MIAMI — LeBron James stares down at the stat sheet before the media brigade begins firing questions toward the podium. He’s glancing quickly, attempting to assess the game through the box score so that he can answer the public’s never-ending questions.
Once Game 3 ended and the Heat took a crucial 2-1 lead in this best of seven NBA Finals series, LeBron James was already planning for the next one, trying to figure out how his team can further impose its will on a youthful Oklahoma City team.
“We understand that we accept each challenge as its own, and we know Game 4 is going to be a different game,” James said during his press conference. “No matter what happened in Game 1, Game 2, Game 3, Game 4 is its own, and we will approach it like that.
“We understand that they’re going to be a team that’s going to come in and try to get the homecourt advantage back once again, try to win on our floor. But if we do what we need to do defensively, we make them make tough shots, we rebound, and we don’t turn the ball over, we give ourselves a good chance to win Game 4. I’m looking forward to it.”
Over the course of his nine-year NBA career, James has heard it all when it comes to complaints about his game.
“LeBron James isn’t clutch. LeBron James doesn’t play well in the fourth quarter. LeBron James is too passive. LeBron James isn’t even the best player on his own team.”
The player who has been criticized throughout the years by analysts and fans alike just notched his 13 straight game of 25+ points. Throughout these playoffs, James has scored 645 points and is 9 shy of Dwyane Wade’s franchise record.
The individual statistics, though, are worthless to No. 6 on the Miami Heat. At this point, LeBron James couldn’t care less about scoring, about assists, about numbers. Instead, he’s focusing on the most important aspects of playoff basketball.
“I told you guys: Last year, I didn’t make enough game-changing plays, and that’s what I kind of pride myself on,” James said following Miami’s impressive, come-from-behind victory. “I didn’t do that last year in the Finals. I’m just trying to make game-changing plays and whatever it takes for our team to win, just trying to step up in key moments and be there for my teammates.”
No, James isn’t talking about knocking home jump shots, throwing a flashy pass to a teammate, or throwing down a thunderous dunk. The three-time MVP is talking about the offensive rebounds – like the one he hustled for and grabbed with 8:34 remaining in the fourth quarter. He’s thinking about his relentless defensive intensity, about hustling and being aggressive and accountable for each and every second of this series.
“It’s about just will and determination,” said James. “It doesn’t matter if someone is taller that you or bigger than you or weighs more than you. You just try to put yourself in a position to get rebounds or make plays to help your team. That’s what it comes down to.”
Offensively, James is trying to mix it up and keep the Thunder’s defense off-balance.
“I just try to take what the defense gives me, try to get into the paint,” James said. “If I can’t do it with the ball, just try to be active on the weak side or cutting or getting the offensive rebounds or getting put-backs that way, just trying to do a little bit of everything where I’m not just isolating on the post or on the elbow. You know, it’s a good mixture of what I have right now, and my teammates are doing a good job of finding me when I don’t have the ball.”
It’s no secret that last year against Dallas, James disappeared for long stretches. After an offseason filled with soul-searching, he came back this season readier than ever to fulfill his dream of winning an NBA Championship.
From the opening tap of this years Finals (and the playoffs, in general), James has done his best to leave the painful memories in the dust while trying to live out his childhood dream of earning an NBA championship. The key from here on out will be whether he can keep this incredible, perpetual assertiveness up for the rest of this series on both ends of the floor.
“Well, we felt like they were going to come out aggressive, so I wanted to counter their aggression with aggression,” he explained. “Put pressure on the rim offensively or get offensive rebounds. I was able to get five offensive rebounds to give us extra possessions and get second chance points. Looking at the stat sheet, we had 46 points in the paint, 11 second- chance points. So that’s good. And also, we had 35 free throws. That’s a really good number for us. When we’re getting to the free throw line, even when we don’t shoot the ball well, that’s a plus for us. Just always trying to be in aggressive mode and do whatever it takes to help our team come out with a win.”
As you listen to LeBron James over the course of a few games it becomes more and more apparent that this superstar is becoming more and more comfortable with who he is and with the situation he’s in. When a player of James’ caliber is calm and collected, their poise on the hardwood is enhanced.
“I mean, when you’re at ease, honestly, the game becomes very easy for you,” James said during media availability before a recent practice. “For me, it’s just once I was comfortable with everything that was going on off the court, I was able to let my preparation and all the years that I’ve put into playing the game of basketball just take care of itself. I know how much work I’ve put into the game, and I don’t disappreciate the game in no way. I don’t take it for granted, me being in the position I’m in. I kind of let it take care of itself, and it rewards me.”
Having played on this type of grand stage – feeling the angst of defeat despite seeing the doors of success opened by another team – have helped to make LeBron James into the gritty, determined and fearless player that he is today.
For he has matured, realized that maniacal effort alone can help to take his game to another level, that determination and will power are, indeed, as powerful as his 6-9, 250 pound frame make them out to be.
LeBron James is two victories – just 96 minutes of basketball – away from the ultimate feast, and it doesn’t seem as though he’s going to slow down until he reaches that ever-so-high pinnacle.
Jeremy Bauman is a 2011 graduate of Indiana University and the newest writer for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.