James was the star of the Cleveland Cavaliers when they were embarrassingly swept by the Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals. Now, six years later, James has a chance to pay them back in this year's Finals as a member of the Miami Heat. Moreover, the 2013 NBA Most Valuable Player can become a multiple title winner in his fourth Finals appearance. Game 1 is Thursday night.
"It's a great opportunity. I have something in me that they took in '07," said James after practice Wednesday. "[They] beat us on our home floor, celebrated on our home floor. I won't forget that. You shouldn't as a competitor. You should never forget that.
"It's the same group of guys, for the most part, the same 'Big Three,' and coach Pop. And I look forward to the challenge once again."
James was 22 years old when the Cavaliers made their lone Finals appearance during his fourth season in the league. His sensational Eastern Conference Finals performance against the then-NBA power and veteran Detroit Pistons surprisingly vaulted the Cavaliers to the Finals. But with exception of an 83-82 Game 4 loss, the Cavs didn't give the Spurs much fight en route to being swept.
"It was a young LeBron," Spurs guard Tony Parker said. "He was still unbelievable because he was just coming off an unbelievable series against Detroit, playing great basketball. In particular, that series we played great defense on him. And it was just the beginning for him."
Since then, James has won four NBA MVP awards and his first NBA title last season with the Heat. Now 28 years old, he says he's changed in many ways since his Finals loss to the Spurs.
"Just smarter. A lot smarter. More experienced. Older. More mature both on and off the floor. And I think that's the most important thing. I've matured as a basketball player. I've matured as a man. And it has allowed my game to sprout," James said.
Said Parker: "Right now, he's a four-time MVP so it's going to be a different story."
While James is the NBA's biggest star now, it was just a year ago that he entered the Finals with a lot of pressure to finally win a title while being viewed as the biggest villain in sports.
James earned that reputation with his "Decision" to leave Cleveland for Miami in 2010. The disdain for him grew when he chastised his critics after the Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, saying, "All the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today."
All the hatred, pressure and criticism subsided dramatically after James led the Heat to the 2012 NBA championship, mostly because the Finals MVP showed humility and grace following the title win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Heat guard Dwyane Wade said he can tell James is a lot more loose this time around. One example was James jokingly smacking Wade on the back of his head before his media session.
"After so many years when you kind of question yourself and doubt am I ever going to win a championship, [and then] finally winning one, it takes a lot of pressure and stress off of you," Wade said. "But he's not relaxed. … He still wants to win again. He still wants to win another one. So he's hungry, too."
Remember when James said upon his arrival in Miami that he was going to win, "Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven titles" championships with the Heat? Well, James is actually just 1-2 in Finals appearances overall entering this championship series. Meanwhile, Bill Russell has 11 titles, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan have six, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant have five and Tim Duncan has four.
James will undoubtedly go down as one of the all-time NBA greats, but winning several more titles will greatly enrich his legacy. The 10-year NBA veteran said he doesn't play the game for his legacy, but he did acknowledge the importance of being more than just a one-hit title wonder.
"I understand that it's a long process, it's the most difficult thing I've ever had to do playing basketball," James said. "That's what I'm here for. I'm here to win championships, and you're not always going to be on the successful side. I've seen it twice, not being on the successful side. To be able to just put myself in the position to be able to play for one, I'm happy with that."
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