CLEVELAND — The similarities were striking.
How each play was preceded by a timeout. How the ball was inbounded with three seconds left. How each player caught the pass before drifting to his left, taking exactly two dribbles before rising over a helpless defender near the top of the arc.
And how two former players, separated by time and fate, happened to be in the same arena to see the play that binds them essentially play out again right there on the court.
Brad Sellers, a former center for the Chicago Bulls who was watching Wednesday’s game with his daughter and her friends at Quicken Loans Arena, needed only a nanosecond to make the connection once LeBron James drained his buzzer-beating 3-pointer to lift the Cavaliers to a 98-95 victory against the Indiana Pacers in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series.
Or was it May 7, 1989 again with Michael Jordan draining his buzzer-beating 3-pointer to lift the Chicago Bulls to a 101-100 victory against the Cavaliers in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series?
“As soon as I saw it,” Sellers said, “I was like, ‘That’s it. I’ve seen it before. I’ve been there. That’s Jordan.’”
The comparison did not come quite as swiftly to Craig Ehlo, who was also at the arena Wednesday night, as a guest of the Cavaliers owner, Dan Gilbert. It was not until Thursday morning, when Ehlo’s son showed him side-by-side clips of the shots on social media, that Ehlo, who was defending Jordan on that play 29 years ago, recognized the resemblance.
“Eerie,” Ehlo said in a telephone interview. “Immediately, I was in that moment again.”
This time it was Jeff Green on the inbounds and Indiana’s Thaddeus Young positioned to defend James.
“Ain’t that funny?” Sellers said. “Both of us in the building, watching this thing? Small world.”
Comparisons between Jordan and James are as constant as they are annoying, but they are also unavoidable — especially when James concocts another intergalactic feat, like the one against the Pacers, giving the Cavaliers a 3-2 series lead ahead of Game 6 in Indianapolis on Friday night.
But it was not only the gravity of the moment that was reminiscent of Jordan. It was the play itself.
“Same play,” Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue said as he left his postgame news conference.
Sellers, 55, recalled the words of instruction that Jordan had given him before he inbounded the ball: I know they’re going to double-team me, but just stay with me. I’m going to get free. Sellers sensed that James had the same mind-set against the Pacers. The same supreme confidence.
It was no surprise to Sellers, then, that James produced the same result.
“Some people in this game, they’ll run away from that shot,” Sellers said. “They’ll tell you they want that shot. They all say it. But you could see LeBron wanted it.”
Ehlo, 56, said he was able to celebrate the win on Wednesday without it being clouded by the memory of Jordan’s jumper.
“I didn’t put it together right away,” he said. “I guess with Brad being on the winning end of it all those years ago, he probably thought of all the good things.”
Not that Ehlo minds being included as a historic stage prop to help illustrate Jordan’s greatness, at least not anymore. Back when he was still playing, it was different.
“But now that it’s one of the most famous shots that Michael took, it’s actually an honor to be mentioned in it,” Ehlo said. “When people ask me about it, I stand up and say, ‘Yeah, it hurt when it happened. But I don’t hurt anymore because of the way they kind of honor you.’”
Ehlo recalled a phone conversation with his father not long after Jordan made what is now called The Shot.
“My dad was the best when he called me and said, ‘It’s O.K. At least you were in there,’” Ehlo said.
As for James, who was 4 years old when the original play occurred, he did not reference Jordan or Ehlo after Wednesday’s game. Instead, he said he had been channeling the feeling he had as a young boy, when he would roll up a pair of socks and sink imaginary game-winners on a makeshift hoop.
“As a kid, you always have those ‘3, 2, 1 …’ moments,” he said. “It felt like I was a kid all over again.”
The shots are not carbon copies, of course. Jordan’s clinched a best-of-five series and came just as he was beginning his ascent as N.B.A. royalty. James’s merely bolstered Cleveland in a seven-game series, while his legacy has long been secure.
Still, Jordan’s shot destroyed the morale of the Cavaliers, who had finished the regular season with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. The psychic damage lingered for years, but the team is now one of the most dominant in the league.
And while James’s shot will wind up meaning little if the Cavaliers fail to beat the Pacers in their series, Ehlo noted another difference: Young, the Pacers forward who was defending James, had managed to stay upright after James shot over the top of him.
“He didn’t fall down like I did!” Ehlo said.
James has been so good for so long that he invites comparisons as a way of providing context for his greatness. Comparisons to Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson. Comparisons to contemporaries like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
But James is the outlier of his generation, and so was Jordan. With one shot, in his own accidental way, James offered another reminder.
“Amazing,” Ehlo said.
Published at Thu, 26 Apr 2018 23:14:32 +0000