MIAMI — They defied the odds and fooled the world. After dropping the first two games of their conference final showdown against the number one seed—a battle- tested team who had been there and done that—they won four straight games and shockingly won the right to play for the NBA’s crown.
They tricked us into believing they had a fighting chance to win the whole thing, but after four games, it became obvious that the NBA Finals was a bit of a mismatch.
Beaten, battered, and bested by a more experienced team, the 23-year old wonder kid who enamored us with his potential retreated meekly and mildly into a shell nobody knew existed.
This is Kevin Durant’s story, too, but back in 2007, LeBron James lived it first.
That year, at 23 years-old, James led his Cavaliers to the NBA Finals before being swept by the San Antonio Spurs. As we watch Durant and his Thunder struggle to close games, I can’t help but to marvel at how—amazingly—history is repeating itself. Stronger, wiser, and faster, his past has helped James perform in his third NBA Finals.
“One thing I’ve learned is that the greatest teacher you have in life is experience,” James said on Wednesday. “I’m happy to be back on this stage and want to make my teammates proud and make this organization proud.”
With the score tied at 94 in Game 4, James’ one-legged 3-pointer gave the Heat the lead for good. It was, without question, the finest NBA Finals moment of James’ career.
Like Durant, his meteoric rise to NBA superstardom yielded a very unlikely NBA Finals appearance at the ripe young age of 23. Durant, in 2012. James, back in 2007.
And now—five years later—there’s opportunity at LeBron James’ door. He hears it knocking. His Miami Heat need just one more victory before he can open it up and embrace his long eluded first.
2007 was so long ago, and since then, James has gone from being the toast of the NBA town to the ire of its purists.
Commissioner David Stern called “The Decision” ill-conceived and poorly executed. Cavaliers fans burned his jersey and Michael Jordan chastised him for electing to form a basketball conglomerate with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Pat Riley.
Wiser, stronger, and more confident, James has put together one of history’s most remarkable playoff runs.
We take his greatness for granted. And we’ve hated him for transporting his talents down I-95.
Now—today—It’s time to move on. It’s time to appreciate one of the greatest to ever play the game and marvel at—not diminish—his greatness.
As I told Tommy Dee of SNY’s TheKnicksBlog.com on Wednesday, I’ve been wrong about my fair share of playoff predictions this postseason. But after picking the Thunder to beat the Heat in seven games, I now believe that they have squandered too many opportunities and won’t be able to do what no team in NBA history has been able to—erase a 3-1 series deficit to win the NBA Finals.
But even if the Thunder somehow manage to pull off the seemingly impossible, it shouldn’t diminish James’ greatness. Today, the Heat are a single victory away from capturing the franchise’s second NBA championship not in spite of James, but because of him.
James, though, has vowed to not look too far ahead.
“I won’t get caught up in that,” he said. “I won’t think about what we’re going to do if we win the Finals until I look at the clock and it says triple zeroes and I see that we’ve won.”
For two years now, we’ve hated James because of the notion that he took the easy way out by teaming up with Wade and attempting to ride the coattails of the 2006 Finals MVP to multiple championships. But we’ve failed to acknowledge that since joining forces, it is James who has mostly carried Wade.
We’ve mocked James because of the idea that he’s not “a closer” without appreciating the fact that he is unselfish to a fault and has undying faith and confidence in his teammates.
And we’ve criticized his lack of an offensive post-game without fully paying homage to the fact that he is one of the few superstars of our generation who exerts equal amounts of energy—and is equally effective—on both sides of the court.
Abate the Hate.
Durant and the Oklahoma City represent all that is right about the game of basketball. Down to earth kids, an organically grown program, and a small-market team excelling in an era in which celebrities, sexy skylines, and nine-figure bank accounts overshadow what this is all about—the game of basketball.
It’s easy to love the Thunder just as it was easy to love James’ Cavaliers back in 2007. Back then, James was Durant, and he lived through what Durant is currently experiencing.
“In 2007, I was young and inexperienced and ran into a San Antonio Spurs team that had won three championships to that point,” he said. “They had been in that moment and they showed it.”
Now, five years later, James is the one who has been here, even if he hasn’t done that. He’s failed twice on this stage before. But now, he’s so close, he can smell it.
And while I will not go as far as to say that anyone who is not fond of James or the route he has taken to becoming a champion should be rooting for him to succeed, you shouldn’t be mad if and when he does, because he deserves it.
Through four games in these finals, James is averaging 29.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 6.0 assists while shooting 49 percent from the field and 81 percent from the free-throw line. I mentioned all of that in my Game 4 story. What I didn’t mention, though, was that James’ impact on the defensive end is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
From the press box in the American Airlines Arena, I’ve witnessed James closing out on shooters on the perimeter, disturbing Serge Ibaka’s finishes at the rim, and battling for defensive rebounds, often in the same possession.
In his third NBA Finals, nobody has worked harder. In the 2012 NBA playoffs, nobody has played better.
If you’re from Ohio or a fan of the Knicks, Nets, Bulls, or Cavaliers, it’s easy to understand why you can’t support James or his quest. But if you’re a fan of the game of basketball and of greatness, you should.
It’s time for us to collectively forgive LeBron James and turn the page on the Summer of 2010. As difficult as it may be, win or lose, it’s time to tip your cap.
History will repeat itself. The Thunder will ripen, Durant and Westbrook will lead them to the promised land, and their performance in these 2012 NBA Finals will ultimately fuel their fire and make them stronger and wiser. But right now, today, the Heat have been the better team and James, the ultimate competitor.
Abate the Hate, it’s time to give him some credit.
No, the Heat won’t win seven championships, especially not with Dwyane Wade showing every one of his 30 years of age. In years to come, the Thunder will progress and the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, and New York Knicks will improve. Things will get tougher for James and the Heat.
But today, at this moment, with a single victory forever removing him from comparisons to Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, and Patrick Ewing, James has done any and everything within his power to put himself and his team in this position.
Love him or hate him, you’ve gotta respect that.
Moke Hamilton is a Senior NBA Columnist for SheridanHoops.com and is on assignment in Miami for the NBA Finals. Follow him on Twitter.