Monday, June 18, 2012

Playing Like King and Not a Prince, LeBron Takes Charge

A year after a disappointing loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals, a year after he blew his chances of winning a championship, LeBron James, Miami's superstar, is back on the biggest stage and is ready to redeem himself. The only way he wins back fans, which he lost when he permanently damaged his credibility and reputation in the fallout from a one-hour television show to announce his free-agency destination, is by finally holding the Larry O'Brien Trophy for the first time.

The only way he escapes from lingering nightmares of an agonizing loss a year ago, as much of the nation celebrated the Heat's demise, is by leaving America in silence. And so far, James has done just that. He put on another stellar performance in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, and delivered 29 points and 14 rebounds, as Miami propelled to a 91-85 win to take a 2-1 lead Sunday night. The Heat -- and James especially -- are playing like hungry barbarians on a mission. A boisterous James, two wins away from his first championship ring, was clutch and had no fourth-quarter failures, accelerating his way to the rim, wrestling for rebounds and drawing fouls to be awarded free throws.

They can hate, ridicule and taunt LeBron all they want. They can disrespect and make a fool of him all they want. It doesn't matter to him, and frankly, he couldn't care less about his critics, concerned with winning a championship to add to a resume of premature greatness, judging one's preference. James is not as soft as he was when he had a mere 18 fourth-quarter points in the Heat's finals loss to the Mavericks a season ago. Since then, he's grown up and has proven that he can lead Miami in the fourth-quarter, without having meltdowns in the final minutes and instead finish on game-changing plays. If the Heat goes on to win it all, there's no question James should and will be named Finals MVP -- a catalyst for Miami's return -- with another crack to finally be winners and not back-to-back losers, after falling victim to championship failures.

"Last year, I didn't make enough game-changing plays, and that's what I kind of pride myself on," LeBron said. "I didn't do that last year in the Finals.


He was a totally different animal.

"Just trying to make plays," James said. "I told you guys, last year I didn't make enough game-changing plays, and that's what I kind of pride myself on. I didn't do that last year in the finals. I'm just trying to make game-changing plays, and whatever it takes for our team to win, just trying to step up in key moments and be there for my teammates."

More specifically, a more mature and self-assured LeBron has taken charge of the Heat and lives up to the challenge. James is actually validating his place in Finals history and, with a championship victory this time around, he can --rightfully so -- reclaim greatness for the first time since coming straight out of high school, known as King James. This season alone, he's not flustered or passive, he's not screwing around. This season alone, he's so compelling to witness, realizing he's playing with unfulfilled expectations and knows winning can put a tired saga to rest, even if he can't escape the litany of criticism.

If James keeps driving to the lane, keeps getting to the line and keeps knocking down free throws, he won't ever dodge the harsh criticism or adversity, simply because he's a much-scrutinized villain. As the most polarizing figure, even if he can lead the Heat to a championship, the world isn't suddenly going to forgive James for his megalomaniacal PR stunt, which infuriated Cleveland homers after an abrupt departure. Even now, he's not the most likable person but deserves praise for his All-Star performances, night in and night out, when he's trying to succeed and feel obvious vindication that evokes ferocity and toughness. James wasn't happy with what happened a year ago, and still has a bitter taste in his mouth, seeking to avenge a disheartening loss that left the Heat players in tears. It would be a travesty to lose for the second straight season in the finals.

What's more, he's not broken and not shrinking in the biggest moments. It wasn't so long ago that he was vilified for disappearing too often in the fourth-quarter of games, collapsing on the brightest stage in one of his miserable shooting performances. That's when he was afraid to barrel to the rim, draw fouls and knock down free throws. That's when he wasn't nearly as aggressive and serious to ultimately earn a championship engraved in his name. What was understandable from James' body language and expressions on his face, the ultimate stare of hunger and confidence, was that he was showing the world what he was capable of accomplishing to make a run for a championship.

James, who scored 30 and 32 points in the first two games, his two best finals performances, is considered the league's top small forward and is a three-time Most Valuable Player. When he's on the attack, the Heat normally wins and takes control of the series. It also proved that once again James is what's making the Heat win. With his talent, he's a valuable piece, and without him, Miami wouldn't even come close to raising the prize when it's all said and done. This, though, tells us something about James. It tells us that he's not an awful player, but a good player with a shoddy attitude. And it's a possibility, given his egomaniacal psyche -- whether it's seen from the overbearing commercial ads or either the actions he brings onto the court -- James' personality dwarfs his promise to be great and stand out among the premier NBA studs. In essence, he wasn't only burning from the outside in Game 3 but stayed and danced in the paint, bullying, shoving and pushing around Oklahoma City by driving strongly to the rim for a remarkable finish.

It has become his forte and strength to slash to the basket effectively, even work the glass brilliantly. Eight of his 11 shots came at the rim. He made 13 of his 23 shots in the paint, shaping into a dimensional superstar after honing the basic fundamentals, wearing down and confusing Thunder players with his versatility and explosiveness. Miami's offense transcended with James on the floor, so Erik Spoelstra stayed with him and Wade. That being said, the Heat finished with a 15-3 run late in the third quarter, and amazingly only led by two points at the end of the third quarter. But maybe James saw an advantage when Scott Brooks benched Kevin Durant with four fouls.

Just about everything from James Harden's miserable shooting to Russell Westbrook's over aggressive playing style was something James and the Heat had in their favor. It's Westbrook who is becoming a lightning rod often the center of criticism -- and frequently -- he is out of control and doesn't know the tenor of self-control with his emotions getting the best of him. With the great news that LeBron's maturation is the difference from last year's finals -- not nearly as immature or childish as a year ago when he called a reporter "retarded" and when he poked fun at Dirk Nowitzki's illness -- he's not Bron Bron but Wise LeBron after growing up, and can teach Westbrook a lesson by schooling him.

The building was pulsating with primal screams from a raucous crowd sitting in the stands and looking on amazed of James' mental ability to be unstoppable off the pick and roll, serve as an efficient facilitator and pose an aggressor defensively. After hitting a three-pointer late in the third to put the Heat on top 69-67, James had a shooting clinic. The fourth began with James scoring five straight Miami points to finish with eight points in the final 12 minutes alone. The Heat had nine turnovers in the fourth quarter, and shot 38 percent from the field, most of the scoring coming from James. He dribbled with his left hand down the left and knifed through the absent-minded Thunder defense.

As it happened, he jumped and spun around, moving the ball to his right hand and then flipped it over his shoulder, off the backboard and down the net for a layup. In three games of the fourth quarter, James has averaged 22.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists while earning 14.1 free throws and making 84.6 percent. What became clear -- unbelievably -- was that James had turned clutch this time, unlike in 2011 after having a 2-1 lead before blowing it. That was when James stumbled in Game 4, shooting 3 for 11 and finishing with eight points.

A year ago, he averaged 17.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists in the series. But today's, he is averaging 30.3, 10.3 and 4.0, and it is enough to illustrate how far James has come in just one season, a growing player and undisputed leader, hungrier, more savvy and ambitious with another, and maybe, a last opportunity to master success.

Maybe it's James' moment to endure to the end.