LeBron: No vindication, not yet, anyway
Whenever he wants to feel humbled, LeBron James pops in the tapes of the 2007 NBA finals.
No matter what, the outcome never changes. He got swept. San Antonio simply outclassed Cleveland four years ago in the title series, and that still serves as a colossal source of motivation for James - who makes no secret that he's fueled by slights and disappointments.
Since then, he's won two MVP awards and earned somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million. Still, nothing fills the void created by those four losses.
Here comes his chance to change that.
James is heading to the finals for the second time, after he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh carried the Miami Heat to a wild series-clinching comeback victory in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference title series in Chicago. The season's final challenge is the Dallas Mavericks, who visit Miami in Game 1 of the finals on Tuesday night.
''I think about it all the time,'' James said of that 2007 series. ''I even go back and watch some of those games and see how I wasn't that good of a player, especially on both ends of the floor. You just try to use those moments. I feel like there's no way I should be out on the floor and the team that I'm on can't win a game in a series. I use that as motivation. ... I've got a lot of motivation.''
What's transpired in the last 12 months - being called a quitter by his former fans in Cleveland, getting knocked for a supposed inability to finish, the continual hits the Heat have taken for the moves they made last summer - have only topped off that tank of motivational fuel for James, and he's done his part to silence some of those criticisms with an array of sensational finishes in these playoffs.
Among the highlights: The 10 straight points against Boston to wrap up Game 5 over the now-dethroned East champs in the second round. The nine points in an 11-2 run that decided Game 2 of the East finals against Chicago. The combined 71 feet of three made jump shots in a 97-second span late in Game 5 against the Bulls, including the shot with 30 seconds left that put Miami ahead for good after it had trailed by 12 late in the fourth quarter.
Afterward, he called Thursday's finish the best few minutes of his life.
Might not be overstating things, either.
''We know what kind of player he is,'' Bosh said. ''We know how bad he wants to be in this situation. He's back in the finals. He's been here before. He has that pain. He carries that pain with him everywhere he goes. It's going to help him. It's going to help us as a team.''
He was so good in the East finals that his rank among the game's greats became a source of debate Friday sparked, somewhat ironically, by a six-time NBA champion and Chicago icon. In an interview with ESPN Radio, Scottie Pippen said his longtime Bulls teammate Michael Jordan may be the game's best all-time scorer, but James - in his estimation - could be the game's greatest player.
A championship ring could add some credence to that argument.
''That's what we came together for,'' James said. ''That's the goal. The only goal.''
Anyone who watches James play can marvel at his talents on the floor, of course.
Including playoffs, his 27.8-point average is third-best in NBA history behind only Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. After eight seasons, he ranks 11th on the league's list of active scorers - everyone else above him on that list has played at least five more seasons.
But where he's truly impressed the Heat is how he works off the court, the side they had to learn most in their first season together.
''He has an incredible historical perspective for a young player,'' Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. ''He knows about the history of the game and great players and championship teams in particular. But he really is a legitimate student of the game. I always hear him talking about games that happened the night before. He's watching all the time. That really does add to his IQ. He's a high-motor, hyper guy.''
Sometimes, that would be tough to guess.
Outwardly, he's tried to keep the stiff upper lip when it comes to the criticism that has come his way in bunches since deciding to join the Heat last July. When the Heat returned to his old Cleveland stomping grounds for the first time on Dec. 2, James said he consciously tried not to react to anything the crowd directed his way, keeping focus on the game instead.
Did it bother him? Of course.
He wasn't going to let much of that show then, and he likely won't let much of that show now, either.
''I understand a lot of the backlash that came with me going to Miami, but I understand also that I did what was best for me, what was best for my family and what was best for me being a professional athlete,'' James said. ''I understand what this league is all about. I wanted to team up with some guys that I understood that would never die down in the moment. The opportunity presented itself with this great organization, and D-Wade came to me and said it was possible. We made it happen.''
He averaged 22 points in the finals against the Spurs four years ago, when the Cavaliers scored 82 points or less in three of the four games. It was largely all on him then, and the desire to not shoulder too much of the load is one of the reasons why he's in Miami.
The Heat have won 70 games - 58 in the regular season, 12 more in the playoffs - already this season. Four more would provide James the ultimate vindication.
''We're trying to compete for a championship,'' James said.