|The more LBJ played from a position of strength inside the lane, the harder Miami was to beat. (Getty Images)|
MIAMI -- This is your worst fear, America. Your worst NBA fear, anyway. This is what knocked your knees and boiled your blood, this Miami Heat team that won its first NBA championship on Thursday night and looks poised to win not one, not two, not ...
It's what you feared, but not why you feared it. Because this Miami Heat team didn't win that NBA title, and won't be expected to win more of them, simply because it bludgeons its opponents with talent.
Well, don't get me wrong. This Miami Heat team has LeBron James, so there is talent here. There is bludgeoning. But it's not the Heat team we thought we would see, LeBron teaming with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to annihilate everyone in their path, a team so good it can beat the best the NBA has to offer with two hands tied behind its back. Three on five? The Heat can beat you three on five. That's what we thought. That's what we feared.
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But that's not what we saw, because this LeBron James isn't the LeBron James who already was an MVP in Cleveland, who already was being discussed as an all-time great. This LeBron James is better than that one. Smarter. More efficient, more ruthless, more cruel. That LeBron was a frontrunner, a guy who was good most of the time, but who needed to hit a hot streak to be an all-time great. This LeBron is a bully -- the freakiest physical specimen in a league full of physical freaks, the Wilt Chamberlain of his generation -- who takes what he wants because, basically, you can't stop him.
LeBron has taken the vagaries of the jump shot out of the equation. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra repeatedly said this week that "this is a make-or-miss league" -- meaning games, and even reputations, can swing on the whims of an open shot. Miss a few, as Mike Miller did for most of the playoffs, and you're over the hill. Hit seven 3s in eight attempts, as Miller did Thursday night in Game 5, and you're a hero. It's a make-or-miss league.
Sometimes they fall, sometimes they don't. From 15 or 20 feet, there's just no guarantee, not for anybody. The Thunder's Russell Westbrook was 20 for 32 in Game 4. He was awesome. Russell Westbrook was 4 for 20 in Game 5. He was awful. It happens, to everybody.
But it's not happening to LeBron, not anymore, because he's not settling for jumpers. I mean, don't get me wrong -- he'll shoot one here and there. But now his jumpers are more clinical and precise, shot for a specific reason. Late in the shot clock. An open 3-pointer. Or maybe just a heat-check jumper, one of those shots you occasionally see great players attempt in the NBA because they've strung together 10 or 12 quick points, and they're feeling hot. How hot? Well, let's find out. Here comes a fading 21-footer. A heat-check jumper.
Those are the only kind LeBron shoots anymore, at least as the NBA playoffs went deeper and the stakes got higher and the ultimate goal got closer. LeBron changed his game, became a completely different player than the one we used to see. And the one we used to see was a three-time MVP, a scoring champion, a triple-double machine. That LeBron was so very good, but this LeBron is so very better.
You saw it. If he wasn't bringing the ball up the court, LeBron would stake out some territory near the paint -- and at roughly 6-feet-9, 275 pounds, LeBron can stake out whatever he wants to stake out -- and wait for the ball to come. And it would come, because teammates know it will come back. Over and over, LeBron got the ball close to the rim and started making his way closer, sometimes with a furious attack and sometimes slowly, inexorably, banging on whatever defender was trying to stop him, inching closer and closer to the rim. However he got there, the defense's reaction was inevitable: Surround that guy.
Sometimes, LeBron was so close to the basket that his momentum and explosion and body control allowed him to find a shot from point-blank range. Other times, LeBron would find Wade or Bosh or Miller or Mario Chalmers or Shane Battier for a shot. A wide-open shot. Again, as Spoelstra will tell you, this is a make-or-miss league. No guarantee those jumpers will fall. But those jumpers are a whole lot easier when there's nobody close. Give Miller or Chalmers or Battier a wide-open look from 3-point range, and they're going to make as many as they miss -- and LeBron has found a way to get them wide-open looks.
LeBron has always made teammates better, but now he makes them a lot better.
Which is why the Heat can, should and will win not one, not two ...
Because the supporting cast doesn't even matter. I mean, great talent helps, and LeBron will always have great talent around him. Wade's body has started to break down, and the decline could be fast. Maybe not, who knows, but it doesn't matter. Whether it's Wade or Bosh or Ray Allen in the last year or two of his career -- it will be someone. It'll be a handful of someones. Good, maybe great players who want to play with this LeBron, because this LeBron makes it so easy.
The three biggest revelations of these NBA Finals were Battier, Miller and Chalmers.
LeBron did that. And whether it's those guys or someone else, he'll do it again next year. And the next. And ...