MIAMI - With one more win this season, LeBron James starts a new conversation.
He’ll forever shed his labels as the ultimate choker and the best player without a ring.
He’ll still take flak for winning it all in a shortened season and for doing it with a hand-picked superteam instead of a lesser group perched atop his shoulders, but he will have finally lived up to his immense billing.
James has grown up a lot from his idiotic “The Decision” telecast and even from his disastrous performance against Dallas in the NBA final a year ago.
He accepted the challenge of trying to prove that he was worthy of all of the hype. James had numbers for the ages, but he needed a final series to match and a championship to take his rightful place among the NBA’s all-time greats.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the play of James against Oklahoma City is how easy he has made averaging 29.3 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and 1.8 steals per game look.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra is asking James to “play at an MVP and defensive player of the year level,” and James is delivering on both fronts.
“He’s done everything in his individual power to get it done but, for whatever reason, it just hasn’t been his time,” said long-time Heat forward Udonis Haslem.
Now it sure seems like it is.
He looks like a man who will not be denied again.
“A player of his calibre, it’s obviously what motivates and fuels him,” said Heat centre Joel Anthony of Montreal.
“That’s the reason he’s been so focused this whole year. He’s changed his game to give himself and his team a better chance of winning. He’s going to continue to bring it so that we can finally win this championship.”
The alterations in his game aren’t subtle. They are readily apparent. James is locking down on almost every defensive possession and on offence, is taking the ball inside more and nobody can stop him once he gets there. While he still settles for jumpers at times, he does that far less frequently.
On Wednesday, a day ahead of what might possibly be the biggest of his life (he said his muscle cramps were much better and he would play), James even owned up to past mistakes.
“Last year after Game 6, after losing, once again (to Dallas after being demolished by San Antonio in his previous trip to the final), I was very frustrated. I was very hurt that I let my teammates down, and I was very immature,” James admitted.
“Last year, I played to prove people wrong instead of just playing my game, instead of just going out and having fun and playing a game that I grew up loving.”
James is always going to have bravado — he compared his matchup versus Kevin Durant to the 1991 series between Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers — but at least he has appeared to gain some perspective this season.
The Heat blew a lot of late leads against the Mavericks in 2011 and James had some dreadful performances in pressure situations
“I didn’t make enough plays in Game 4 last year, I’ll tell you that. Like I said before the series started and before this post-season started, I wanted to make game‑changing plays because that’s who I am, and that’s what separates me from a lot of players. I try to make those plays. I didn’t do that last year and that’s what stuck with me more than anything,” he said.
A win away from joining Michael, Magic, Bird, Russell and Chamberlain atop the hoops pantheon, James refused to get ahead of himself.
“As crazy as it sounds, I haven’t got caught up in it. I won’t because, you know, human nature is to automatically think about after we win it, what are we going to do. I’m not there. I won’t get there until those zeros hit and I see that we won,” he said.
“I’m the leader of this team, and I’m not comfortable right now. I’m comfortable in my game, but I’m not going to be comfortable until we seal this thing.”
GOTTA HAND IT TO HARDEN
Struggling Thunder guard James Harden’s hand is bruised, but he insists his confidence is not.
The NBA’s sixth man of the year has shot 2-for-10 in each of the past two games against Miami, yet maintained on Wednesday things would come around.
“I’ve got good shots, I’m just not making them. My three, it feels good,” said Harden, adding he didn’t feel a carryover from his poor shooting in Game 3 because he shot the ball well during practice on Monday and at shootaround on Tuesday.
“We’re missing some chippies. My mechanics look really good.”
He has contributed on the boards (a team-high 10 rebounds) and dished out a couple of assists in Tuesday’s game.
Harden said he was just icing his left hand, which was wrapped as he met with the media on Wednesday and that it wasn’t a concern.
The guard said the fact head coach Scott Brooks has continued to play him despite his struggles has meant a lot.
“The whole organization is together, getting a call from my GM (Sam Presti) last night telling me to stick with it. Things are going to turn around. All those little things help,” he said.
Harden is well aware that to this point, a 3-1 deficit in the NBA final has been insurmountable, but that doesn’t sway his belief that anything is possible.