MIAMI – Just one more win stands between LeBron James and his most elusive NBA prize. He's won three MVP awards, made eight All-Star appearances, been named Rookie of the Year and even taken home an Olympic gold medal. All that's missing in his career is an NBA championship ring.
James can get that as soon as Thursday night if his Miami Heat close out the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. After falling short in his previous two trips to the Finals – 2007 when his Cleveland Cavaliers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs; and last year when the Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in six games – James hopes the third time is a charm.
"Human nature is to automatically think about after we win it, what are we going to do," James said. "I'm not there. I won't get there until those zeros hit and I see that we won. I'm the leader of this team, and I'm not comfortable right now. I'm comfortable in my game, but I'm not going to be comfortable until we seal this thing."
The Heat hold a commanding 3-1 lead over the Thunder in the Finals, and James is the biggest reason why. He's played much more aggressively than a year ago when he looked listless as the Heat lost to the Mavericks in the Finals. He also appears to be much humbler.
James averaged a disappointing 17.8 points on 47.8 percent shooting in last year’s Finals. Against the Thunder, he's averaged 29.3 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and 1.8 steals. More important: He's shot 37 free throws, nearly double the 20 he shot in six games in last year's Finals. Kevin Durant even stopped guarding James in Game 4 to keep from getting in foul trouble for a third straight game.
James admits he's no longer succumbing to the pressure of the expectations he faced in his first season in Miami after his celebrated decision to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
"I haven't really felt [the pressure] that much," James said. “Last year it was much more than it is today. I remember it being Game 5 last year with the series tied 2 2, it just felt more pressure, felt like it was more [media] people here, felt like you guys not only brought yourselves but brought your relatives all into Dallas. It just seemed more."
James has embraced his return to the Finals. He's never been more focused on his goal than this season, closing off outside distractions and displaying a level of maturity he didn't show a year ago.
James and Wade joked about Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki having the flu during last year’s Finals. A source close to the Heat said the players began planning parties and talking about their championship rings after taking a 2-1 lead over the Mavs. Dallas defeated the Heat the next three games to win its first NBA title. The Mavericks closed out the series in Miami on the Heat's court.
Afterward, a frustrated James mocked his critics, saying "they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today" while he will "continue to live the way I want to live." James was quickly vilified for the comments.
"I was very hurt that I let my teammates down, and I was very immature," James said. "Last year I played to prove people wrong instead of just playing my game, instead of just going out and having fun and playing a game that I grew up loving and [remembering] why I fell in love with the game. So I was very immature last year after Game 6 towards you guys [the media] and towards everyone that was watching.
"One thing that I learned – and someone taught me this – the greatest teacher you can have in life is experience. I've experienced some things in my long but short career. And I was able to make it better for myself throughout these playoffs and throughout this whole year. And that's on and off the court."
James helped push the Heat within a win of the championship, despite being carried off the court in Game 4 with leg cramps. He feels “a lot better” and doesn’t expect the cramps to be an issue in Game 5.
Hall of Famers Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing only played in one Finals and lost. Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone played in two Finals and lost both times. Two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash has never played in an NBA Finals.
James is appreciative of his third – and best – chance to win a championship. One more win, and he'll fulfill his goal.
"I'm blessed because a lot of people, first of all, never go to The Finals," James said. "Second of all, if they go, they never go back. And this is my third opportunity. So I'm just trying to make the most of it. Win, lose or draw, I'm giving my all, and I'm going to be happy."
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