The America watching with an open mind is seeing a superstar willing to get hands dirty, putting team first, playing every position, guarding every position (coach Erik Spoelstra calls James “One Through Five”), playing relentless defense, expertly drawing opposing stars into foul trouble while staying out of it himself, and resting hardly a minute. And then afterward saying only, “I was just trying to make plays for my teammates.”
The America watching with an open mind is seeing sacrifice in the rest of the Big 3, too. Wade swallowing ego and handing the ceremonial baton to LeBron when he didn’t have to. Bosh playing four games in a reserve role before starting and never clamoring publicly or privately about that or about his third-option status.
Oklahoma City was the betting favorite entering these Finals but the Heat will never be perceived as anybody’s underdogs, let alone lovable underdogs. There is some of that characteristic, though, in a team that usually is smaller than opponents but consistently out-rebounds them. In a team top-heavy with stars but embracing toughness and defense as its trademark.
This Heat team is absolutely driven, focused on not repeating what happened in last year’s Finals.
The word “paint” has come to identity Miami’s game. Led by James, the Heat scored 46 paint points Sunday and drew 35 free-throw attempts. Drop the ‘t’ though and you have the word that better defines Miami’s motivation.
Pain. The defeat, and the delighted mocking that followed.
Bosh: “Every day we remind ourselves, we think of that pain we experienced last year. We carry that pain with us.”
James: “It’s absolutely true. We understand that it’s been a great teacher for us, just the experience. We don’t take things for granted.”
Wade: “No question. You can’t always say, ‘We have next year,’ because you never know what can happen. This year we’re a more experienced team. It’s not saying we want it more. We just understand situations, we can deal with it better. Experience is not overrated at all.”
The difference starts with James. For the Heat, everything does right now.
“He’s just a totally different player,” said Wade.
The player who dumbfounded with his disappearance in last year’s Finals does not exist anymore.<
He has been replaced by a player who seems to be driving to his first NBA championship as unstoppably as he drives to the basket.
Something else changed. It’s a gradual process, but it has begun as unmistakably as one of his driving slam-dunks ends.
On the only stage where he could, the LeBron James who was this country’s most hated athlete is winning America back.