THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

James was in rare air

Heat star’s opening act was like a Bird in flight

In Game 1 LeBron James did a little bit of everything; last night, he powered his way to a game-high 35 points. In Game 1 LeBron James did a little bit of everything; last night, he powered his way to a game-high 35 points. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / May 4, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

MIAMI — It was a game Larry Bird would have been proud to call his own.

Oh, sure, people waxed eloquent over Dwyane Wade’s 38 points in Game 1 against the Celtics. And how could anyone not appreciate the significance of James Jones’s 25-point outburst, laden with killer threes?

But the best player on the floor was LeBron James, playing the type of all-around game few in the history of this game could even imagine.

LeBron inflicted so much damage on himself with the asinine “Decision’’ that it is now obscuring his actual greatness as a player. He has fallen into the category of previous inner-sanctum greats of the game in that his typical season is MVP-caliber, whether he enters the discussion or not.

Derrick Rose has been the chic MVP pick this season since approximately Christmas (he officially won yesterday), and you’ll get no argument here. Yet LeBron can do much of what Rose can do, and at 6 feet 8 inches and 270 or so pounds, a whole lot more. His extraordinary range of skill makes it almost inconceivable that he could ever have what could be termed a “bad’’ game. There is only great, very good, and somewhat less good.

Last night, his encore was a 35-point effort (14 for 25) that propelled the Heat to a 102-91 win and a 2-0 lead in this series.

On nights when his shot isn’t falling, he always can go to the hoop. He always is looking to pass. He always is willing to rebound. He is a monster in transition, with or without the basketball. And — guess what — he has become a very good defender in both an individual and team sense.

The defense seldom gets discussed publicly, but rival coaches know. Doc Rivers does, anyway.

“He’s come light-years defensively from the time he started,’’ saluted Rivers. “I think Mike Brown got him going. The Cavaliers were always a good defensive team, and he should have been the best defender thanks to his great athleticism, but he wasn’t.

“But in the last two years in Cleveland, he became a great defensive player. That’s why he was a good fit for Miami. They were a good defensive team last year. Erik [Spoelstra] has been a good defensive coach. He has fit right in. Actually, that’s been the easiest part for them — the defense.’’

Rivers is thinking of LeBron’s steady halfcourt defense, of course, but the rest of us more likely will be focusing on two flashy plays he made in Game 1, all the more so because they were made against Boston’s resident athletic freak, Rajon Rondo.

The first was a soaring block from behind early in the game (6-4, Boston) as Rondo was trying to score on a fast break. It’s a safe bet Rondo didn’t think LeBron would be anywhere near him.

The second was a steal from behind, again with Rondo in transition. James, all 6-8 and 270 of him, came roaring from the rear to catch up with the 6-1 whippet and simply steal the ball without fouling. It was a 10-point (92-82) game with a little more than three minutes left, so it did have some actual meaning.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone catch Rondo from behind like that,’’ marveled Spoelstra.

If it has happened, the previous thief wasn’t 6-8 and 270; you can be sure of that.

LeBron’s stat line in Sunday’s 99-90 Miami triumph wasn’t gaudy: 8 for 19, 22 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists. He even missed four free throws, which is the one un-Larry-like thing on the résumé. But you had to see it to understand how much his fingerprints were all over this one. He can orchestrate without scoring, something Bird and Magic Johnson could do but neither Michael Jordan nor Kobe Bryant could, or can, respectively.

As his coach, Spoelstra knows what LeBron’s assignments and job description were better than anyone.

And?

“This was one of the most intelligent games he’s had all year long,’’ said the Miami mentor. “He didn’t force it, but he was aggressive. He was doing a lot of different things. He was our primary post-up player. He got in the open court. He guarded four or five different matchups.’’

Bird’s very best games weren’t necessarily the ones in which he had 45, 50, or even 60 points. He was always capable of scoring big, and that was fine. But that was never his essence.

His essence was feel and versatility. He knew when he had to score and when he had to choreograph. He once led the team to a comeback win from a 20-point halftime deficit in Phoenix with seven assists in a third quarter during which he never took a shot. How many players in history could have done that? Oscar Robertson, yes. Magic? Absolutely.

LeBron James? I say yes.

LeBron’s overall scoring and assist totals were down slightly this year, for obvious reasons. He has a very gifted teammate with quite similar skills in Wade. He doesn’t have the ball as much as he used to. He’s in a very different circumstance, one in which he’s been criticized because he hasn’t made enough “clutch’’ shots to satisfy the critics.

OK, he’s not the pure shooter Bryant is. The Lakers great would be the consensus pick as the guy you’d want to take the last shot, and so be it. But Kobe can’t pass with LeBron and he can’t rebound with LeBron. They are different players, each with clear historic parallels, Kobe’s being Michael and LeBron’s being, yes, Larry.

Celtics fans don’t want to hear that, I’m sure, but a game like Sunday’s should have stirred some pleasant memories for Green People pining for the good old days of the ’80s when Larry didn’t have to get 30 to affect every aspect of the game. There is only one contemporary player who can evoke those memories, and that player is LeBron James.

You can always loathe The Decision. But it’s pretty hard not to admire the player who made it.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

Celtics Video

Follow our twitter accounts