NBA Finals 2012: The Maturation of LeBron James Seals Miami Heat's Championship

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistJune 22, 2012

For the past nine years, we've been pleading with LeBron James.

We've been pleading for him to develop a killer instinct, or a reliable three-point shot, or heck, even a post game.

We've been pleading for him to stop being like Magic Johnson and start being more like Michael Jordan.

We've been pleading for him to prove that he deserves that "Chosen 1" tattoo on his back.

If there's one thing these playoffs made clear, it's this: James finally gets it.

James figured out that when he wants to be, he's the most unstoppable player in all of the NBA.

He realized that he doesn't need to be Shaquille O'Neal-sized to have an O'Neal-esque impact in the paint.

He decided that he didn't need to be Magic or Michael. He could be LeBron, a combination of Magic's passing ability, Jordan's fervor for scoring and Charles Barkley's dominant post play.

It's as though he finally started playing like you play as him in NBA 2K12, relentlessly attacking the basket for dunks, easy layups and and-ones all night long.

James has always averaged video game-like numbers. But now, he's finally embracing the reality that he's faster, stronger and more athletic than his peers, which leaves him no excuse for taking contested off-balance 18-foot jumpshots when he could be attacking the paint. 

James just unleashed one of the most physically dominating NBA playoffs performances in the history of the league. In the past 35 years, only three players averaged at least 30 points and 10 rebounds per game throughout a playoff run: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon.

In this postseason, not including his Game 5 performance, James averaged 30.5 points and 9.7 rebounds, along with 5.3 assists and nearly two steals per game.

Unlike the three gentlemen who preceded him, James isn't a center.

That makes his possession of the paint that much more impressive.

As it turns out, we likely have Olajuwon to thank for the Heat's 2012 championship. After James' lack of a reliable post game proved the Heat's Achilles heel in the 2011 Finals, he went and sought out Olajuwon's tutelage this summer, much like Dwight Howard did the summer before.

Suddenly, James looked comfortable backing down players who couldn't physically match up with him. (And there aren't very many who can.) He wasn't afraid to go down low to generate offense, knowing he'd get a high-percentage look for himself or a teammate.

James' post play, as we witnessed in the Finals, was the missing ingredient to the Heat's championship formula.

Which, naturally, begs one obvious question: Why did it take him so unbearably long to figure that out?

Let's play armchair psychologist for just a moment. What's one thing scientists have routinely discovered about human learning? Humans learn best from making mistakes.

Now, think about James' life. As a junior in high school, he's on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He's the No. 1 pick of the 2003 NBA draft, and gets to play for a team less than an hour from where he grew up in Akron, Ohio. He gets to play the "hometown hero" role for seven years, leading the oft-tortured Cleveland Cavaliers franchise to the promised land of the NBA Finals, even if his team got promptly swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

Realistically, every year before 2011, James always could fall back on an excuse.

That 2007 sweep? James, at 23 years old, still was "too young" to win a title. (Never mind the fact he unleashed one of the most memorable playoff performances of his career—to date—in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals that year.)

In 2008? His 45 points in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals was no match for Boston's newly minted Big Three, who would go on to win their first and only championship that year.

2009? James started drifting into disengaged mode in the Cavaliers' loss to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference finals, but still averaged 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and eight assists that series. Suffice it to say, a little more help from his teammates could have gone a long way that year.

2010 featured the meltdown against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, where a suspicious elbow injury purportedly limited James. He also could have mentally checked out on his teammates in that series, knowing he'd be departing in free agency, too.

But last season, the Finals failure fell on his shoulders.

And James learned from that mistake.

He relentlessly focused on his one remaining weakness, his post game, turning it into a massive strength this season. In doing so, he earned his third regular-season MVP, and much, much more importantly, that ever-elusive first NBA championship.

In doing so, he proved his leadership. He proved to his teammates that there was no hiding from their weaknesses if they were to reach their ultimate goal.

Suddenly, Chris Bosh wasn't so reluctant to play as a center, despite resisting that position for a majority of his NBA career. Suddenly, Dwyane Wade wasn't so reluctant to cede control of the team to James, recognizing who needed to lead this team to the top.

Suddenly, at the most critical juncture of the season, Miami could expect results from role players like Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole.

In his postgame interview with Doris Burke after winning the championship, James admitted after last season, "I looked myself in the mirror and said, 'You need to be better.' "

This season, he was better.

This season, he was a champion.

And as ESPN's Bill Simmons said in his column yesterday, the rest of the NBA can only sit and watch now that James finally put everything together this season.

Imagine what next year's LeBron James, without the pressure needing that first ring, will be like?

Sorry, non-Team USA fans. If James plays at even 75 percent of the level he played at in these playoffs, the rest of the world doesn't stand a chance in the Olympics this summer.

Thank you, LeBron.

Thanks for finally becoming the player we always knew you could become.

And congratulations to you and the rest of the Heat on a title that you well deserve.


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