OKLAHOMA CITY – The defiance, the childish petulance, was gone. LeBron James sat on the dais on the eve of his third NBA Finals Monday and spoke in the same measured, self-assured tone he's carried for much of these playoffs. No gnashing of his fingernails. No giggling with Dwyane Wade. He was, in his own words, "at ease," and that's different from a year ago.
Three hundred sixty-five days earlier, James sat on a similar stage and taunted the world. He had collapsed under the weight of expectations as the Dallas Mavericks eliminated the Miami Heat in the Finals, and his insecurities came pouring out. "All the people that was rooting on me to fail," James said, "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."
Laugh at me now, James seemed to tell his critics. You still have to go back to your crummy jobs, your crummy lives. I'm still better than you.
One longtime NBA official, watching the venom spill out of LeBron's mouth that night, shook his head and said what many in the room thought: "He'll never get it."
Now, maybe LeBron does get it. Exactly one year has passed from the end of last season's failure to the start of these Finals, and the 12 months in between have been a journey of introspection. He's a different player, a different person. His focus is sharper. His priorities have changed.
"I played too much to prove people wrong last year," James said.
This, more than any other reason, is why James can finally deliver his first championship. He's changed and so can his Heat. The Oklahoma City Thunder are younger, faster, deeper, more athletic. They've fallen in line behind Kevin Durant and they have home-court advantage. But if James plays with the fury he brought to the Eastern Conference finals? Anything is possible.
For much of the world, James' reconstruction won't be complete until he wins a title. This is his third trip to the Finals in nine seasons. A closet full of MVP trophies is nice, but you can play the role of Buffalo Bills for only so long before even Nike begins to wonder why it's paying you $100 million. These Finals are one more opportunity for LeBron to fulfill his mandate.
"I'm sure he will try to seize it a little bit better than he did the first two times," Wade said.
Wade saw what everyone saw last season. The criticism that LeBron weathered after leaving Cleveland for Miami wore on him. Beloved in his home state for all those years, LeBron bragged about embracing his new role as the league's leading villain. In truth, he was too fragile to carry the mantle. After the season-ending loss in Miami, he boasted about never paying attention to his critics. That, too, was a lie. He read everything written about him.
LeBron didn't block out the noise. He let it suffocate him.
"Last year there was a lot to deal with, a lot for him to handle, and I thought he did a decent job of it," Wade said. "But sometimes it takes away your focus of being able to play the game because you've got to deal with so much other stuff."
James shut himself off to the world for two weeks after last season's Finals, staying in his home and using the time for a thorough self-evaluation. He met with Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon later in the summer to work on his post game, but Olajuwon's lesson extended far beyond the court: He talked to James about the responsibilities that burden a superstar. He talked to him about fatherhood and how he should carry himself.
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The NBA's lockout also gave James the chance to again find some joy in his game. As he crisscrossed the country playing in exhibitions with some of the league's other stars, he found himself having fun.
"I had to change some things both on and off the floor," James said. "But it's always great when you put your mind to something, you strive to do something, and then it rewards you."
James delivered one of the NBA's greatest individual seasons in years. His performance against the Boston Celtics in the East finals also was one for the ages, yet he's mature enough now to understand none of that matters if he fails to deliver on the sport's biggest stage. As James enters these Finals everyone wants to know: Has Durant surpassed him as the game's best player?
"I don't care," James said.
Wade is glad James has drawn this challenge. Durant will force James to focus more, to stay engaged on both ends of the floor. "It's going to make him play a little different," Wade said, and he thinks this is a good thing.
A year ago, James disappeared in the Finals. He drifted away when the Heat needed him most, his passivity dooming Miami in too many fourth quarters.
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"I didn't play well," he says now. "I didn't make enough game-changing plays that I know I'm capable of making, and I felt like I let my teammates down."
James didn't speak with the bitterness of last season. He sounded confident and determined, like a man who's recognized his past failures and resolved to fix them. He walked off that stage in Miami and into a summer of change and now he walks into these Finals still chasing his elusive championship. Win or lose, LeBron's made one promise: This time, the Heat will get his best.
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