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The 2017 postseason marks the 10th anniversary of LeBron James' first run to The NBA Finals, when his play powered the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first championship series.
Since that 2007 Finals trip, James has been in The Finals six times, winning three championships in that span. He led the Cavs to the title in 2016 and, as the Cavs enter The 2017 Finals, we look back on how James' seven career Finals appearances have shaped both his career and the NBA at large.
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Fourteen words changed everything.
The temperature in Northeast Ohio, legacies, lives and the entire sports world all felt the Earth move the night LeBron James uttered perhaps the most infamous words in the Cleveland sports history.
“I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat,” he said on the night of “The Decision,” the made-for-TV free agent decision on July 8, 2010 that ended an era in Cleveland Cavaliers’ history and created a new one in South Florida.
The immediate shock and awe was palpable, the reactions, as expected, were extreme.
Disbelief and anger colored much of the reaction from a Cavs fan base that had watched the “Kid from Akron” grow into a man before their very eyes during his first seven NBA seasons.
The flames flickered into the night on the No. 23 jerseys Cavaliers fans burned relentlessly. This was a transgression that would not be forgiven, not to a title-starved fan base that watched on live television as their championship dreams prepared to depart the rust belt for the fun and sun of Miami.
Adjustment period for Heat's 'Big Three'
On the other side was a Heat organization and fan base waiting with open arms for the greatest free-agent haul in NBA history. LeBron and former Toronto Raptors All-Star big man Chris Bosh would join franchise pillar Dwayne Wade in Miami. They would make a "Big Three" that would rival anything Heat boss Pat Riley had played against, coached or coached against during his Hall of Fame career.
After falling to the back of the NBA pack after a championship season in 2005-06, when Wade earned his first title and lone Finals MVP trophy, it was time for the Heat to return to the top of the heap with three of the league’s most dynamic talents joining forces.
They’d win, “not one, not two, not three,” but multiple championships together, per their own introductory news conference in Miami that was more laser-light show/rock concert than anything else.
“When they came up on the stage it elevated right there,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Adrian Wojnarowski on The Vertical podcast. “It was like, how are we going to from this right moment right of hubris to training camp and get this thing started the way it should.”
And the rest of the league?
Well, they could figure out their own ways to deal with a new world order created by these 2003 Draft classmates and close friends. And the Heat’s "Big Three" would embrace the pressure that was sure to accompany the league’s new abnormal.
“Those guys were larger than life personalities and they actually liked that kind of attention and more importantly pressure and expectations,” Spoelstra told The Vertical. “They’re fine living in that world. And actually you need to have a little bit of that. Now you can debate how much or not. Look, we don’t do everything perfectly. We admit that. But we’re comfortable with how we do things and with our culture …
“But I will say this, when we got to training camp, and we had it on an air force base, for me, that was one of the most competitive things I’ve ever been around. The guys, from that moment, understood what the stage would be and the expectations for the team. And everybody got in incredible shape and ready to compete. And no one knew really what to expect. But we did every drill with Dwyane and LeBron on different teams and CB would be on one of those guys’ team and UD [Udonis Haslem] and we’d just mix it up every single day.
“It was so competitive, guys going at each other and really trying to establish territory and really trying to let each other know that, ‘hey, this is what I’m bringing to the table.’ ... We really grew from that training camp. I wish you could do a training camp that brutalizing like that every year. There will never be a training camp like that again, on an air force base and the work we did. It was probably a little too much. I think it laid down the foundation that there was substance to that group.”
Outside of the Heat bubble LeBron’s groundbreaking move was met with plenty of disdain around the league and the sports world at large. His Q-rating took a beating. Fans back home and beyond recoiled at the idea of him jilting the hometown Cavaliers the way he did for a prepackaged title team.
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert made his feelings known with a savage letter undressing the “self-proclaimed King” and vowing that the Cavaliers would win a title before LeBron would in Miami.
Gilbert couldn’t have been more wrong. But for the critics, the haters and the naysayers, the Heat’s rough start to that first season provided hope.
LeBron, Heat eventually find their way
Sacrifices, in salary and in style, had to be made in order for “The Heatles” to take shape. There would be growing pains for the group, very public growing pains that would expose all involved in ways they had not experienced previously.
They started the season with an 9-8 record and endured the sort of scrutiny none of them saw coming from a traveling circus of a media contingent that chronicled this team’s every move.
It was the comeuppance many wanted. It was an education everyone inside the Heat organization would take to to heart and use as fuel as that first season rolled along.
Wade and James wrestled with themselves about how best to shine without stepping on the other’s game. Bosh made the rough adjustment from No. 1 option in Toronto to No. 3 with the Heat.
"When he went to Miami we couldn't just load up strong side on him. Now you got Dwyane Wade on one side with Chris Bosh. When that team was assembled ... so you kind of gotta pick your poison.”
Spoelstra, Riley’s hand-picked choice to lead the franchise years before the assembly of this Big 3, had to adjust to an alpha in LeBron who did not conform as readily to the Heat culture as Wade had earlier in his career.
But this was a far superior team to the first one LeBron led to The Finals in 2007, when a team could focus its defensive solely on him and dare someone else to beat them.
“He was pretty much a one-man wrecking crew in Cleveland,” said former Detroit Pistons All-Star Rip Hamilton. “But when he went to Miami it was pretty much lights out. The one thing we were always good at was defending him. Now when he went to Miami we couldn't just load up strong side on him. Now you got Dwyane Wade on one side with Chris Bosh. When that team was assembled … so you kind of gotta pick your poison.”
The Heat finished the regular season 58-24 but behind Chicago in the Eastern Conference standings. Derrick Rose won the KIA MVP, interrupting what could have been LeBron's run of three straight and cementing his fall from grace in the eyes of a once-adoring media as well.
But no amount of resistance would slow the Heat down with a title chase on the line. Those monster crowds that turned out to see the show, both at home and on the road all season long, were riding the emotion of supersized expectations as the postseason began.
James, Miami dominate East playoff run
Philadelphia was no match for them in the first round, what with Bosh, Wade and James shredding them in a series the Heat won 4-1.
LeBron’s rivalry with Boston from his days in Cleveland carried over to his first postseason with the Heat. But the Celtics’ aging Big 3 was no match for the new crew on the block. The Heat won with a dramatic flair in overtime in Game 4 and then finished off the Celtics in Game 5 with a come-from-behind effort for the ages, with James providing a signature performance that resonated around the league.
“He just went out and put the team on his back,” Grant Hill said comparing it to his performance from the 2007 playoffs against Detroit. “He’d done that before against Detroit and that monster game. But there was some adversity, they were down, they went to Boston, and Boston was very good, and he just figured out a way. They were on their heels. Conventional wisdom said they would not win that series and he just went out there and dominated. I feel like at that moment he figured it out.”
A new rival, the Rose-led Bulls, won the opener at United Center in the conference finals. But the Heat reeled off four straight wins to finish the series and move on to face the Dallas Mavericks in The Finals.
NBA title evades LeBron ... again
"The Heatles" experience came to a crushing end against a veteran Mavericks team led by Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, defensive ace Shawn Marion and in particular pint-sized guards Jason Terry and J.J. Barea, who took turns frustrating James into subpar performances during the series.
The Heat won the opener and were up 15 points with 6:20 to play and promptly collapsed down the stretch, losing home court advantage and their aura of invincibility all at once in a 95-93 loss in Miami.
Bosh hit the game-winning shot in a bounce back Game 3 effort in Dallas, righting things temporarily, only to see it all come undone off the court.
Perhaps feeling that the first of those many championship opportunities was at hand, James and Wade were caught on camera mocking Nowitzki, who had played with flu-like symptoms earlier in the series.
James was a shell of himself in the Game 4 loss, scoring a playoff career-low eight points as the Mavericks took back the momentum in the series behind the deft defensive touch of coach Rick Carlisle, who routinely played smaller defenders on James, forcing him to decide if he was going to be the Heat’s main scorer or their chief facilitator.
He went to the free throw line just 20 times in the six games, averaging three throw attempts against the Mavericks after averaging more than nine a game in the three previous rounds when he was much more aggressive.
The Mavericks followed up their Game 4 effort with a decisive Game 5 win and then headed back to Miami to finish the Heat off, guaranteeing that the Super Team concept would not prevail this time around.
What the Heat didn’t understand at the time was the vetting process the Mavericks had gone through to get to The Finals. They had a slugfest with Portland in the first round, swept the two-time defending champion Lakers in the conference semifinals and then knocked off Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and a hungry young Oklahoma City Thunder team in the conference finals.
“When we got to the Finals everybody was kind of caught up into being on the stage and playing names,” Marion would say years later, reminiscing about that magical season on the eve of his retirement from the league. “Everybody gets caught up in playing names and not the guys. But I’m going to play a person. I’m not playing his name.
“I just felt like couldn’t anybody beat us. We knew what we were capable of when the season started. We just went out and did what we were supposed to do and took care of business.”
James averaged just 17.6 points in the series, nine fewer than he’d averaged during the regular season. His vanishing act in fourth quarters (when he averaged just three points) produced criticism that he lacked championship-level fiber with everything on the line, a narrative that dogged him into the offseason as his record in Finals games was stretched to an ugly 2-8.
Twice now he’d reached the cusp of his ultimate goal, only to be turned back in epic fashion.
Legacy building, at least at the championship level, proved a bit tougher than anyone imagined, even on a super team.
- Decade of Dominance: Part III -- Finals glory at last for LeBron
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