LeBron James

LeBron James opened the scoring tonight with an emphatic dunk on a fast break. It set the tone for the Miami Heat’s dominance in a championship-clinching game that was the culmination of a tumultuous journey. That journey began on July 7, 2010, when LeBron announced he was joining forces with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Pat Riley to form an unstoppable juggernaut that would bring multiple NBA championships to South Beach.

As you’ll recall, the Heat hit a bump in the road in last year’s Finals when LeBron wilted under the pressure of backing up his boasts against a savvy Dallas Mavericks squad that played with the urgency of a team that knew they probably wouldn’t get another chance to win the ultimate prize. Combined with his failures in previous post-seasons, LeBron was stamped with the “choker” label and it began to seem like a real possibility that he could retire as the most talented ringless player in NBA history.

So what changed? Why did LeBron James soar towards greatness over the course of these playoffs instead of shrinking from it as he did in last year’s NBA Finals? Witnessing his recent pregame book-reading ritual and his moments of meditation throughout the playoffs, it seems as though he’s been trying — in his own way — to achieve the Bodhisattva ideal of an “awakened mind”. It’s not hard to see how many of the Zen virtues of Bodhisattva would be important to him — particularly patience, acceptance, endurance and tranquility. All of those virtues contributed to LeBron’s improved focus and the way he dealt with immense pressure this season.

Phil Jackson knows a few things about Zen teachings and winning NBA championships. He’s said that the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” has been a guiding influence in his life. The book’s narrator aims to “achieve an inner piece of mind”, which is clearly what LeBron needed to accomplish if he was going to overcome the ceaseless slings and arrows from his multitude of critics.

LeBron did a lot more than transcend the negative energy from all the people who not only expected him to fail, but actively rooted for him to do so. His 2012 playoffs performance places him in a very exclusive group of NBA players who played at least 15 games in a single post-season at a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of at least 30.0.

Totals Per Game Shooting
Rk Player Season Age Tm G MP TRB AST STL BLK TOV PTS FG% 3P% FT% PER ▾
1 Michael Jordan* 1990-91 27 CHI 17 40.5 6.4 8.4 2.4 1.4 2.5 31.1 .524 .385 .845 32.0
2 Michael Jordan* 1989-90 26 CHI 16 42.1 7.2 6.8 2.8 0.9 3.5 36.7 .514 .320 .836 31.7
3 Shaquille O’Neal 1999-00 27 LAL 23 43.5 15.4 3.1 0.6 2.4 2.4 30.7 .566 .456 30.5
4 LeBron James 2011-12 27 MIA 23 42.7 9.7 5.6 1.9 0.7 3.5 30.3 .500 .259 .739 30.3
5 Michael Jordan* 1992-93 29 CHI 19 41.2 6.7 6.0 2.1 0.9 2.4 35.1 .475 .389 .805 30.1

Jordan’s Bulls in 1990 lost to the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, but that certainly wasn’t his fault. In Game Seven, Jordan had 31 points, nine assists and eight rebounds, while no other Bull scored more than 10 points — Scottie Pippen went 1-for-10 and finished with two points. Maybe Jordan was a little better in the following season’s dominant run to the Bulls’ first championship, but he definitely got a lot more help from his teammates.

That’s what is so simpleminded about the way so many people insist on measuring individual players by how many rings they win — no player can win a championship without a lot of help, not even Jordan. LeBron needed support from a variety of supporting players who came up big in key moments. Just like how the Celtics’ “Big Three” were bolstered by contributions from Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, the Heat’s “Three Kings” of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh got by with a little help from their friends, Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and Mike Miller — the latter loomed particularly large tonight with seven three-pointers and a season-high 23 points.

While his supporting cast alternated good games with bad ones, LeBron needed to lead the Heat to glory by being consistently great, game after game. But for someone as supremely talented as LeBron, that was not his toughest test. In the minds of many, LeBron’s greatest challenge was that winning a championship wouldn’t be sufficient to earn our respect — he had to meet or surpass the absurdly high expectations he created for himself when he predicted the Heat would win “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” championships. What was presumably an off-the-cuff remark that he blurted out while getting caught up in the moment, became the rallying cry for everyone who wanted to hate him because of his arrogance — as if there’s something noble about fake humility when you are truly the best basketball player on the planet.

The fact that so many people believe LeBron should be considered a failure if he doesn’t lead the Heat to EIGHT FREAKING CHAMPIONSHIPS speaks to our need to refuse to acknowledge greatness if it doesn’t surpass all the previous benchmarks. LeBron James will never be Michael Jordan, no matter what he accomplishes. But has he ever acknowledged that to be his goal? He’s not Michael and he’s not Kobe — he’s LeBron, who is wholly unlike any basketball player we’ve seen before.

Of course, that’s completely irrelevant in the echo chamber of media and the Internet that thrives off comparing the accomplishments and abilities of players regardless of their differing eras and circumstances. We can’t stop comparing LeBron to Jordan and Kobe and we never will, but if LeBron was ever burdened by these ridiculous expectations, the final step to his evolution towards excellence was to embrace his inner Drake, ignore the haters and just “do him” — and to keep doing him ’til it’s over.

But it’s far from over. (Sorry.) LeBron James will win more championships, but he probably won’t win eight of them. And that’s OK. As for Kevin Durant and the vanquished Thunder, they’ll probably appear in several more NBA Finals — possibly against the Heat, and that would be fantastic. As inappropriate as it might seem to compare the burgeoning rivalry between the Heat and Thunder to the great Celtics-Lakers rivalry of the ’80s, it’s not crazy to suggest that they might match or surpass in this decade the three championship battles of the Celtics and Lakers in that decade.

LeBron vs. Durant can’t possibly top the lore of Bird vs. Magic, but at least LeBron and Durant play the same position. Can Durant get strong enough so that he can successfully guard LeBron one day? Now that LeBron appears to have finally developed a dangerous post game and has added a three-point shot to his arsenal, what’s left for him to improve? We’re all aware of Durant’s youth, but LeBron has been in our lives so long that many of us overlook the fact that he’s still just 27 years old. As scary as it is to consider, he might not have reached his true ceiling yet.

Even if he never wins another title, LeBron James has finally destroyed the narrative that he can’t perform under pressure, and I’m grateful that this means anyone who claims he isn’t the NBA’s best player right now is clearly just an attention-seeking contrarian. Speaking of which, it’s been said that pressure bursts pipes, but it can also create diamonds. Regardless of how you feel about the Miami Heat, they earned every one of the diamonds that will be on their 2012 NBA Championship rings.