Posted May 27 2011 7:23AM
CHICAGO -- It was not what he did. It was how he did it.
Ten months ago, that was the popular refrain, and it was used as a sledgehammer against LeBron James when he left the Cavaliers very sloppily to join a pair of All-Stars in Miami.
And now, we can reprise that with the same intensity, but in a completely different circumstance, given how he and the Heat just crashed the NBA Finals.
Not what he did. How he did it.
How he, with a hand from Dwyane Wade, produced a furious fourth-quarter rally from nowhere to push the Bulls aside in five games. How LeBron has saved his best moments for last. How he, Wade and Chris Bosh are one step closer to their preseason pledge or promise or whatever you wish to call it. How LeBron, with a powerful all-around performance in the Eastern Conference finals, made a convincing case for being the best player in the game.
From hate to appreciate. Such is the startling progression for LeBron from last July to now, to Thursday night, when he hit big shots to help Miami erase a 12-point deficit in the final 3:53 and close out Game 5 with an 18-3 rally. His totals: 28 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and three steals. None of which really don't begin to describe the full impact.
And LeBron seemed to take particular delight in punishing reigning MVP Derrick Rose in those final tense moments, punctuating the one-sided duel by swatting Rose's game-tying 3-ponit attempt just before the buzzer.
The Mavericks are next, and any championship for LeBron curiously must come at the expense of Mark Cuban, the Mavericks owner who gleefully joined the crusade against LeBron and cast doubt in the Heat's direction.
"Before he made his decision," Cuban said last fall, "what I told him was that no team had ever blown up their team, and then added a couple of free agents and won a championship."
Also: "I think he picked the wrong team."
And this: Cuban said LeBron's method of leaving the Cavs "was the largest public humiliation in the history of sports."
Finally: About the Heat's 8-7 start, when Miami was a mess and spawned snickers everywhere, Cuban described it as "glorious."
What Dallas and Cuban will discover is Miami has distanced itself from the team that stumbled in November. LeBron and Wade are in step, giving Miami a tandem that creates problems on both ends of the floor. Wade is coming off an uneven performance in the conference finals, although Thursday he scrubbed himself clean for the second straight finish. He ended Game 5 with 10 fourth-quarter points (four on one pivotal play) after turning the ball over nine times and missing easy shots.
Bosh was brilliant at times in the East finals and is no longer the player who didn't seem worthy of being one-third of a big trifecta. Also, there is help in small doses from Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller, both of whom were injured much of the season.
Better still, Miami has learned the art of the killer instinct, something that dogged the team during the season. LeBron, especially, erased that stigma -- first in the East semifinals against the Celtics, and emphatically against the Bulls when he rescued the Heat constantly in the clutch.
"This has been a good run for myself in closing these games, but I never lost confidence in my ability in those situations," James said. "I know what I'm capable of. This wasn't anything new. I did this in the past. The times when I didn't make shots, those are the ones people remember. Not the times when you do well."
He knelt near center court moments after Heat 83, Bulls 80, not so much from physical fatigue than mental. It was been a long, strange trip for the two-time MVP, who went from revered to reviled in one 60-minute show, and endured much abuse during what was otherwise an impressive season.
He admitted: "You feel like the world is caving in on you sometimes."
In this, perhaps his finest moment in the league, LeBron has developed some perspective, and a measure of humility. He is not the same person who wore a red checkered shirt, sat in a high chair and talked about his talents. And he definitely has a sense of confidence based on a decision that changed the basketball landscape, and maybe him.
"I understand a lot of the backlash that came with me going to Miami," he said. "But I did what was best for me, and me as a professional athlete. I wanted to team up with some guys that would not lie down in the moment. And I'm happy. I'm still trying to get better every day, not only as a basketball player, but a father and a friend."
He dragged the Cavaliers to The Finals six seasons ago, and they were swept easily by the Spurs. That confirmed that LeBron lacked the necessary talent around him to make him a champion. Then, the seeds were planted that led to his departure from the Cavaliers to Wade and Bosh. This time, maybe his time in the Finals won't be as brief. Or discouraging.
He will enter the series with Dallas as the game's finest player. He has no doubt, though, how he will exit that series, no matter what happens.
"What's today's date? The 25th. We have a month left of continued hate."
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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