Posted Apr 15 2011 8:19PM
MIAMI -- His basketball penance won't begin this round against the Philadelphia 2014ers, who won't be taken seriously for three years, but the next round. Maybe against the Celtics. Maybe Game 6.
But make no mistake, with the playoffs upon us, and the critical glare upon him, LeBron James is now officially on the clock, his legacy in basketball resting on what he does, or does not do, from here.
He and the Heat must win a championship. Not necessarily this season, but soon, and more than one. Or else he'll leave the game as a multiple MVP winner who recklessly bolted Cleveland for nothing and, in hindsight, was overhyped since high school.
He'd be a no-championships sad sack. Charles Barkley without the charm.
He disappointed an entire city, and turned off a basketball country, with a messy exit from the Cavaliers just for the opportunity he has now. He saw his commercial appeal vaporize and endured all the boos and taunts, just to, as he said, "win not one, but a number" of titles by hooking up with two fellow Team USA members and becoming a controversial trendsetter. He didn't do all that to get a brotherly shove from Philadelphia.
His last playoff series was shakier than Kobe's most recent apology, when a conspiratorial shroud swallowed him up during last year's East semifinals against Boston. LeBron gave up in that series, or at least that was the perception, and the Cavaliers, who had the best record in basketball, went meekly into the night.
But that was then, and now LeBron can put distance between the past and present, the way Usain Bolt does to the guy behind him. That's because LeBron gets to pass the ball to Dwyane Wade in the playoffs instead of Mo Williams. Big difference.
"This is a big chance not only for me but for my teammates, to do what we set out to do," he said.
The other day, before a team meeting, Heat president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra wheeled out the Lawrence O'Brien trophy, won by Miami in 2006. And they didn't do it for Wade, who helped win the thing. No, this motivational trick was mainly for LeBron's eyes, for the player who needs the trophy more than anyone else.
"It was inspirational, seeing that," said LeBron.
"You mean our trophy?" asked Wade, teasing and reminding LeBron that it wasn't his trophy, before saying, "sorry."
Wade added: "You don't want to look in the past too much, but you also want to look ahead. It's always good to see the trophy, and when you break out the trophies and rings, guys get to see more of what they want. It's right there in front of them."
Wade was asked if he flashes his championship ring in front of LeBron, using those karats as a carrot, and Wade was gentle in his response.
"No," he said. "LeBron wants his own."
Wade and LeBron have talked championship ever since last summer, their conversations heavy on joy (Wade's) and pain (LeBron's), victory and defeat, salvation and deflation. LeBron's Cavaliers never had a chance against the Spurs in his only appearance in the championship round, simply because LeBron didn't have as quality a teammate as he does now. LeBron's back still has dents in it from carrying those Cavs in 2007, when they were swept from the Finals by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
"We were together last night," Wade said, "and LeBron was saying, `man, I'm ready to go, I'm so excited about this.' He had 12 (playoff) wins the year he got to the Finals and he told me, `man, you got 16. You did it. So now you have to help lead us in those moments. You knew what it took to get it done.'
"But the good thing now is he's going to lean on me in those moments and I'm going to lean on him now that we're here in the playoffs together. We're going to help each other out."
LeBron spent "hours, man, hours" watching film of NBA playoff series over the years, and took special interest in the 2006 Heat team. During that regular season, Wade was solid, though not great, and Miami was mainly buoyed by the arrival of Shaquille O'Neal. Everything changed in the Finals, especially after the Mavericks went ahead 2-0. Wade went bananas, averaged 34.7 points for the series in one of the epic performances in championship history. Miami won the next four games and a star was born.
"Unbelievable," said LeBron. "Unreal."
In 2007 LeBron was busy peeling Bruce Bowen off his jersey, shot 4-for-16 in Game 1 of the Finals and never really recovered. That's quite a contrast, LeBron's championship experience and Wade's, and LeBron began to get a rep for coming up short in big games, although it took big games by LeBron just to reach the Finals.
And then this season, LeBron blew 6 games by missing shots either near or at the buzzer, making folks wonder if the ball was better off in Wade's hands in those moments.
This much, we know: The 2006 trophy does have Wade's fingerprints all over it. LeBron first gazed his eyes on the trophy last fall, when he arrived in Miami and set off a storm and elevated the stakes for him even higher.
"It's nice to look at," he said. "Better to have."
And so maybe he will own one for himself. If so, that journey begins now, a journey that will ultimately define him. Lots depends on Wade, for sure, but it's also up to LeBron. His "decision," if you will.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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