As LeBron James spoke to the media, prior to Wednesday’s 115-78 rout of the Chicago Bulls, it was hard to steer your eyes off the T-shirt.
It read “UP TO ME.”
The message was up to interpretation.
You could have read it this way: That it was up to James to lead the Heat back into a tie in the series, after a flat, frustrating Game 1.
That it was up to James to get up more shots, from start to finish, to abandon ball movement for hero ball.
That it was up to James to shove his teammates aside, and shut down Nate Robinson, team scheme be damned.
You may have even said those things.
But maybe the shirt meant something else.
That it’s up to him to decide how to play.
At this stage, after the MVPs, after the championship, shouldn’t it be?
“He’s going to make the necessary plays, whatever it is and not necessarily what people think he should do,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.
And that’s precisely what he did Wednesday.
He just played his game, all of his game, all of which is superior to his peers, and he continued to play it even after the Bulls tried to agitate him into altering his approach.
He played with force, without forcing plays. He played with aggression, yet restraint. He showed that he refused to be pushed around, ripping his arm out of an early lock with Joakim Noah.
And, still, he refused to get pulled into the pit, even playing peacemaker when, after a hard foul, Chris Andersen angrily rushed to his defense.
“I was just trying to make sure we kept our composure, with everything that was going on,” James said.
In doing so, he showed growth. During the March 27 defeat in Chicago, the Bulls had successfully flustered him with their physical play, their “non-basketball” play, as he later put it. In retaliation, he had shivered a shoulder at Carlos Boozer, earning a flagrant foul, and inspiring someone he admires, Ray Allen, to offer some constructive counsel.
Allen reminded James that if he loses his cool, opponents will see weakness, and teammates — following his lead — may lose their way.
He didn’t lose anything Wednesday other than defenders on his assaults of the rim. He made all six of his attempts in the first quarter, beating the buzzer by schooling Jimmy Butler with a dribble-drive that required a sequence of spins. That scoring blitz allowed others on his side to slowly find their games.
And once they did, the lead swelled to 14 at halftime and it was time for an exhibition of almost-unprecedented excellence, even for someone as skilled as him. It came in the area of James’ game that somehow remains most underappreciated.
No, James did not score in the third quarter.
Still, he soared.
He did it with a variety pack of passes, each more pinpoint than the previous: A one-touch lob to Dwyane Wade. A throttle start and stop, puffing out air, threading Wade for a layup. A behind-the-back whip to Allen for an and-1 opportunity. A crosscourt entry feed, on a bounce, to Andersen for a dunk. A backhanded dart, from the lane, to Allen for a 3-pointer.
A 29-point lead to close the quarter, and the rest of the night off.
He finished with just 12 shots, five fewer than in Game 1.
He finished with 19 points, five fewer than in Game 1.
In fact, his only flaw was his free throw shooting, in his second night using Allen’s style.
“My mind is just crazy sometimes,” James had said in explaining the change. “We’ll how far that goes,. That’s probably my 75th time changing my free throws since I’ve been an NBA player. If I miss about four or five of them, then I’ll change it again.”
He missed four of eight.
So perhaps Friday, in Chicago, we’ll see something new.
What we saw Wednesday wasn’t.
It was James doing brilliant work, and doing it his way.
Up to him.
And now, the series is tied up.