Posted Jun 18 2012 1:21PM
MIAMI -- The Oklahoma City Thunder, and eight quarters of basketball, are all that stand between LeBron James and a championship ring.
More specifically, a young and tender Thunder team that might not be up to the task (based on its mistakes in Game 3 Sunday at AmericanAirlines Arena) and eight successful quarters are all that stand between James and the validation he's been seeking since Day 1 as King and, ugh, Chosen One.
That's what is between arguably the game's most analyzed, scrutinized and criticized player ever and one of the biggest exhales in recent sports history. Between a hammering, merciless locomotive barreling down on OKC's interior defense and the title that James' riches can not give him.
There's not much, then, between James and the end of a storyline that has grown old not just for him but for those telling and re-telling it. Not much, considering James gets the next two games at home and four overall to win a couple.
James, already the league's premier small forward and three-time Most Valuable Player, is playing suddenly like he's the best power forward in the NBA. Certainly he's the best one still standing. And it's likely, given his unique and exhausting blend of strength and quickness, willingness and determination, that James would claim that status even if Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, David West, Amar'e Stoudemire and the rest of them were still open for business.
It wasn't just James' numbers on Sunday -- 29 points and 14 rebounds in 43:50, all game highs -- which can look like a mash-up of Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson even on his less forceful nights. It is the way he has stayed focused on and dedicated to the paint, on throwing gut punches at Oklahoma City, on daring any of them to slow him, whether pounding to the rim or above it.
James got eight of his 11 baskets Sunday at the rim. He took 13 of his 23 shots in the paint. Five of his 14 rebounds came on the offensive glass. And that thing James so often does that makes life easier on opponents -- settling for jump shots or 3-pointers -- he held in moderation, keeping a brawny forearm across OKC's collective throat .
"I wanted to counter their aggression with aggression," James said. "Put pressure on the rim offensively or get offensive rebounds."
In the process, James also smacked around that smelly fourth-quarter albatross of his. He scored eight points in the period Sunday; no one else had more than five. He shot five free throws; no one else had more than three. Through three games' worth of fourth quarters, prorated to 36 minutes (he's played 33:06), James has averaged 22.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists while earning 14.1 free throws and hitting 84.6 percent of them. Meanwhile, he has been defending and denying three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant, among others, while forcing Durant, James Harden, Thabo Sefolosha and whomever to cope with him.
He's not shrinking to the challenge of winning time. "Just trying to make plays," James said after the 91-85 victory in Game 3. "I told you guys, last year, I didn't make enough game-changing plays, and that's what I kind of pride myself on."
James and the Heat were in the same spot in 2011, up 2-1 after three Finals games. They were in Dallas, though, for the next two -- both of which the Mavericks won, following up with another victory in Miami for the championship. James sputtered in Game 4 -- 3 of 11, eight points -- and averaged 17.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists in the series.
So far this year, James is averaging 30.3, 10.3 and 4.0. He has taken only nine 3-pointers but 29 free throws, compared to 28 and 20 respectively a year ago. And he's done it all with that look on his face, an expression you wouldn't want to see from your judge, jury or spouse.
"What I liked was the resolve that he showed in the second half," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Sunday. "He started off the quarter, missed a couple, all of a sudden we look up, we're down 10. But [I] took him out at the end of the third [quarter] just to give him a quick breath, and when he came back in, he had a look that he was just going to make plays, whatever he could do to help. And a lot of that was defensively, rebounding, a big challenge with their main scorer. And then he made some big plays."
Some huge plays. There was his driving dunk that saddled Durant with his fifth personal foul, earned an and-1 and left Miami up 84-77 with 3:44 left. That capped an 8-0 run, during which OKC went scoreless for nearly four minutes. Poor Durant, having to joust with James in this series while also carrying the Thunder offensively.
There was James' burst up the middle after another poor OKC possession moments later, when he pounded the ball hard on a final dribble to power past Kendrick Perkins, then twisted in a two-handed reverse that made it 86-79 at 2:19. Later, there was his dribbling near midcourt to pick up a foul on Harden with 16.2 seconds left -- it could have been a non-call, frankly -- for the free throw that iced it.
That made it 13 straight games this postseason, stretching through Boston and Indiana, in which James has scored 25 points or more. He has 30 or more in 13 of Miami's 21 games, and with two victories somehow in the next four, he likely will add another MVP -- the Finals edition -- to his collection.
"He's just a totally different player," Wade said. "Up until The Finals last year he was having an amazing playoffs. He had a game where he struggled, and he kind of let that get into his mind a little bit, and he was thinking too much. Now he's playing, he's on attack and being very aggressive. When he puts his head down to go the rim, you have no other choice but to foul him or he's going to finish."
Said James: "We talk about it all the time. We understand that it's been a great teacher for us."
People can continue to feel whatever they want about LeBron James. They can hate him, mock him, shake their heads. They can react to him exactly as they did a year ago, or however they did all those years in Cleveland.
But James is a changing player and a moving target, smarter and and more driven by what's come before. If he's moving in your direction -- and he will be, if you're standing in front of that Larry O'Brien trophy -- just hope he hasn't lowered his shoulder.
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