Pat Riley was reclining in a chair before a mounted TV, watching the final minutes of Game 3 in a back room of his old gym, Madison Square Garden. The overlord of the Miami Heat had his jacket off and his arms crossed as he sat near a table littered with popcorn boxes, looking very much like a fan.
With victory certain, Riley had walked out of the Garden stands and retreated to this room marked "Miami Team Executives." He was in there with his wife, Chris, who was clapping and woo-wooing every last point her husband's Heat dropped on her husband's old New York Knicks.
Glen Grunwald, Knicks GM, stepped into a lounge across from Riley's open door. Jim Dolan, Garden chairman, all but staggered by on his way to the losers' locker room.
Soon enough Alonzo Mourning joined the party, and then Heat owner Micky Arison, all of them sharing a big laugh over their 87-70 triumph and 3-0 first-round lead. Riley noticed a familiar face at the door, extended his hand in acknowledgment and said he wasn't talking for the record until his Heat were safely into the second round.
He was asked about LeBron James, anyway.
"Just say I love him," Riley said.
Yeah, Riley loves him the way he loved Magic Johnson in Los Angeles and Patrick Ewing in New York. Riley loves holding a decisive edge in talent in a playoff series, and he loves watching his biggest star, James, score 17 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter while the opposing star, Carmelo Anthony, misses 16 of 23 shots while his team crashes and burns.
Only this series did not die an unofficial death in Game 3, a game uglier than Amare Stoudemire's left hand. This series was decided on that July night in 2010 when James decided his favorite arena, the Garden, would be a fine place to visit, and nothing more.
The Knicks had all kinds of ambitious plans that summer, starting with the dreamy long shot of signing James, Amare Stoudemire and Joe Johnson. They wanted LeBron above all, just like everyone else, and settled for Stoudemire.
During their failed recruiting pitch, the Knicks showed James a cute "Sopranos" skit. Riley showed him his championship rings.
So the moment James decided to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, this lopsided series was inevitable. After the Knicks settled for Stoudemire, they settled for Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, too. They formed a Big Three that never had a chance against Miami's Big Three, not when the Heat had the Big One.
James. Perhaps the greatest physical talent to step foot in the NBA, Michael Jordan included.
The Knicks executive who swung and missed on LeBron, Donnie Walsh, is no longer in the house. Dolan ordered the Anthony deal against Walsh's wishes, and the new GM, Grunwald, signed Chandler, the center who beat the Heat in last year's Finals.
The Knicks have been chasing, chasing, chasing, and chances are they'll never catch up to James. Just like Ewing's Knicks couldn't beat Jordan's Bulls, Melo's Knicks aren't beating LeBron's Heat this year, maybe next year, maybe the year after that.
Even if Stoudemire didn't lose his mind and Iman Shumpert didn't blow out his knee, Miami would've won this series in five or six. Now the Heat will win it in four Sunday. Mike Woodson's offense was a bad joke in Game 3, and the coach admitted, "I've got to take the heat for that."
Anthony tried to do what he was told he could not. "Melo is not going to beat this team by himself," Woodson said before Game 3.
Melo can't beat LeBron by himself, never mind the Heat. James was benched in the third quarter with four fouls, but nobody on the visitors' side was sweating the small stuff.
"We had the lead going into the fourth quarter on the road," Wade said, "and we had the best player in the game coming back in."
James opened the fourth with a 3-pointer that pushed the lead to five, this before he grabbed two offensive rebounds on his own misses and sank a left-handed putback. LeBron drained another three to make it Miami 66, Knicks 56, and later he blew by Anthony for a driving layup, drawing the Melo foul and completing the three-point play.
Game, set, mismatch. James had scored Miami's first 11 points in the fourth, making Anthony look small and weak in the process.
Asked what he'd remember most about his first playoff game in the Garden, James said, "That we won. That's all that matters to me."
LeBron had been subjected to profane chants all night, and he called the Garden a "hostile environment." He swore he wouldn't play the villain this season, not after embracing that role in Year 1, but Knicks fans were hell-bent on making him the bad guy all the same.
It didn't matter. Wearing a mouthpiece marked XVI -- 16 victories for his first title -- James lifted his playoff record in Miami to 17-7, while Anthony's playoff record in New York fell to 0-7. Melo is 16-36 overall in the postseason, LeBron 59-36.
The franchise James declined to save became the first in NBA history to lose 13 consecutive playoff games. The Knicks have gone more than 4,000 days without a single postseason victory, and by the end of Game 3 it felt like the drought might last 4,000 more.
The winning executive, Riley, knows a thing or three about Garden misery. He watched Ewing end his Knicks coaching career on that missed Game 7 finger-roll in '95, and he soon found himself pacing back and forth in an empty room while the sounds of celebrating Pacers penetrated his walls.
Thursday night, Riley felt a different Garden vibe in a different Garden room. He signed LeBron James and the Knicks did not, and that's the difference between Miami and New York, winning and misery.