My, what a difference a year can make.
Last year at this time, the NBA wasn’t getting ready for training camps or just coming off the Summer League. Instead, ESPN’s news on the NBA had little to speak of outside of the ongoing meetings between the league and the NBPA in hopes of working out a new CBA deal. Technical and financial jargon littered the airwaves and we wanted nothing to do with it as NBA fans.
There was no Summer League, a rushed training camp and only two preseasons games before the start of the season, which was moved from its original starting date on October 30th to December 25th.
Nobody was waiting for the season to start more than the Miami Heat’s humbled superstar LeBron James. It had been months since we had heard anything from James, with the only new knowledge from him being that he had worked on his post-game over the summer with Hakeem Olajuwon. Working with Hakeem wasn’t new, as Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard had also employed his services over past offseasons.
James would have to wait for his first chance at redemption until Christmas, where he would be taking on the same Dallas Mavericks team that had just shut him down and completely took him out of his game only a few months prior.
LeBron watched the Mavericks raise their banner and then began to raise hell on the competition for the next six months.
Before he reached that moment, however, there were several implications that led to LeBron James using the 2011-’12 season as a blueprint for a dream season. What James needed first was to be significantly humbled by a team that shouldn’t have stood a chance against the Heat in the NBA Finals.
Throughout the ‘Big Three’s first year together, you sort of got the sense of the team being a little overconfident in their abilities. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all thought this would be a lot easier than expected, especially in the 2011 NBA Finals after running through the Eastern Conference with relative ease. Compiling a 12-3 record against Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago should have been enough to give the Heat the needed confidence and momentum, but all it did was put the team in the wrong state-of-mind.
The Heat would lose to the Mavericks in six games, despite dominating Game 1 and the first 40 minutes of Game 2. Game 2 was the turning point of the series. With the Heat up by double-digits and facing the possibility of going into Dallas with a 2-0 series lead, the team performed this recurring habit where they waited for the clock to win them the game.
Basically, the offense went stagnant and the defense got lazy, allowing the Mavericks to gain confidence and stage an incredible comeback. Nobody in the house was more shocked than LeBron, who knew he played a key part in the demise by pounding the ball at the top of the perimeter and not facilitating the offense.
From then on, James became a shell of the player that had won two MVP’s and had devastated some of the NBA’s top defenses in the Celtics and Bulls only a few weeks before. The Heat would barely win in Game 3, but James would score only eight points in a close Game 4 loss and Miami would drop the next two, including Game 6 at home to lose the series.
The dream was over. After all the scrutiny and criticism, the Heat had failed and had to watch their opponent celebrate on their own floor. They lost as a team, but it all fell on James, who averaged a mere 18 points per game, less than Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Although he made his impact felt in other categories, the team needed LeBron to be LeBron in order to win.
The entire experience was a wake-up call to James. This wasn’t going to be as easy as he thought and he knew that after spending two weeks to himself in the comfort of his bedroom. In order to become the player so many envisioned him to be, he had to realize that he was capable of becoming that player first.
So LeBron went to work; specifically on his post-game. Because the Dallas Mavericks utilized a zone to cut off James’ drives, LeBron’s only chance at getting near the rim was playing with his back to the basket. He had delved into the art of the post-up before, but not nearly enough to rely on it for a seven-game series.
Going into the 2011-’12 season, expectations were riding on LeBron even more than they were before. If there wasn’t a story on the NBA-NBPA battles, there was a special on LeBron, highlighting how he didn’t win. We kept hearing the same thing, but there was some sort of need to coax the masses with mindless drivel that we already knew.
Hey, anything for a few more ratings, right?
Because he no longer had the excuse of being with a mediocre roster in Cleveland, his critics gave James no excuses to losing in 2011 and they certainly wouldn’t in 2012 if he had lost for a second consecutive season, and a third time overall.
That worked perfectly for LeBron; because he didn’t want any excuses either. With the new post-game in tow and a brand new ideology created between James, Wade and coach Spoelstra that they must get their looks in high-percentage areas, LeBron went to work at making himself the quintessential best player in the league.
The team didn’t fare as well as they did before, racking up a 46-20 record in the shortened season, but James had absolutely devastated each and every team that had impeded his path. A bad game was not in the cards for LeBron, who led the Heat to a 14-1 record without Dwyane Wade, who missed a few games due to various injuries.
And the post-game? Absolutely incredible. It wasn’t incredible because of James’ footwork(something he still needs to work on), but because of how effective he was when working out of the post. Because he was quicker and/or stronger than his defender, James was able to back into the post with ease.
Once he got near the rim, the opponent would either allow him to get an easy look in a one-on-one situation near the basket or they would throw a double-team at him. Throwing a double-team may have actually been the worst thing you could do, because James is such an excellent passer and can see the court well.
James would average 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.9 steals per and would win a third MVP. He could care less.
LeBron was looking towards the postseason all year long. He knew that there was something he must do, or else he would be subjected to another summer’s worth of criticism and pondering if he really did make the correct decision to depart the beloved embrace of Cleveland for the fairweather love of Miami.
James lit up Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks in five games and was then on to the Indiana Pacers, a team the Heat had beaten three out of four times in the regular season. All appeared to be going well until Chris Bosh landed wrong following a dunk and would exit the game shortly after.
That was Game 1. In the second-round of the NBA postseason, the Heat had just lost their third best player for an indeterminable amount of time. It came squarely on James and Wade to somehow find a way to beat the well-balanced Pacers and they did, thanks in part to LeBron posting 32 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists.
Then the loss of Bosh started to hurt. The Heat would drop the next two games and would be facing a potential 3-1 deficit had they lost Game 4. This was usually the point where James would shy away from the competition, but this was a completely different LeBron; an improved LeBron.
In Game 4, the Heat won behind James’ 40 points, 18 rebounds and 9 assists, a statline that had not been seen since the early-1960’s. A game later, James finished with 30 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists in a blowout victory. In the clinching Game 6, James only needed 28 points, with Wade going off for 41.
Bosh wouldn’t return until Game 5 of the Heat’s series against Boston Celtics. By that point, the Heat were in deep trouble facing a 3-2 deficit and going into the unfriendly confines of a building where they had lost 14 of their previous 15 games. With Boston shutting down Wade and Bosh still ailing, the Heat would need James to go off for one of the best games in postseason history.
45 points. 15 rebounds. 5 assists. Miami 98, Boston 79. That’s what you call a defining moment.
And this is what you call the face that is appropriate for a game like that:
Fast forward to Game 7 and its LeBron James leading the way with 31 points, 12 rebounds and 2 assists. Thanks in part to Chris Bosh hitting a career-high three three-pointers, the Heat moved on to the NBA Finals for a date with the offensively-gifted Oklahoma City Thunder.
What more can be said that we don’t already know? The Heat went down 1-0, James had 32 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists to tie the series and it was history from there. LeBron would get a massive amount of help from the role players who had been inconsistent all year, and James would have some of the defining moments of his career in the form of a tie-breaking three-pointer in Game 4 and a triple-double in the clinching Game 5.
One year after experiencing the worst feelings he probably ever felt in a storied career, James was an NBA champion, and a Finals MVP to boot. He averaged 28 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists in the series, while doing all he could to limit the incredible scoring ability of Kevin Durant.
By the end of the series, James was the one who was outplaying the runner-up MVP on both sides of the court in the final moments of games. LeBron displayed no weaknesses throughout the series, didn’t rely heavily on his inconsistent jumpers and made a conscious effort to get to the rim as much as possible.
His post-ups also led to the barrage of 14 Heat three-pointers in the Game 5 finale. James assisted on nine of those shots, finishing with a season-high 13 for the night.
Being clutch doesn’t have anything to do with what happens in the final seconds of a game. Being clutch is stepping up for your team, no matter what moment. Can we not say that recording one of the best statlines in NBA history to avoid a series loss in the Conference Finals is clutch? Or no, because he didn’t record 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists in the final two minutes?
The game of LeBron was analyzed beyond belief, which is why you see such a dramatic emphasis on being clutch these days. If the analysts wanted to find a negative point in James’ game, they found it and decided to run with it for two years. As you could guess, we didn’t see much of those stats in the Finals.
Fast forward a few months later and LeBron James is at the peak again, this time with a second Gold Medal hanging from his neck. While Durant stepped up and ended up setting a record for most points by an American in an Olympics, James would win MVP honors thanks to how well he facilitated and how huge he came up in pressure situations.
Even in the Gold Medal game, James had his moments. He had a wide-open dunk on account of poor communication from his opponent and then hit the dagger three-pointer to push a six-point lead to nine with only two minutes remaining. It was eerily similar to the three he hit in Game 4. This time around, however, he wasn’t hobbling back up the court.
Although he did airball the next three-pointer, which is something that media-blowhard Skip Bayless had to point out.
Nevertheless, James did it. He not only proved his doubters wrong, but he also proved to himself just what type of player he is capable of becoming with the right mental state. This game is half-physical and half-mental and with James finding the mental half this season, he has become the undisputed best basketball player in the world.
Emitting confidence at the highest it has ever been, James will be looking to continue improving himself, while proving wrong to the doubters that think Oklahoma City, Boston or the new-look Los Angeles Lakers will be the next teams to topple the Miami Heat.