When most NBA players go off and turn reality into a video game, the results lie just across the Uncanny Valley — NBA Jam brought to life for a night, but still basketball. Impossible shots drop; flames burst from the ball. It’s sport rendered in cartoon action, yet a product not far removed from its baser forms. LeBron James, on the other hand, has no use for virtual basketball. For James, video game time means playing Mortal Kombat on a basketball court. And he always picks Shang Tsung.
LeBron does not defeat opponents. He destroys them. He vanquishes them. He tears their souls from their bodies and shuffles them free of the mortal coil. And he studies them. Information and tendencies reign supreme in the mind of the King; when he knows who you are — when he can become you, truly — he is free to unleash the full brunt of his athletic locomotion and the omnipresence of his knowledge. At his very best, James is a reflection of the rest of the superstars around the league. Last night, as he scored 61 points against the Charlotte Bobcats, Kevin Durant was summoned into LeBron’s hands. James became the NBA’s version of Liu Kang, flinging fireballs from behind the arc with preordained precision. He was Stephen Curry, lobbing pull-up attempts from 25-feet as a fully conscientious objector to the notion of sanctioned violence against efficiency. It wasn’t that LeBron checked to see if he was hot — instead, he assumed the guise of the hot hand personified, becoming the best version of another player.
That’s what makes James the best version of himself. The pool from which he can pick and choose a particular player’s skill and mindset is limitless. He can be anyone in the league,* and he can change between characters at will. With 60 points in sight, James frantically worked the controls in a constant quest to find the best moves. In transition and in the post, he has the agile grace and vicious finishing of Blake Griffin. Where a healthy Eric Bledsoe is mini-LeBron, James is capable of a transformation into Mecha-Bledsoe, using screens and hesitation, bursts and dribble devastation to get to the rim against the very best defenses. When he’s feeling it and gunning for a new career high, LeBron becomes Melo, inconceivably effective with a hand in his face after surveying and toying with the opposition’s alignment and cute attempts at double-teams.
*Save perhaps Roy Hibbert, who potentially stands as the Shao Khan to LeBron’s Tsung.
The ability to be the best of others would be unfair enough, but in the hands and mind of James, it’s a tool unlike any other. It’s that creativity and genius that make LeBron who he is, regardless of who he’s chosen to be. In the blink of an eye, he’ll process your tendencies, diminish your strengths, exploit your weaknesses. Then he’ll strike, as Reptile or Scorpion, as Russell Westbrook or Paul George. Sub-Zero and Kevin Love, Jax and (healthy cyborg) Derrick Rose; all are at his beck and call.
But to prove a point, LeBron went for the best trick in his bag. Against the Bobcats, James made it clear that the 2014 MVP race is far from over, and he did it in the most decisive way he knew how. For one night, LeBron became Kevin Durant to surpass Kevin Durant. Flawless victory. Friendship!