by Ryan Glasspiegel - Follow Sports Rapport on Twitter
You can be forgiven if you haven’t given any Miami Heat games your undivided attention so far in these NBA Playoffs; as soon as Derrick Rose went down, it became all but a formality that the Heat would cruise through the East en route to the NBA Finals. That being said, what we have been seeing from LeBron James the last few weeks has been special.
Through an admittedly small sample of six games, LeBron is averaging 28.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 5.5 assists. His advanced stats are off the charts: he leads the league thus far this postseason with a 31.4 PER (a standardized efficiency rating in which players average 15) and 1.7 Win Shares. He is arguably the best defender in the league at four different positions, having given Carmelo Anthony fits in the first round series against the Knicks–Melo averaged 27.8 points per game but had to take 24.8 shots per game to get them.
Though they may resurface if the Heat face adversity, the overt mental issues that were plaguing LeBron in losses to the Celtics and Mavericks during the last two postseasons have vanished. He has a determined and focused look about him that unequivocally reads, “Get the fuck out of my way.” Once he gets that first step towards the basket, there really isn’t very much defenders can do. If they give him an uncontested dunk, the momentum spreads infectiously to his teammates but he’s so big, strong, and powerful that fouling him is likely to yield a 3-point play. Double team him and he’ll find the wide open man. If you focus too much on stopping LeBron, Dwyane Wade–the league’s 2nd , 3rd, or 4th best player depending on how you evaluate him versus Kevin Durant and Chris Paul–will beat you.
The Decision displayed an unconscionable lack of tact and LeBron paid dearly for it from relentless fans and media. Anger at LeBron’s arrogance, though, has made many of his critics tone deaf to the strides LeBron has made personally and professionally this season as he has instrospectively sought to improve his demeanor. A small example:
Last time LeBron won MVP, he & teammates had an extensive party then sleepwalked thru a playoff L next day. We’ll see what happens this time
— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) May 12, 2012
Windhorst, who has been covering LeBron since high school, was referring to the Cavaliers’ 104-86 loss in Game 2 to the Celtics in 2010; the Cavs would ultimately lose the series in six games and LeBron would Take His Talents to South Beach in the ensuing offseason.
This season’s MVP award would produce different immediate returns. In Game 1 against the Pacers, the Heat won 95-86 as LeBron scored led all scorers with 32 points, bolstering the Heat’s front court in lieu of Chris Bosh’s abdominal strain with 15 rebounds.
Will those that excoriated The Decision note the humility that LeBron exhibited in his press conference?
At the end, with his teammates on stage by his side: “This is very overwhelming to me as an individual award. This is not the award I want. I want that championship. That’s all that matters to me.”
Whether his new tone is manufactured or sincere, calculated or introspective, it seems genuine and demonstrates that LeBron has become more self- and world-aware. While Chris Bosh’s injury may make the Heat lose some games against the Pacers and (I’m assuming) the Celtics that they otherwise would have won, they simply will not lose those series.
From there, can LeBron and the Heat win the NBA Finals? I’d bet that they do.
The pressure that LeBron is facing in his quest for his first ring has recent parallels. Entering his ninth season in the NFL in 2006 , Peyton Manning had a 3-6 record in the playoffs and had not yet played in the Super Bowl. He couldn’t come through in the clutch. LeBron is currently in his ninth season in the league.
A less symmetric example: after batting .136 in six postseasons with the Yankees, Alex Rodriguez batted .365 with six homers, 18 RBIs, 15 runs and 12 walks in the 2009 postseason as the Yankees won the World Series.
Therefore, that LeBron has struggled in big moments in the past does not mean that he will continue to do so. Over the next few weeks, try to watch him through the lens of who he may be on the verge of becoming as opposed to what you’ve decided he is–you do not want to miss out on what he might do because of a personal dislike that should be re-considered with recent evidence.