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.
(Other instances were in 1967 with 76ers MVP Wilt Chamberlain beating the Warriors’ Rick Barry; in 1970 with Knicks MVP Willis Reed beating Laker Jerry West; and in 1997 with Bulls scoring champ Michael Jordan beating the Jazz’s Karl Malone).
James and Durant not only are good friends, but James likely will guard Durant.
Dwyane Wade versus Russell Westbrook makes for a nifty subplot, too, with each team’s No. 2 scorer also likely to be defending each other.
Wade is playing with an unmistakable chip on his shoulder, even as he deferred to James by saying the other night, “He’s emerged as the leader of this team, and we follow him.” Wade is tired of people doubting him or his team (a reason Miami’s unaccustomed underdog’s role in these Finals might not be a bad thing, Heat fans).
Wade still feels the sting of the media criticism and fan backlash he took for his sideline tirade against coach Erik Spoelstra during a five-point game in the Indiana series. He seemed to be alluding to that in saying after Celtics Game 7, “No matter what anybody outside of this house [team] says, I’m a winner. I’m a team player.”
Then, asked what he would say to those who wrote off Miami when it trailed Boston three games to two, Wade said, unsmiling, “Thank you. Thank you. Appreciate it.”
Subplots aside, though, these Finals aren’t James versus. Durant or the motivating fire inside Wade as much as they are simply about LeBron gunning for his first ring to rid himself of the heavy side of his reputation that no amount of gaudy stats can lighten.
Durant seeks his first title, too, but he’s four years younger than James, and without the baggage of notoriety. The onus isn’t one him here the way it is on LeBron.
James has topped 30 points in 11 of 18 playoff games, scored 25-plus in 10 in a row (a career best), has eight double-doubles, leads the team in points, rebounds, assists and steals, and plays defense like that’s all he’s supposed to do — yet none of that matters.
What matter starts now.
He must win.
James could score 30-plus in every game in this series, but if he doesn’t emerge a champion his critics will say he didn’t do enough. They will say something is missing in his basketball DNA if even with Wade and Bosh he can’t win it all.
Even Wade, hero of Miami’s 2006 champions, has said he wants this title more for his friend LeBron than for himself.
Wade has seen more closely than anyone the searing, unrelenting scrutiny James endures. No other American athlete faces as much, and that scrutiny turned dark and nasty the moment he “took his talents to South Beach,” and the way he did.
LeBron became a national villain. And if you saw and heard the reaction to him in Boston last week, in Indiana before that, you would know that outside of Miami, there remains little love.
Even fellow NBA players who are not his teammates think it is over the top.
“He is great for our game. He is our game,” the Celtics’ Keyon Dooling said of James. “We need to uplift him instead of trying to tear him down. He is the most unselfish superstar I have seen. He rebounds, assists the ball. He empowers his community. He is a model citizen. He should not have a stain on his reputation.”
To Clevelanders the stain might be indelible because it is intensely personal.
To the rest of basketball America the stain is that James can never earn entry to the highest level of elite — where Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and those guys reside — until he comes knocking with a ring on his hand. At least one.
Spoelstra said of the Celtics Game 7 and its stakes: “These are the moments our players will remember when they rest their heads on their pillows in 20 years.”
That might have been true for most players.
For James, these next games are the ones he will more likely remember in 20 years, and maybe the ones that determine how well he will be sleeping after his head rests on that pillow.