Here’s the cold, hard, mathematical difference between LeBron James in 2011 and the confident, swaggering, self-assured version that leads the Heat into Game 5 of the 2013 NBA Finals: 25 points.
In Texas, in 2011, back when he couldn’t make sense of the game he was dropped on this planet to dominate, James scored eight points in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. The Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks that night and the series was tied 2-2, but it was over. Game 4 was the beginning of the end for a Heat team that imploded like a dilapidated skyscraper rigged with dynamite.
The Heat is once again tied 2-2, and once again in Texas for Game5 of the NBA Finals, but that’s where the similarities end between 2011 and Sunday. Dwyane Wade was magnificent in Game 4, yes, but it all starts with James, and always has. And entering Game5, the Heat’s newfound momentum in this best-of-7 series all started with 25 points.
That’s the difference between decay and demolition charges and a team reduced to dust and a fortress armed from the inside out. James scored 33 points in a pressure-packed Game 4 this time around, bettering his eight points in 2011 by 25. He had nine points in the fourth quarter alone Thursday at San Antonio’s AT&T Center.
But those are just numbers.
Numbers don’t tell stories, but only provide circumstantial evidence of changes in our universe. All things being equal, the most telling differences between James 24 months after the pain of 2011 and now were written on his face and projected with his unspoken body language as he leaned against a table behind a microphone Saturday.
Reporters lobbed questions at James and he shrugged them off in the way a warm breeze might pass between the branches of that mighty oak tree outside the Alamo. That tree, with its limbs so long that they touch the ground, has seen the worst of its world and lived. Sunday, well, it’s just another day.
“You have to go through some pain,” James said. “Doesn’t matter if it’s at this level or you’re a kid or whatever the case may be throughout. Whatever that you do, I believe you have to go through some pain in order to get to the highest level.”
James is there, peering down from that highest of levels, with wisdom honed by fire and a swagger galvanized by reality. He’s the best in the game. The Heat’s players are competing in The Finals once again because he put them there. Rain falls from the sky, the sun shines and the tree grows. That’s life.
“Let me put it this way: We don’t make it to Dallas, we don’t make it to OKC and we don’t make it here if I don’t play the way I play. It’s that simple,” James said. “My game doesn’t change no matter who I’m playing. I know I’m an attack player. I also do multiple things. I get my teammates involved; I rebound; I defend.
“I don’t have three straight trips to The Finals if I don’t do what I do. It is what it is.”
That’s life, but that’s not living.
The clarity in James’ voice is something gained by experience. His demeanor between Games 4 and 5, that air of inevitability that permeated throughout the gym and during his news conference Saturday, comes only by way of leadership earned, losses absorbed and a 2012 championship when everything finally made sense. Unearthly ability might have gotten him to Dallas in 2011, but it was his growth as a person that won a ring the next year.
So what’s different between this Game 5 in Texas and the one two years ago? Everything, 25 points, an unmistakable yet unquantifiable personal belief that, above all else, James now, in some ways, is bigger than the game itself.
“I mean, I think it’s just maturity, and if I’m going to be the leader of a team, then I have to be that way,” James said. “If the guys are going to believe in me, I can’t have doubt. I can’t be unsure about things. I have to be fully confident, confident in my ability and confident in my teammates and go out there and do it.
“So I got that not only from myself, but my teammates have given me the keys and say, hey, we look to you to lead us. Now it’s up to you to go do it.”