MIAMI -- This is why there is no finality in sports until it's time. This is why, win or lose in this epic Game 6 on Tuesday night, there was no defining anything about LeBron James, his career, his place in history -- any of it.
If you did that, you'd have stopped paying attention after the third quarter of this breathtaking Finals game. You'd have stopped counting James' points, rebounds, assists, effort plays, and you would've let the record show that he was 3 for 12 with 14 points in an elimination game, and that the Heat lost by 10.
See how ignorant that is? That is not how the story ended, because the story hadn't happened yet. The story happened in the fourth quarter and in overtime, when James was a desperate, ferocious, possibly tragic and potentially triumphant athlete giving everything he had in the minutes and seconds that would come to define this game -- what he called "by far the best game I've ever been a part of."
If you'd approached the historic record of this game the way so many people want to rush the chapters through the publishing house on James' career when it's far from over, you'd have been foolish. You would've missed the best part.
The part you would've missed was James scoring 16 points in the fourth quarter, willing his team back from what had been a 13-point, third-quarter deficit. You would've missed him losing his headband, dunking and slapping the backboard with 8:59 left in the fourth quarter to drag the Heat back to within three.
You would've missed his back-to-back turnovers in the final minute of the fourth, when the championship dais was moved into view and the yellow tape to keep the fans off the court during the Spurs' imminent title celebration was settling into place. You wouldn't have seen him missing a 3-pointer, then making one, and then missing another one before Chris Bosh got the rebound and found Ray Allen in the corner for the tying 3-pointer with 5.2 seconds left in regulation -- completing the Heat's comeback from a five-point deficit with 28.2 seconds remaining.
No one would ever write the story of one of the greatest NBA Finals games in recent memory until the outcome, a 103-100 overtime victory by the Heat, was assured. So why would anyone want to do that with James' career? Why would anyone suggest that if James had lost this game, this series, his legacy would've been tarnished -- his status in the pantheon of the sport diminished?
You couldn't say that about this game until it was over, and you can't say anything of the sort about James without running the risk that you'll leave out the best part.
"The ups and downs, the rollercoaster, the emotions, good and bad throughout the whole game," James said after finishing with 32 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds in what turned into another in a growing list of marvelous performances when facing playoff elimination. "To be part of something like this is something you would never be able to recreate once you're done playing the game."
So let's please do this: Let's not make any more final pronouncements on James, his legacy, his career, his place in history, until all of that is decided. Let's wait until the final buzzer. Or at least, the fourth quarter.
James was possessed in the fourth quarter and overtime of this game, this microcosm of his basketball existence. Here was the most scrutinized athlete of our time with nowhere to hide, nothing to do but push as hard as he could and accept the results. On the other side of the mountain he was climbing were two outcomes: failure or relief. It was the kind of theater you get nowhere else in sports, this game encapsulating James' career to this point so beautifully.
"I basically told myself, give it all I've got," James said. "If we go down losing, I'm not going to go down with any bullets. I'm going all out. I can be satisfied with the results."
This is the acceptance, the contrition that James learned in 2011, when the super team he created fell short in the Finals against Dallas. He's been different since then, and yet everyone wants to continue to apply the same old, flawed logic. Every step he takes, every time he's on the brink of playoff elimination again, the anticipation builds for how failure will tarnish him.
If the same logic had been applied to this game, this snippet of James' career, my MVP vote for Tim Duncan would've been tabulated and the Spurs would've been celebrating their fifth championship. Duncan would be 5-0 in the Finals, a record for the ages. James would be 1-3.
Magic Johnson was 2-0 in the Finals once, then lost the next two. He finished 5-4 and got swept twice. At what point should we have stopped paying attention to his career and just decided that it was over?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar started 3-1 in the Finals. Then he lost the next two, and was 3-3. It would've been the height of absurdity to stop making entries on Jabbar's championship resume at that point. He'd wind up playing for a championship 10 times, and winning six of them. When was his legacy tarnished? When did the pre-Internet world have enough knowledge to declare his career path inevitable?
The rush to judgment on LeBron is a product of the era in which he lives, a time when the appetite for analysis and reaction and pronouncements is never satisfied. If nothing else, maybe this three-hour, three-minute rollercoaster ride -- this joyous journey into Finals history -- will set us straight. Maybe it will teach us something.
"That's why you play the game to the final buzzer," James said.
What we had on Tuesday night was not the final word on James' career; it wasn't even the final word on this series. This collision of the time-tested Spurs against the hastily formed attempt at a dynasty has pushed and pulled and delighted us more than we probably deserve, given this modern-day need for everything to be defined before it's time.
Now, James' Heat and Duncan's Spurs have given us a Game 7 in the NBA Finals on Thursday night, only the third in 19 years. There is still much to be sorted out, many more postseason journeys for LeBron James before anyone gets to decide what it all means.
"The best team will be crowned on Thursday night," James said.
Not until the final buzzer, it should be noted.