... I don't even know how to explain him."
Sometimes, no words are necessary. And here's one thing that isn't such a mystery (although the TNT television crew didn't mention it): Even at his best, Rondo virtually never shoots with his left hand. He'll go out of his way to use the right, and we saw a number of those occasions Monday night -- including, regrettably, a wide-open layup that Rondo missed from the left side with 1:12 left in the game -- a shot that, if made, might have prevented overtime.
In their own far more-subtle way, the Heat stirred up plenty of motivation. The old master, team president Pat Riley, spoke privately with his players after Sunday's shoot-around, all about history and respect for the game and what it's like to contest a huge game in Boston. "Pat's been through this," said LeBron, referring to Riley's fabulous coaching career with the Lakers. "He's seen everything there is to know about."
Then there was the first-half appearance of Udonis Haslem, a forgotten man on the Heat's roster after sitting out six months with a torn ligament in his left foot. Haslem was raised in Miami, a rough part of town, and as a member of the Heat's 2006 championship team, he truly understood what it meant to the city. When the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks came after Haslem on last summer's free-agent market, offering far more than the Heat could afford, the "Big Three" -- James, Wade and Bosh -- each cut millions off their salaries to make sure he stayed.
"They all said, 'I'm in' without hesitation," Haslem said. "No questions asked. They respected me as a player, trusted me as a leader and friend. I told them, 'Thank you. You didn't make a mistake. I won't let you down.' "
Haslem played only three minutes Monday night, leaving the floor in frustration after two quick fouls, but wait until his name is called in Miami during Wednesday night's Game 5. That will be a high-energy moment rivaling any we've seen during this remarkable set of playoff series.
The Celtics will have serious regrets about Game 4. They hated to place so much responsibility on Delonte West, especially with a badly injured shoulder. They watched Garnett virtually disappear on offense, going 1-for-10 from the floor. But Miami's defense was the hidden story of this game, a suffocating brand of team-wide desire that made the matadorish Lakers (against Dallas) look pathetic in comparison.
In the end, James headed toward the locker room wearing a look of immense satisfaction. This is what he meant, so many months ago, even if the proper words failed him. The true story gets told on the floor.