LeBron James faces an improbable ultimatum tonight: Win or go home.
Heading into the playoffs, virtually everyone thought James' Miami Heat had the Eastern Conference — and probably the NBA title — all but locked up. The only real questions seemed to be whom they would face in the finals, and how many games it would take for the heavily favored Heat to repeat as league champs.
But now, James and his rundown Miami squad are tied three games apiece with the bruising and resilient Indiana Pacers, with Game 7 coming tonight in Miami. The winner will go on to face the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA finals.
James has faced this situation before. Many times, his team has been one loss away from elimination. And to James' great credit, he has routinely raised his game to otherworldly levels — even by his own standards.
Admittedly, it's a small sample size of just 10 games. Still, there's no question that an impassioned James has shown a fiery resolve to carry his team in these decisive games.
James' teams, however, don't always perform as well in these games as he does. LeBron was just 2-5 in elimination games when he was on the Cleveland Cavaliers, and 2-1 since joining the Miami Heat. (The lone Heat loss was in the deciding game of the NBA finals in 2011.)
But even with some losses in the mix, LeBron reliably steps it up. For the best example of this, you need only go back to last year's Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics. After falling behind three games to two, the Heat looked lost and, with Game 6 to be played in Boston, doomed to an early exit.
After that, James had one of the greatest playoff performances in NBA history, tallying 45 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 assists. To put that in perspective, it was the first time in a half century someone had matched those totals in a single playoff game. The last and only other player to do so: Wilt Chamberlain.
James' 45 points were also the second most a single player had scored in an elimination game in at least 20 years. Remarkably, it was his second time doing so; he dropped 45 points in a losing effort against the Celtics in 2008.
James connected on a ludicrous 73 percent of his shots, many of them opportunities he orchestrated with his athleticism. Take this one, in which he sprinted from the top of the key and out-leapt two oblivious defenders for a soaring tip-in:
On other plays, a visibly angry James simply imposed his will, like on this vicious dunk in the game's opening minutes:
"This was the Bleep You performance everyone waited for from LeBron James," Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski declared. "The Hulk bursting out of his clothes, flexing his muscles, and twisting steel in his bare hands."
James followed up that performance with 31 points and 12 rebounds in a Game 7 win over the Celtics that propelled the Heat into the NBA Finals. Two straight elimination games, two straight crazy performances, and two straight wins.
Tonight is the first time James has had to stare down elimination since those back-to-back scoring clinics. He's played brilliantly this postseason. But so have the Indiana Pacers.