From the moment LeBron James uttered the phrase “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach” on an ESPN special on July 8, 2010, the Miami Heat have had a target on their back. That target has been no small target, but a giant bull’s-eye larger than on any other team currently in sports, and possibly bigger than any other in sports history.
With lofty expectations, however, come quick letdowns.
For most newly-assembled teams, making it to the NBA Finals in their first season together would be considered tremendous progress. Not for the Heat. Their loss to the Dallas Mavericks in a six-game series in the 2011 NBA Finals was defined as a disappointment, and characterizing by LeBron’s “choking”, especially in the fourth quarters of games.
To some extent, the criticism was quite valid. LeBron had the worst postseason series of his career in last year’s NBA Finals, scoring only 17.8 points per game, while only scoring a total of 18 fourth-quarter points, an average of three fourth-quarter points per game.
This lack of scoring in the championship round of the NBA playoffs came from a man who, upon his arrival in South Beach, told fans that the Heat would win “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven”, alluding that the rebuilt Heat would win at least eight championships with the additions of LeBron and Bosh.
Around that time, I was criticizing LeBron as much as anyone. In his first season, his subpar play in the NBA Finals was a major reason for the Heat’s season ending with unfulfilled promise. Through it all, however, the subconscious driving force of this criticism, from not only myself but from the masses, was the realization that he was still the best player in the NBA, and the surprise that he did not play up to that ability with the Heat’s season on the line.
One year later, the Heat are in a very different situation, having done what most expected them to do a year earlier by winning the 2012 NBA championship. The Heat did not only win the NBA Finals, but they did so in dominant fashion with four consecutive victories against the Oklahoma City Thunder in a series that lasted only five games.
In three consecutive series, the Heat fell behind, but they managed to bounce back and prove their superiority each time. They won three consecutive games after falling into a two games to one deficit against the Indiana Pacers, and won two elimination games to survive a seven-game series with the Boston Celtics after falling down three games to two. Through it all, LeBron overcame the criticism and proved his doubters wrong.
LeBron had a tremendous regular season, for which he earned his third NBA MVP award, but his season will be remembered for his impressive postseason play.
In three consecutive victories against the Pacers, LeBron scored 40, 30 and 28 points to lead the Heat to important wins. In the next series against the Celtics, LeBron helped the Heat bounce back in Games 6 and 7 with two of his best playoff performances of his career; he had 45 points and 15 rebounds in Game 6, and followed that up with 31 and 12 in Game 7.
LeBron’s tremendous play carried over into the NBA Finals, in which he averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists over five games. Over the course of the entire playoffs, LeBron led all scorers with 30.3 points per game, while also ranking among the top 10 in both rebounds and assists per game.
In leading the Heat to a championship, LeBron was consistently the best player on the floor, even with the NBA’s second-best player, Kevin Durant, leading the Thunder. It took a complete postseason, but LeBron James has not only proven that he is the NBA’s best player, but has set himself apart from the pack.
Will the Heat win eight championships? The answer to that question is almost certainly no. Has LeBron proven that he can make the “last shot” at the end of a big game? Not yet. Even so, it is time for LeBron’s critics to move on.
Far beyond any other criticism that LeBron has received is that he went eight NBA seasons without winning a championship, but he has now earned a ring. In his second season with the Heat, LeBron was not only a complete player, but an undisputed leader of his team who took control of games when he needed to, and played the starring role in bringing a title to Miami.
Many will continue to feel hatred for LeBron for his public departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Creating an hour-long ESPN special to announce he was leaving for a new team may have been a pompous gesture, but is it really fair to blame him for his decision?
LeBron took less money to join a team where he would align himself with the best opportunity to win an NBA championship, which is supposed to be the goal of every professional athlete, and in only two seasons, he has made good on that opportunity.
And while LeBron did have stars around him in Bosh and Wade, so have most of the other championship-winning stars: Jordan had Pippen, Kobe had Shaq/Gasol, Magic had Kareem and Worthy, Bird had Parish and McHale, Russell had Cousy and Jones.
Most importantly for LeBron, he established himself as the star among stars, not only on the Heat, but in a series that also featured Durant and Russell Westbrook, also two of the NBA’s best players.
Inevitably, LeBron’s critics will still point out his flaws, and whether they are winning or losing, the Miami Heat will remain one of the biggest stories in sports.
But finally, after nine NBA seasons, LeBron can counter with the sport’s highest symbol of achievement, and something that most of his critics will never have: an NBA championship ring, one that he truly earned by winning both the NBA MVP award and NBA Finals MVP award in the same season.