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It's the truth. This is LeBron James' third trip to the NBA Finals, but Thursday represents the first time he has ever had a chance to close out a championship series. His maiden Finals voyage, back with the Cleveland Cavaliers after the 2006-07 season, ended without a victory as the San Antonio Spurs swept the 22-year-old King out in four straight. His second trip, last season's matchup with the Dallas Mavericks, featured a 2-1 lead for the Heat, but Dirk Nowitzki's crew ripped off three straight wins to take the title. No LeBron James team has ever sat just one win away from an NBA title. Until now.
[Marc J. Spears: LeBron James feeling comfortable on the cusp of a title]
Thursday, he can take what's seemed like his birthright since he was wearing the green and gold at St. Vincent-St. Mary, and put the first of what he once famously claimed would be "not one, not two, not three ..." notches on his title belt. To hear him tell it, he's ready for the moment, comfortable in his own skin for what seems like the first time in years.
Just as all those cheers from non-partisan NBA observers turned to vociferous boos after he flew south, the sounds surrounding LeBron can change Thursday night. He might never totally disabuse fans of their (understandably) negative view of the way he left Cleveland, and of "The Decision," and of the proclamation of Heat dominance before he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had ever set foot on a basketball court together. But even if all those cheers are gone forever, James can earn something perhaps more satisfying for an athlete with one more big game on Thursday night: awestruck, silent appreciation.
Lord knows he's already played well enough this postseason to earn that hushed respect, performing at a level that has been remarkable and historic.
His playoff Player Efficiency Rating (PER) — a statistic that looks to measure a player's per-minute offensive productivity so that we can make something close to apples-to-apples comparisons of players' on-court value across positions, roles and eras — is 30.6, better than twice the league average of 15 and just one-tenth of a point off his league-leading regular-season mark. That's a top-10 mark in NBA postseason history (once you account for guys who've played at least one series and, y'know, actually played big minutes), a performance that puts him in the company, exclusively, of Hall of Fame names — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan, George Mikan, Shaquille O'Neal and Chris Paul.
And while critics are right to point to PER as an admittedly imperfect stat that doesn't account for a player's defensive performance and can become inflated simply by a player taking more shots, it's worth noting that LeBron's not exactly acting as some Iversonian chucker (he's averaging just under 22 field-goal attempts per game in the playoffs, and he's hitting better than half of them) and, as we've noted, not considering James' significant defensive contributions actually underrates him more than it helps his cause. Still, you might prefer regular ol' box-score stats to advanced ones. James has those for you, too.
His per-game averages this postseason — 30.5 points, 9.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists — have been equaled just twice in the history of the NBA playoffs: by Oscar Robertson, in 1962-63, and by James himself, in 2008-09. Throw in the fact that James is also averaging better than a steal a game (nearly two, in fact, at 1.9) and Oscar recedes — only LeBron's put up better than 30-9-5-1, and this is his second time doing it. And even if you chalk up the numbers to an inflated minutes count — which makes sense, since James averaged 37.5 minutes per game in the regular season and has played 42.7 per contest in the playoffs — his per-36-minute numbers (25.7 points, 8.2 boards, 4.4 assists) are right in line with the regular-season marks (26, 7.6 and 6) that won him the MVP, despite playing more and having to do more against the best competition possible.
He's been consistent, scoring at least 26 points in 20 of Miami's 22 playoff games. He has answered the calls for him to get that 6-foot-9, 270-pound frame into the low post, and has been an absolute monster there, scoring and distributing and dissecting the Thunder at nearly every turn. He's been aggressive, getting to the foul line 37 times through four games after settling for jumpers too often en route to just 20 free throws in six games against the Mavs last year.
And he's been dominant, turning in his three biggest performances when the Heat have desperately needed them — 45, 15 and 5 in Game 6 against the Boston Celtics; 40, 18 and 9 in Game 4 against the Indiana Pacers; and 26, 9 and 12 in Game 4 against the Thunder, a game in which he cramped up but still stepped up, a game that put his team just 48 minutes away from a ring. (Some might even say those were "clutch" performances.)
James was the league's best player this season, and he's been its best player this postseason, and with all due respect to Kevin Durant, it hasn't really been that close. This has been LeBron James' year. But is this his day? For the first time in his career, we're just a short time away from finding out.
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