|Appearing long-suffering, James makes quick work of reporters' questions on Saturday. (Getty Images)|
MIAMI -- LeBron James isn't fooling around anymore. He isn't being led anymore, either. He has stopped following, because following has only led him to derision, humiliation, failure.
That's what I see in this LeBron of the 2012 NBA Finals compared to the LeBron of a year ago, the one who lost his way off the court with The Decision, then lost his way on the court during the 2011 Finals.
This LeBron? He follows nobody, which is why he has become the LeBron we've been waiting to see emerge from his man-child cocoon and become ready, once and for all, to win an NBA championship. That's not a guarantee that he'll win this particular NBA championship, mind you. The Oklahoma City Thunder are no joke, and everyone understands that -- LeBron included.
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But LeBron looks ready this year, more ready than in 2007 when he was a kid of 22, having done all sorts of heavy lifting to get an otherwise woeful Cleveland Cavaliers roster into the NBA Finals, only to be overwhelmed in a four-game sweep by the deeper, older San Antonio Spurs.
LeBron looks more ready than a year ago, when he was still trying to find his place in Miami, still trying to fit in with Wade, Chris Bosh and Spoelstra. Still trying to be all things to all people, which has been LeBron's biggest weakness -- not as a person, but as an NBA superstar.
Consideration, accommodation -- those are admirable qualities in a man, but not always in a star in today's NBA. The two players who defined the past two decades, winning 11 of the past 21 NBA titles between them, didn't have those virtues. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were many things, but thoughtful or supportive? On the court? Not even a little bit. They were cruel. They were ruthless.
They were what LeBron James is becoming.
He has been on a scoring rampage this offseason, reaching 30 points 10 times in the last 12 games. The two games he fell short of 30? He scored 28, and he scored 29. He has scored at least 30 in each of the past five games, a season-high streak -- his previous best was three -- and he has been at his best when the Heat have needed it most. Get the Heat down in a series, and watch out. Here comes ruthless.
Game 4 against the Pacers, the Heat down 2-1: LeBron goes for 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists, only the second time that combination has been reached in a playoff game. The first was 1961, by Elgin Baylor.
Game 6 against the Celtics, the Heat down 3-2: LeBron goes for 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists, the first time that combination was reached in a playoff game since 1964. By Wilt Chamberlain.
Game 2 against the Thunder, the Heat down 1-0: LeBron goes for "only" 32 points, eight rebounds and five assists, but he hits a difficult shot off the glass with 1:26 left, thwarts Kevin Durant's game-tying attempt with 10 seconds to play, then seals the 100-96 victory by hitting two free throws with 7.1 seconds left.
LeBron has been unstoppable. And he knows it.
"I don't think there's just one guy that can guard me," LeBron said. "You can't just put one guy on me and allow him to be on an island and defend me one-on-one."
A year ago LeBron wasn't ruthless -- he was Dwyane Wade's kid brother. He said the Heat were D-Wade's team, that he had come to Miami to help D-Wade win another title. And he played like it, too, deferring to Wade, preferring Wade to be the star when the game was there to be won. Off the court, LeBron went along with Wade's silly antics, including that ridiculous mocking of an ill Dirk Nowitzki during last year's Finals, when Wade walked through the Mavericks' arena with his shirt over his face, coughing and looking at LeBron as LeBron smiled and played along.
Pathetic. The Decision, the coughing, the deferring. Ridiculous. Unbecoming for a player of LeBron's stature, assuming he wants to have that stature.
This year he seems to want it. He's not fooling around anymore, pretending he's Wade's little brother or that this is Wade's team. It's not, and it comes out in snippets, like the times LeBron has been asked about Wade's tendency to start slow or play inconsistently -- and LeBron has talked not about Wade, but about LeBron.
"Sometimes I go to him," LeBron says, "and tell him I need one of those games from him, I need one of those performances from him."
And LeBron says:
"I always try to make a conscious effort with D-Wade to try to get him some easy ones, you know, get him a dunk in transition or get him a layup."
See, there can only be one alpha dog in any pack, and LeBron's it. And he is comfortable being it, barking at Wade or telling Spoelstra what adjustments he wants to see made.
One line of questioning at Saturday's media availability was around the evolution of Spoelstra this season, how he is more willing to listen to his players' input, as if such evolution was Spoelstra's idea. One alternative to this theory -- one supported by facts -- is that LeBron has asserted himself this season more than last season, that Spoelstra is listening to LeBron because he has no choice: LeBron didn't want to come out of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics, so he didn't. And after not getting the assignment on Kevin Durant and not getting enough rest in the Game 1 loss to the Thunder, LeBron wanted both for Game 2 -- and he got them.
"I want to guard the best," LeBron said.
LeBron gets what he wants -- and he gives what he wants, too. Used to be, you could lead LeBron where you wanted him to go. The media could, I mean. He would revert to his considerate mode, his accommodating mode, and give you the answer he knew you wanted. Why? Well, why not?
Those days are gone. Ask LeBron a question now, and he might just throw it back in your face.
Media question for LeBron after Game 1: "You guys gave up 56 points in the paint. How do you plan on stopping that next game?"
Answer: "Not give up 56 points in the paint."
Another line of media questioning has been about the nerdy look in the NBA today, and several players -- Russell Westbrook and Wade especially -- have enjoyed discussing it. LeBron? He doesn't care. He's here to win a ring, not talk about fashion. He was asked four different questions about the nerdy glasses and he refused to give in, refused to give anything interesting except for when he was told Westbrook had taken credit for the trend.
"No, that's not right," LeBron huffed.
Then what, LeBron was asked, is the story behind the trend?
"There's no stories behind it," he said. "But he absolutely didn't start it."
Then came Saturday, when LeBron sat through 10 agonizing minutes with the media, rubbing his eyebrow with his finger, as if to take his mind off the misery. Finally he was asked a question by a guy from Afghanistan, of all places. The reporter wanted to know, in a friendly way, what parts of his game he wanted to improve.
It was a softball question, but LeBron isn't here to play softball. So he was starting to get up even as he answered the question.
"Everything," LeBron said, and then he was gone.