By Chris Lehman
For Michael Jordan it was the tongue. For Kobe Bryant it was the jaw. For LeBron James, it was strictly business. There was no more smiling, no more laughing and no more jawing at the refs. For the first time in his career, we saw that look from LeBron. That look that said he was ready, that he wanted it. You could look him in the eye and know that he was willing to sacrifice (or sucka-fice as Wade would say) and do whatever it was going to take to win. That’s what has been missing.
The talent was there. Because of that, the criticism was there. As a result of that, the pressure was there. At the end of the day, the most important thing was that LeBron James was there.
Until the 2012 Finals, and especially yesterday, the latter was not true. Sure James was physically present in the 2007 Finals with Cleveland and again in 2011 in his first year with Miami. The differences, however, were clearly visible. James was not mentally there.
In 2007 against the Spurs, they just straight-up got outplayed. In 2010 in the Eastern Finals, James gave up on his team against the Celtics. He looked sluggish and uninterested. I had never seen a superstar of his caliber check out of a series like that and I hope I never do again. Most recently, after the 2011 season Skip Bayless labeled James “The Frozen One.” After what had been a very strong year, the collapse and absolute disappearance of James in the finals, especially in the 4th quarter, was astonishing, and helped light the fire for the LeBron doubters…myself included.
In the 2007 and 2011 Finals, James averaged a mere 19 points a game. This year he put up nearly 30 a game throughout the entire playoffs, including the finals. He scored 697 points during this year’s playoffs, coming up just 3 points shy of stepping into all-time history.
Sure, he’s a better player than he was in his earlier days. His game has developed – he’s a better shooter and he makes much better decisions. But the main difference is his maturity. Over the course of one year we saw LeBron James undergo a drastic, and much needed maturation process.
James should have taken notes from Peyton Manning. Both had won several MVPs and established themselves as one of the best ever. It took Maning many years to win his first ring. Until he finally won, and even after, he still operated with nothing but class. He never celebrated, never crowned himself, but most importantly, he knew that it was not going to be easy and that he would have to put in the work.
When The Decision was made and the new Big-3 was formed, they thought it would be easy. They thought they wouldn’t have to work to win. They thought they would be handed “not one, not two, not three…not seven” championships. They thought wrong. I thought they would never win one ring together. I also thought wrong.
There was never a debate as to James’ individual talent, or the talent of the trio. The main issue was always their mentality. They thought it would be easy. James has been heavily scrutinized for his “not two, not three…not seven” speech. I have no problem with expecting to win. But his thought that “once the game starts, it’s gonna be easy” is where my problem with him started.
After South Beach came so close last year, only to be disappointed, everything changed. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James figured out what they needed to do. Even though Wade knew what it would take to win, seeing as he had done it before, he offered the role of Batman to James. He knew that there could not be two superheroes, but that one of them would have to play the sidekick.
Because of this unselfishness, we saw the heat play pressure-free for the first time. The result was legendary.
LeBron James just put his foot in the door. But now the real test starts. Some say the pressure has been lifted, but I think it’s now stronger than ever. Will he get complacent and be comfortable with finally winning one ring, or will he stay hungry? Gotham City is now safe, but that doesn’t mean Batman should disappear. Which LeBron will we see next year? Will he wear a mouth guard with “LXXXII” on it for the regular season? Or will he focus on the XVI games in the playoffs. Hopefully he’ll get rid of it altogether.
Regardless of his protective mouthwear, one can only wait to see if we will experience the Return of Batman and once again Witness or if we will see The Frozen One.
For the time being, we are finally able to say that the most important thing was that LeBron James was there. As LeBron said after hoisting the championship trophy:
“It’s about damn time.”