MIAMI -- The San Antonio Spurs embarrassed the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2007 NBA Finals. Four games. Closed it out in Cleveland. Never allowed a 22-year-old LeBron James to feel comfortable or taste NBA Finals success. It's something that has stayed with James all this time.
"I have something in me that they took in '07. Beat us on our home floor. Celebrated on our home floor," James said Wednesday, a day before he and the Miami Heat will face the Spurs in Game 1 of this year's NBA Finals. "I won't forget that. You shouldn't as a competitor. You should never forget that."
After that series, James went through three frustrating playoff series losses with the Cavaliers in the next three seasons before leaving his home state for the Heat. After joining up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, he went through more embarrassment in the 2011 NBA Finals when the Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks while James played horrendous basketball (by his standards) over the last four games of the series.
That level of failure -- and the attention to the failure -- can break a player. It can also drive a player to improve even more and put things into perspective. That's what it did for James, and he said he doesn't need anymore motivation from losing at this point in his career. He's done with that.
"Well, I've lost enough," James explained. "I don't need anymore fuel from losing. I've lost two Finals, so I don't need anymore fuel from losing the Finals."
Over the last year, we've seen a huge transformation with James in the way that he handles pressure and the way that he has improved his game. He has become a great -- and more importantly, willing -- post player. He has become a much-improved shooter in both form and selection. He has become willing to defend bigs and set screens like a center in pick-and-roll plays. In the process, he took over the 2012 playoffs, won his first ring and Finals MVP, won a gold medal and his fourth MVP award all in the last year.
He's a different player than the one who lost to the Mavericks and worlds different from the player whom San Antonio saw in 2007. The Spurs recognize that.
"That was like ancient history," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Wednesday. "He was basically a neophyte at the time, wondering how all this stuff worked and how it's put together. We were very fortunate at that time to get him so early.
"But at this point, he's grown. He doesn't care what you all say. He knows basketball better than everybody put together in this room. He goes and plays the game and does what's necessary. So he'll be a lot more of a problem than he was in '07. That's for sure."
In 2007, James was a driving force, literally. His jumper was a project, and he got the majority of his points off attacking the basket and getting to the free-throw line. He shot just 35.0 percent on mid-range jumpers and 31.9 percent from 3-point range. The Spurs did their due diligence when scouting James and devised a defensive plan to keep him away from his comfort zones on offense. He shot a pathetic 14.8 percent on mid-range jumpers and 20.0 percent on 3s in the Finals.
"I think in '07 they kept -- when I got the ball, they kept me on the sideline," James said. "They went under a lot of my pick-and-rolls and dared me to shoot. Back in '07, I ran a lot of pick-and-rolls. They funneled me to the sideline with Duncan and [Fabricio] Oberto and Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley, and those guys funneled me to the sideline and dared me to shoot it and didn't allow me to get to the paint where I did most of my damage back in '07."
Now? Good luck trying to get James to not score efficiently by going under on plays where he's running the pick-and-roll. James shot 43.2 percent on mid-range shots this season and 40.6 percent on 3-pointers. According to Synergy Sports, he was the 13th-best scorer in the NBA in pick-and-roll plays as the initiator.
"If you go into my pick-and-roll now, I'm going to shoot," James said. "And I'm confident I'm going to make every last one of them. I'm just more confident in my ability to shoot the ball. But at the same time, I also have a lot more weapons this time around going against this team, where in '07 they loaded three guys to me a lot on the strong side of the floor."
Whether the Heat win or not, James is a much different player and person. He has matured as both through years of failure and promises unfulfilled. You can't force him into a weakness like we saw in 2007 because those weaknesses don't really exist. Off nights still happen, but he rarely makes less than 50 percent of his shots. That has only happened in 21 of his 92 games played this season.
"I'm a better player," James confidently stated, "and you can't dare me to do anything I don't want to do in 2013."
Thursday night, we'll see what the Spurs' plan for him is.