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LeBron James - have critics been silenced?
King of the court
Gear fit for a King
LeBron James has endured years of scrutiny from the media and fans alike. I suppose this is the price you pay when you are (by most accounts) the best in the world at your craft. Playing an entire career being measured and compared to Michael Jordan isn't fair for any basketball player. Over the course of the last two seasons this comparison has become more legitimate as James has now added two NBA championships to his resume'. However, it wasn't long ago, after an NBA Finals defeat to the Dallas Mavericks that many were questioning Lebron, including myself.
The maturation of LeBron over the last two seasons has been remarkable. Even while piling up gaudy numbers in Cleveland, and even in Miami, there seemed to be something missing from James. Perhaps defeat to the Dallas Mavericks two seasons ago was humbling enough for LeBron to turn the corner from being a successful individual and regular-season player into becoming something more. Whatever it was, something changed. The King looked more confident in himself and was ready to take on the criticism that had plagued him for several years. The remarkable performances have continued and the Heat rolled through the regular season on their way to the playoffs.
The evolution of King James once again was apparent in the epic NBA Finals series against the San Antonio Spurs. This series was a classic. The aging Spurs were definitely a worthy adversary for the Heat. The Spurs stole game one from the Heat in Miami by holding LeBron to just 18 points. LeBron finished with a triple-double for the game, but the result of his efforts were still a loss. The Heat responded in game two by trouncing the Spurs. Again, LeBron didn not put up the type of offensive numbers he was capable of, finishing with 17 points. Game three was more of the same, with LeBron notching just 15 points on seven of twenty-one shooting. The end result of this output was another loss for the Heat.
Games 1-3 averages
Down 2-1 in the NBA Finals series against the Spurs, it was apparent that LeBron would have to carry more of the scoring load for the Heat. Credit the defense of the Spurs for slowing LeBron down the first three games of the series. The strategy for the Spurs was simple but effective. They gave LeBron a cushion and dared him to shoot perimeter shots. It was a gamble that worked and is perhaps most evident by the number of free throw attempts that LeBron took. This is an indication that LeBron was not playing as aggressive as we are accustomed to seeing - taking jump shots rather than driving to the basket and earning trips to the free throw line, which is a key part of his game.
James and Wade
Like we have often seen, LeBron responded in game four with a brilliant performance, leading Miami to victory. James broke twenty points for the first time in the series, finishing with 33 points, shooting efficiently in the process. Game five was a loss for the Heat. The offensive output for LeBron took a slight dip in this game. Again, he was slowed down, finishing with 25 points on eight of twenty-two shooting. One positive was that LeBron got to the free throw line nine times this game. Still, it wasn't enough, and the Spurs pushed Miami to the brink of elimination, with a series lead of 3-2.
Games 4-7 averages
Game six highlights
Game six was a real treat for basketball fans. The Spurs appeared to have the game wrapped up, holding onto a five point lead with less than thirty seconds remaining in the game. This came after the Heat had lead for most of the game. Most noteworthy was that LeBron struggled when the game was on the line. Whether it was the pressure of the moment that got to him, exhaustion, or tough defense by the Spurs, it appeared that this game had slipped away from him. LeBron made bad passes, lost control of the ball, and took bad shots. For a moment he looked rattled,and it looked like the Heat had choked.
It's amazing the difference one play makes. With less than 30 seconds remaining in the game, LeBron put up a three-point attempt, but missed badly. The Heat controlled the rebound and got the ball back to LeBron. James put up another three-pointer, this time connecting. Had LeBron missed this three, the Heat may have been done. Down five points, they likely would have been eliminated and not have met their expectations of winning another championship. For LeBron, the criticism really would have ramped back up. It looked like he had buckled under pressure and couldn't deliver when necessary. It is incredible how that three-pointer (his only three make of the game), just one play, saved him from another off-season of intense scrutiny. The Heat went on to tie the game up in the final seconds of regulation, before coming out victorious in overtime. It was a legendary game, and LeBron was one of many heroes for the Heat that night. The King finished with another impressive triple-double. Post-game, LeBron went on to say that it was the best game he had ever been a part of. Fortunately for him, he came up clutch when his team needed it the most.
The Heat went on to win game seven of the series with a score of 95-88. It was a close game until the end. James delivered an outstanding performance, finishing with 37 points, including five three-pointers. The stats were impressive again this game. The Spurs had no answer for LeBron. There were other individual match-ups in the game that favored the Spurs, but there just isn't much you can do against LeBron when he is playing aggressive and is hot like he was in game seven.
So, after two championships in two years for LeBron, what is his legacy as of now? He is already one of the greatest players ever. Yet, I get the sense that he may just be getting started. A little re-tooling, and this Heat team looks to be competitive for years to come. It seems that LeBron understands what it takes to win championships now. Not only that, his confidence will continue to grow. I expect the Heat to be in the mix again next year for the championship, and likely favorites. So, what can slow the King down? He has seemed nearly invincible his entire career. Will he ever suffer an injury that will cause him to miss a number of games, or even worse, return from injury with diminished athleticism? Though he is a physical specimen, injuries hit everyone.
On top of his accomplishments, it has become hard to dislike LeBron. I despised him for jumping on with Miami, and his handling of it. I criticized him for "The Decision". And I was critical of him after the 2011 NBA Finals loss to the Mavericks. Now, however, the King says and does all the right things. He was extremely complimentary towards the Spurs (which truly are a great, class act of a team) and displayed great sportsmanship. He was respectful and lead his team the way you wish to see a leader lead. A couple years ago I didn't see the comparisons to Michael Jordan. Now, with two championships under his belt and arguably not even in his prime yet, LeBron is poised to claim more rings.