|Anything less than a title will be seen as a failure for the Heat's Big Three. (AP)|
MIAMI -- A year ago, it was all different. LeBron James calls it a transition phase, one where he was wrapped up in figuring out how his game was going to mesh with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.
The way James sees it, the Heat growing pains are gone. And he hopes that means his annual championship quest will finally be fulfilled.
Driven by last season's loss to Dallas in the NBA finals - a series where he made seven field-goal attempts in 68 fourth-quarter minutes - James and the Heat return to the postseason as the No. 2 seed on the Eastern Conference bracket. Their first-round opponent is still not determined. Their ultimate goal was determined long ago.
"I have to be who I am," James said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Last year was the biggest teacher. The greatest teacher in life is experience. And I had that last year. I'm back to being the person who can take over games.
"I have no problem taking over a game now."
Here's an example: In one recent game, Wade was walking to the bench for a time-out. Halfway there, he was met by James. For the next 45 seconds, James was in his teammate's ear about something. He did all the talking. Wade did all the nodding.
A year ago, such a display probably wouldn't have happened where 20,000 people could see.
"Obviously, last year we kind of got cheated a little bit out of the greatness of LeBron as a vocal leader," Wade said. "He had so much going on, so much in his mind that he was just trying to show everybody with his play and his toughness.
"But this year, especially of late, we've all been getting the vocal player, the intelligent player that LeBron is. His IQ of the game is second to none. So you listen. Especially me."
James' message has not wavered in months. He's finally happy after a year filled with change. He's going to be that take-charge player again. He's more consumed by a championship than ever.
Here come the playoffs, a chance to prove what those words mean.
"I want to win it all, as bad as other guys want to win it -- if not more," James said. "That's why I play as hard as I do in the regular season, to build my habits, build our team's habits. I've been bothered by last season a lot. It's constant. I dream about it a lot, winning that trophy and seeing the confetti come down.
"That's why I'm here. I'm here because I wanted to compete for a championship year in and year out."
Game 1 of the opening round will be in Miami sometime this weekend. And even on a team with stars like Wade and Bosh, it will be James who may be facing the highest burden of playoff expectation.
He has been to the finals twice now, first when he and Cleveland were swept by San Antonio, then last year's six-game defeat to Dallas. The loss to the Spurs carried little in the way of stigma. The loss to the Mavericks still gnaws at him.
James shot 7 for 21 in the fourth quarters of those six finals games last season, scoring 18 points and getting widely criticized over the notion that he deferred to teammates too often. Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki shot 18 for 35 in the same periods, scoring 62 points. Nowitzki got his first championship ring. James is still waiting for his.
"We want to win obviously for each other," said Wade, the 2006 NBA finals MVP. "I've won a championship and I want to win as many as I can. But I don't want to see many people win as much as I want to see No. 6 get a championship."
James' numbers were off the charts again this season, starting with career-bests in field-goal and 3-point shooting. Entering Thursday's regular season finale at Washington, a matchup where James is not expected to play, he's averaging 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.9 steals per game.
The last player to average at least that much in those four categories was Michael Jordan in 1988-89. Two years later, Jordan won the first of his six NBA titles.
"Put his numbers against any of the all-time greats in this game," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "He's right there."
Of course, the only measure that matters anymore with James - who may win the NBA's MVP award for the third time this year - is how his team does in the playoffs.
Fair or unfair, that's the deal. A title is the season's only goal.
"I think LeBron is having a historic season and he's doing it on so many different levels," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who's admittedly biased though insists he's trying to remain objective. "The responsibility that he has to shoulder is really unlike any player that's played. For us to be successful, yes, it goes without saying he has to have an MVP-caliber season. But more importantly he has to utilize every bit of his versatility."
Just four players will finish this season averaging at least 25 points and five rebounds per game, the others being Minnesota's Kevin Love, Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant and the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant. Of those, James is the only one averaging at least five assists, making his statline for the season seems ordinary for him and extraordinary for anyone else.
Since James entered the NBA nine years ago, there's been 14 instances of someone averaging 25 points, five rebounds and five assists. He's done it eight times, two more than the rest of the league combined.
"He's a beast," Houston rookie Chandler Parsons said. "He's different than everyone else."
Yet when those in the Heat locker room start touting James' MVP candidacy, it's not those numbers that they say sets him apart. They all point to his defense, with good reason. James has guarded everyone from Derrick Rose to Pau Gasol this season, using speed to stop some, strength to stop others, and doing it while averaging only 1.5 fouls per game - the lowest for anyone in the league averaging at least 36 minutes of court time per night.
A typical game for James means playing four positions on offense, and guarding at least that many on the other end.
"He brought it every single night," Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. "Rain, sleet or snow, injured, healthy, whatever the situation may be, he brought it every single night."
The question now becomes how James can carry it over to a title run.
He sounds almost apologetic when the conversation turns to what his family will endure at this time of year. A few days ago, James was out of bed early enough to drive his sons to school around 7:45 a.m., a time of day that isn't exactly popular with those on the NBA body clock. Soon, he'll enter what he calls playoff mode. In short, it's all-consuming.
"It's very tough for them, because that's the only thing I care about at that point," James said. "That's not saying I don't care about my family's happiness then - of course not. But the No. 1 goal is the playoffs and each game and working our habits. I become a totally different person. And they know that. I'm kind of hard to work with throughout the playoffs because that's all I care about."
That's all anyone cares about when it comes to LeBron James.