It is difficult to imagine now, but there was a time when he could not be counted on when it mattered.

Vividly I remember June 2011, when my Mavericks were made the agent of God’s moral retribution, which he spares us in life but applies in the world of sport. Those Mavericks pre-figured many of the teams Lebron James had dragged to the NBA Finals before and would drag in later years, including this year: led by one transcendent star, Dirk Notwitzki, a Swiss Army Knife of a player from neighboring Germany, the Mavs were otherwise a thrown-together group of single-dimensional role players and over-the-hill former stars.

I would not have guessed that this group, the latest product of Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s reflex of reshuffling the team’s roster to find the right band to surround his maestro, would have been the Mavericks group to break through.  But Cuban had finally found the right conductor in Rick Carlisle, a mad scientist of a basketball mind who perfectly matched Cuban in his refusal to adhere to strategic conventions, and who had in Notwitzki one of the NBA’s three or so unique talents that allowed a coach to re-think his approach to constructing a lineup.

Those Mavericks changed basketball for the next decade, and NBA fans are still living in the world Carlisle and Notwitzki created.  The reliance on small lineups spread to all corners of the floor, and heavy doses of pick-and-rolls from beyond the three-point line, foreshadowed the mastery of the mid-decade Spurs and then greater mastery of the Golden State Warriors.  It all revolved around Notwitzki, the greatest shooting big man in the game’s history, who could come off his pick and step back behind the arc or drive to take advantage of heavy-footed big men, and who around the middle of the previous decade developed a deadly post-up game.  Notwitzki’s genre-bending talent transformed a collection of clanging instruments into a symphony.

Lebron James would go on to become a maestro superior to Notwitzki, but the 2011 NBA Finals proved to be a kind of test from Carlisle and Notwitzki.  James failed.  His failure was not one of commission but one of omission: he more or less floated passively through much of the series.  It was a failure not of body—James’s body appearing to be indestructible—but of mind.  Surely he was weighed down by The Decision, the previous spring’s youthful fit of hubris in which James appeared on national television and announced that he was leaving terminally-beleaguered Cleveland for ever-posh Miami.  This is where the Mavericks were cast as the Angel of the Lord, to exact punishment for The Decision.

In a deeper way, though, in June 2011 James had simply yet to embrace his dominant position among the basketball gods—Jordan, Abdul-Jabbar, Russell, etc., etc.  He seemed a little hesitant to ascend to such heights, to take on the court-dominating responsibility that status entailed. James had the power to control the basketball court every time he stepped on it, every corner of it. The indestructible physique, the Olympian’s athleticism, the quarterback’s vision: James had the tools of body and mind to make him the single instrument around which every other instrument on the court, and indeed every other instrument in the NBA, revolved around.

What kind of person would be quick to embrace this role? It is a credit to James, as well as his mother, that he approached this role with trepidation. What made Kobe so insufferable was that he so easily assumed this role (or tried to), that he treated it as an inheritance he was owed. Even Jordan took time to come to this place: few people can see through the thick haze of Jordan’s aura and remember that in the late 1980s he, too, was subject to headlines and whispers that hounded James, about whether he could ever lead a time to a title. It remains pitiful—a fact truly worthy of pity—that in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Jordan made a roll call of people who had doubted him in his career. Sheesh.

Fast forward to Sunday night, when less than an hour earlier James had effectively ended Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals by flicking a pass 90 feet to George Hill with all the grace and ease of a drummer twirling his stick, praising his teammates and speaking of his dedication to his craft.

The general (and appropriate) reaction to James’s performance in the game as dazzling was pleasantly disorienting for anyone with a long memory. Sunday night was not one of James’s five best games in these playoffs, even though he was one assist away from a triple double and served up two more indelible images, the first a block of Terry Rozier’s layup, the second of James himself making a breakaway layup while being tackled in midair by a desperate Celtics defender.  No, those of us with a memory are used to hearing James greeted, after performing in ways no other human is capable of, with questions about why he did not do more.

Now, the lonely voices in the wilderness of a few knee-jerk critics and till-the-end Jordan loyalists notwithstanding, those times seem to be over.  ESPN courtside reporter Doris Burke expressed the general feeling when, after James nailed successive step-back three-pointers to close out Game 6 on Friday night, she could no longer maintain the pretense of journalistic objectivity and, staring squarely and vulnerably into the camera, expressed her thankfulness for the opportunity to watch James play.

That is as it should be. The supreme source of bewilderment of the previous decade in basketball, and possibly in all of American sport, was the continuing fetish with discounting James’s dominance.  It was very strange to hear, years after James had paid his comeuppance for The Decision, to hear critics search (in vain, as it was) for reasons that he was overrated, rather than to surrender to the simple joy and awe of watching him stride across a basketball court in the manner of a Colossus.  Odder still given that, unlike the only other basketball player with a defensible claim to being James’s superior on the court, James is by all accounts a solid citizen and a decent human being.

And so we can now simply watch.  We watch with wonder, with awe.  We watch him glide in the air like a note from a woodwind, this giant of a man, somehow sailing upwards to blast away from behind a sure layup from some unsuspecting mortal. We watch him whip a pass, like the start of a sudden and unannounced allegro, across the court to an open teammate. We watch the staccato tap of his sneakers into the lethal step-back jumper he developed at the point in his career when most players are planning retirement business endeavors. And most memorably we watch him as he scans the court, to our uninitiated eyes a disorganized rabble of offensive and defensive players but to James an established pattern, and then drives his giant frame at the defender like a pounding drum, and then he rises and dunks in an unforgettable crescendo.