- After losing to San Antonio Spurs in 2007 NBA Finals%2C LeBron James said he had to be 10 times better
- Now with Miami Heat%2C James has won four MVPs and improved many facets of game%2C particularly jumper
- Spurs will have to change scheme in order to shut down James%2C who also has better supporting cast
MIAMI — As he gets ready to lead his team to the NBA Finals for a third consecutive year and fourth time overall, LeBron James is expected to succeed, to win championships, to continue to cement his place in league history.
James continues to add elements to his game and when the San Antonio Spurs see him with the Miami Heat in this series, he’ll have a refined low-post game, an always-improving jump shot, near-impeccable shot selection and a big-game aura typical of the league’s best player.
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“We all know what his skills are. He’s a great passer, he can rebound, he can defend,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told reporters earlier this season. “But I think, if anything, he is maturing mentally in the sense that he is enjoying playing the game. He doesn’t listen to talking heads anymore — or a lot less than when he first came in the league.”
Popovich and the Spurs are partially responsible for this. In 2007, they swept James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals. It was James’ first time on the big stage, before he had won any of his four MVPs. It was the Spurs’ fourth championship in nine seasons, the last title the Spurs have won.
Moments after that series ended, James proclaimed, “I have to be 10 times better.”
Fast forward to Monday, when the Heat beat the Indiana Pacers to win the Eastern Conference finals. James was asked to compare himself to that 2007 version: “I’m 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the ’07 Finals,” he said.
The Spurs taught him a lesson. The prepared him for how hard it is to win a championship. They used Bruce Bowen to make scoring difficult for James, goading him into taking jump shots. As a result, James averaged 22 points on 35.6% shooting from the field and 20.0% on three-pointers in four games.
“My Cleveland team, we were very young,” James said. “We went up against a very experienced team, well-coached team, and they took advantage of everything that we did.”
James made 24-for-36 shots inside the restricted area at the basket against the Spurs in that series and was 8-for-54 from everywhere else, including 4-for-27 on midrange shots and 4-for-20 on three-pointers.
“He obviously didn’t shoot the ball from the perimeter like he does now,” ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. “He was a much more accomplished finisher than a jump shooter at that point.”
When the Spurs face James this time around, they’ll know they can’t leave him open for a jump shot — inside or outside of the three-point line. James shot career highs from the field (56.5%) and on three-pointers this season (40.6%). Against the Pacers in the conference finals, James shot 51% from the field and 44.1% on threes against an outstanding defense.
“The marked improvement in his jump shot is both surprising and a great lesson for younger players,” Van Gundy said. “Practicing correctly and diligently can lead to dramatic improvement.”
James also plays with a freedom that wasn’t apparent in 2007. It was also missing the second time he played in the Finals, when the Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011. Another lesson learned.
“Ever since I lost the Finals to Dallas, my mind frame changed that off-season,” James said. “I just wanted to get back to playing the game that I love and have fun and play it at a high level. …
“I just went back to the basics. I went back home. I went back to Ohio. I worked out with my high school coach. I went back to my high school gym and just put myself in the mindset of what made me fall in love with the game. And it’s because I had a lot of fun with it.”
Even though they beat him handily, the Spurs knew what they were seeing in 2007, a budding superstar. After it was over, San Antonio center Tim Duncan and James crossed path going to and leaving news conferences.
Duncan had words for James. NBA Entertainment captured the conversation.
“This is going to be your league in a little while,” Duncan told James. Then with a smile, he added: “But I appreciate you giving us this year.”