James understands the closer phenomenon but laments it. "That's a problem with our league sometimes," he says. "You evaluate the last minute of a game, or the last 30 seconds, and forget this is a complete 48-minute game." Says Heat forward James Jones, "It's funny because the best plays aren't even at the end. You usually wind up with a lot of long fadeaways and pull-up jumpers."
Coaches often feature their closers to the detriment of their teams. Synergy conducted a study at midseason for ESPN and found that isolation plays are 7% more common in the clutch than in the rest of games, even though they are only the fifth-most-efficient plays to run. Champions close as a group. Durant depends on a screener and a passer, and a screener for the passer. James needs a screener, a cutter and shooters to space the floor. Durant is buoyed by point guard Russell Westbrook, and James by Wade, sidekicks who can also take tough shots in big moments.
After Game 2 in Oklahoma City, James leaned on Wade all the way to the locker room, where they soaked their feet in ice tubs and reminisced about their routines when they were rookies. "I'd show up, get dressed, do some windmills and 360s, put my sweat suit back on and leave," James said. Rookie point guard Norris Cole asked, "What if you did that now?" James paused, considering all the stretching, rubbing and icing he requires in the course of a day. "I'd be inactive for Game 3," he replied. They all laughed.
"Always be closing," Alec Baldwin preaches in Glengarry Glen Ross, which might as well have been the motto for Mariano Rivera. The massage, the shower, the snack and the stroll were part of an intricate routine culminating in another triumphant finish. James has come to understand what the alltime saves leader knew so well. The closing begins long before the ending.