This is his world. It starts Tuesday night in (of all places) the middle of Oklahoma. This is his professional life. This is what will define him, and determine maybe for all time what people think first when they think, “LeBron James.”
NBA Finals: Heat versus Oklahoma City Thunder.
One of sports’ cruelties, ludicrously unfair but nevertheless his reality, is that nothing else James has done to this point counts for much.
Not the Hall of Fame career.
Not this MVP season.
Not his heroic playoff run thus far.
Not the consensus that James is the best basketball planet on the planet.
None of it will outweigh what waits on the other side — the mocking laughter, the delighted cries that he choked again — if this man fails during these next two weeks to lead Miami to a championship.
James’ critics and doubters, forever crouching to pounce, might not even wait for the Finals to play out, so hungry are they to feed their preconceptions. His 45-point masterpiece in Game 6 in Boston will recede to irrelevance (as if it never happened) if James has the temerity and gall to have an off game in a Heat loss Tuesday night.
His haters across America wait to bray laughter, to crow, “there he goes again,” as James shrinks in another Finals.
Rising, not shrinking, is all that has motivated him the past year.
“I understand what this challenge means,” he said.
This is James’ third Finals, the nicknamed King’s third try at a first crown. He still is only 27 but his career odometer is high. This is his ninth NBA season. There is the likelihood but no promise of more Finals to come.
A year ago Miami lost in the title round because of James, or so history wrote in permanent ink.
After playing great the first three rounds of the playoffs he shrank to a mortal 17.8 points per game in the Finals, alternately seeming visibly scattered and invisible, not himself. Speculation of personal distractions seeped like sludge. James scored a meager eight points in a crucial three-point loss to the Mavericks in Game 4. He was choking, said the commentary and headlines that were burying him.
“I didn’t play well. I let my teammates down,” James admitted Monday before a practice in Oklahoma City. Then, as if admitting he didn’t give complete effort in last years Finals, added, “Whatever the results [this time], I’m going to be satisfied with that. I’m going to be happy with it because I know I’m going to give it my all.”
His reputation had formed with last year’s Finals. Great player, but not a champion. Great scorer, but maybe not when he most needed.
Chris Bosh was asked after James scored a game-high 31 points to eliminate the Celtics on Saturday what he thought was accounting for James’ gargantuan postseason.
“You have to credit all the times that he just thinks about what happened last year,” said the unusually thoughtful Bosh. “When that moment [to get back to the Finals] comes again he had to seize it. And now we’re in that moment.”
The easy story line of these Finals is LeBron versus Kevin Durant. And it’s legit. After all, this marks only the fourth Finals in league history in which the season’s MVP (James) and scoring champion (Durant) have faced each other for the ring.