Miami Heat forward LeBron James has been the NBA's best player for the past few seasons, but in the Heat's 99-90 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night he made quite a claim for the title of the NBA's best closer as well.
Unfortunately for Lakers fans, James' inauguration as closer-in-chief came at the expense of celebrated Lakers closer Kobe Bryant.
Bryant has attempted and made more game-winning shots than any other player in the past 10 years, but James' performance in the last three minutes of the Heat's win was just as impressive because of the way he removed any suspense from the outcome.
Bryant has thrived on the reputation of either succeeding or failing on a game's final shot, and while his courage in those situations is admirable, it's still a 50-50 proposition.
James refused to let the Heat fall into that position by playing strong defense, rebounding, playmaking and finally getting any shot from the field that he wanted in the game's final minutes.
James' performance didn't have the hold-your-breath element of a Kobe jump shot with the game winding down, but the ultimate statement was just as decisive.
And it may be the best illustration of shining in crunch time that we have seen this year.
Last-second shot attempts are always the ones that capture attention and the imagination, while occupying most of the space on ESPN's daily top 10 plays. But little attention is ever paid to the events that precede the final approach to glory or scapegoat.
Even less attention is paid when those events end any hopes of even reaching that point.
I'm sure Lakers fans were still engaged as Dwight Howard stepped to the free-throw line with a chance to tie the game at 90 apiece with 1:51 left, but after he missed both shots the Heat went on a 9-0 run and James was at the center of it.
Ray Allen hit two buckets to create a little space, and James sent Lakers fans to the exits with his jumper at the 49-second mark, and just for emphasis he added a three-point play with 5.8 seconds left to go as well.
Those plays only complemented a performance that saw James lead all players in points with 39 and assists with seven, and he was the game's second leading rebounder behind Dwight Howard.
Oh yeah, James also shot 17-25 from the field. Not only was James' dominance thorough, but it was also efficient.
James left little doubt about who the game's best player is after his rim-owning performance against the Lakers on Thursday night. But just as importantly, James also proved that it's just as satisfying to win a game before the final buzzer sounds.
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