Looking back, it seems kind of silly worrying about LeBron James passing up shots in the final seconds of the All Star Game and an early March regular season game against the Jazz in Salt Lake City. Endless time on TV was spent discussing LeBron’s game in the closing minutes of an EXHIBITION GAME, they went on and on about a game that did not even count. But when I think about it a little more, those closing moments of games that finished without LeBron making the deciding play mean a little more than meets the eye.
Competing and improving your game are the two most important things that anyone does in sports. We hate when athletes don’t compete; when they don’t leave everything they have out on the field and it is worse when those with so much talent do not work to get better. Those who hate on LeBron and The Decision he made two years ago may continue to hate, but the way he has competed and improved has got to earn him respect. The thing that made everyone so upset about last year’s Finals was that it seemed like LeBron wasn’t giving his all. He shied away when his team needed him most.
This year, he was a changed man. You were able to see how much he was competing, how much he wanted to win throughout the entirety of the playoffs. And the improvements you could see in his game were obvious. He went down in the post and simply dominated anyone the Thunder threw at him. Kevin Durant was too skinny; James Harden too short. He moved well without the ball and worked better with teammate Dwyane Wade. The haters will continue to hate, but LeBron exemplified everything that sports is about and really, everything we love about sports. He made mistakes, but he improved and competed and was crowned a champion because of it. Isn’t that the basic storyline of every sports movie we have ever seen?
The difference between this year’s Finals and last year’s was night and day. His demeanor, his crunch time play and his will to win. One of the reasons that all of the above is true has got to be the rivalry built up by the media between LeBron and Durant. Before the Finals began, some were wondering if Durant, not LeBron, was the best player in the league. I thought there was a fine line between the two, but now? It is not even close. LeBron imposed his will on the game and on the Thunder, and he dominated the series. Durant’s biggest weakness showed in these Finals. His wiry frame does not hurt him much against most opponents, but against someone as big, strong and fast as LeBron? Durant got into early foul trouble in a couple of games which had a huge impact on the series. He couldn’t guard LeBron very often because LeBron abused him down on the low block. KD is still the second best player in the league, but for right now, he is nowhere close to number one. LeBron’s rebounding and passing skills set him apart on top of his scoring abilities. He was often the top rebounder in the game and in the last two games had the high in assists.
Many of the casualties this year came simply at the expense of the hectic schedule. While many teams and star players were breaking down, LeBron only got stronger. Looking back at his run in the playoffs, it surely will go down as one of the best in history. For the entire playoffs he averaged, 30.3 points per game, 9.7 rebounds per game and 42.7 minutes per game. Then, we look at what he did after falling behind Indiana 2-1 in the conferences semifinals. Since game four of that series, he averaged 31.7 points a game while grabbing 10.8 rebounds a game and played 44.5 minutes. Only once did he play less than forty and that was in a blowout against Indiana when he played 38. His lowest scoring output in that span was 26 in these last two Finals games when he average 12.5 assists. Only in six of the last 15 games did he not grab double digit rebounds. He had 10 double doubles in that span, and a triple double which happened to be in the championship clinching game. And all of this was going on while he defended Danny Granger, Paul Pierce and the best scorer in the world. What we witnessed is simply incredible.
His game four against Indiana was legendary with 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists (only duplicated by Elgin Baylor in the playoffs) and he outdid himself in game six against Boston lighting the Celtics up to the tune of 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists (only Wilt Chamberlain has done that in the playoffs). It isn’t so much the numbers he put up, but when he did it that made this run such a classic. He came up big in big moments and more importantly, for the entirety of big games.
The Heat were 9-0 in the postseason after trailing in a series. LeBron would not let them lose in those games, and quite frankly, that part of his postseason was Jordan-like. He is not close to Jordan yet, but that part of his game in the playoffs had to remind you of His Airness. In those nine games, he somehow got even better, averaging 32 ppg, 11.4 rpg and 7 apg. He finally was able to do what everyone wanted to see so desperately, and that was get better when it mattered most.
Now that LeBron has made it to the top, who can get him down? We know so much of the game is mental and that was the only part holding him back. He always had the physical skills and talent to win, but he finally got over the hump mentally. Are we about to see a Jordan-like run of titles? Now that he knows how to win mentally, he is going to be tough to stop. We will see how that goes this next year.
Perhaps, the nitpicking in the All-Star Game and in games like the one against the Jazz was excessive and obnoxious. And for the most part, it was silly the way they did it to the world’s best player. But, looking back, it provides us the starting point for LeBron this year and we are able to see now how much he has grown and how the world’s best actually got better. And the world had better hope that this doesn’t start a pattern of getting that much better annually. If that actually does happen, LeBron might actually be able to deliver on the promise of, “not four, not five, not six, not seven…” Well, maybe.