LeBron James was talkative and at ease on the afternoon before his first attempt at a final leap into NBA history. The Miami Heat can close out the Oklahoma City Thunder and the 2012 season tonight at AmericanAirlines Arena, and James didn’t merely seem confident that he was about to win his first title. He looked like a man seasoned by his failures, as though he had walked through the fire and was now unafraid to turn around and look at the trail of ashes left behind.
“Last year, after Game 6, after losing, I was very frustrated, very hurt that I let my teammates down,” James said. “I was very immature. Last year, I played to prove people wrong instead of just playing my game. The greatest teacher you can have in life is experience.”
Everything caved in on James in the 2011 Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, but he has emerged as a better, mentally tougher player, more equipped to meet the moment than he’s ever been. And now, as James looks to complete one of the great individual playoff runs in league history, it serves as a road map for where we find the Thunder, and especially point guard Russell Westbrook.
When we see James now, so reflective and analytical, it stands in such sharp contrast to last June when he was defiant and withdrawn under the microscope of the Finals. He gets it now. He gets it, the way the Thunder and their enigmatic point guard will get it once this is all over.
Westbrook is in a very similar place today to where James was last season, every aspect of his game and manner picked apart. He has become the lightning rod of this series, and even in his best individual moment – scoring 43 points in a 104-98 loss in Game 4 – he had to hear the residual question of whether Oklahoma City can win it all with a scoring point guard like him.
Though Kevin Durant is the Thunder’s best player, he has become almost a secondary storyline. These Finals have turned into a referendum on whether Westbrook’s way works.
“Get this straight,” Westbrook said after Game 4, “What you guys say doesn’t make me happy, make me sad, doesn’t do anything.”
You’d expect nothing else from Westbrook, a no-star recruit who parlayed his defiance into a scholarship offer at UCLA, a starting job as a sophomore and soon thereafter the No. 4 overall draft pick, even as so many had reservations about whether he was ready for the NBA.
But nobody lives in a bubble. Nobody likes to hear their game picked apart on a nightly basis when they turn on television and Twitter. It’s just impossible to disconnect from all of that, and Westbrook is every bit as human as the rest of us.
What we saw in Game 4 was his rage against the machinery of these Finals. Whereas James’ response to the drumbeat of criticism was essentially to disappear, Westbrook’s survival instinct was to double down, to assert even more of his presence and will on this stage.
Either way, these are both responses to the same emotional trigger. And like it has with James, this experience will benefit both Westbrook and the Thunder in the long run, no matter how this ends.
“I remember being in Game 5 last year with the series tied 2-2,” James said, “and just felt more pressure. It felt like there were more people here, like you guys not only brought yourselves but your relatives to Dallas. It just seemed like more. And I may be wrong. I probably am wrong about that. But I’m just more comfortable.”
This tells us the Finals are simply a different beast, and their challenges — both physical and mental — manifest themselves in unexpected ways. All four of these games have come down to a few plays in the fourth quarter, here or there. And with the exception of Game 1, the Heat have looked so much more composed, so much more prepared for what’s coming in most of the important moments.
That’s the hurdle James had to trip over before he could grab the ring. He responded with an MVP-worthy regular season and a historic playoff run, averaging 30.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.3 assists.
“I’ve experienced some things in my long but short career, and I’m able to make myself better for it throughout these playoffs and this whole year,” he said. “I’m just happy to be back on this stage where I can do the things I can do to make this team proud.”
Westbrook will be in that same place soon enough. Whether this series ends tonight or early next week, he’ll take the pounding from these Finals, recalibrate and mature, just like James did.
And when the Thunder get back here, Westbrook will be much better for it. At 23, he’s building up a career’s worth of scar tissue in this series. Talent always wins in this league, and it looks like this is going to be James’ time. Westbrook’s is coming soon enough.