When LeBron James sat on that stage in Miami and uttered the now-infamous "Not one, not two, not three..." quote, little did he know how much harder the "not two" part would be than what came before. But after taking down the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals with a performance for the ages, he was given a chance to reflect.
As passed along by CBSSports' Ken Berger, King James, who now has been anointed with two crowns instead of just one, said the following:
Last year when I was sitting up here with my first championship, I said it was the toughest thing I had ever done. This year, I tell last year he was absolutely wrong. This was the toughest championship right here, between the two.
LeBron's career has been defined by great achievements.
Ever since the night in 2003 when he walked across the stage to shake David Stern's hand as the top overall draft selection, he's stared toughness in the face and won the battle.
Sure, the road along the way has been tough, but who hasn't taken a step backward every now and then?
From the 48 Special to winning his first MVP, from taking down Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder to winning gold in the Olympics, from winning his fourth MVP to shaking Bill Russell's hand as he accepted his second consecutive Finals MVP, nothing has matched this most recent achievement.
The Second One Is Always Harder
Winning a championship in the NBA is never easy. If it was, everyone would do it. Instead, the championship is handed out to just a single team each year, and it's always earned by a battle-tested team. That battle may not come in the finals, but it's inescapable.
However, winning back-to-back championships is that much tougher.
After holding up the Larry O'Brien Trophy, players get to wear a different type of jersey the next season. In the case of LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the Miami Heat, the jersey didn't look any different to the naked eye during the 2012-13 season, but if you squinted enough, you could make out the bull's-eye on the back.
Defending champions are treated with a different level of respect.
They go into each and every game expecting to get the best out of their opponents, and that's usually exactly what happens. Bottom-feeders like the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Bobcats are hyped up to play them and provide more of a test than they should otherwise, simply because beating the defending champs would be a season-defining victory that helps make up for a year of futility.
It should go without saying, but the list of back-to-back champions is far shorter than the list of teams that have emerged victorious from the final game of a season. Since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, only the Los Angeles Lakers (1987-88, 2000-02 and 2009-10), Detroit Pistons (1989-90), Chicago Bulls (1991-93, 1996-98) and Houston Rockets (1994-95) had repeated.
Now you can add the Heat to that list.
If you're thinking to yourself, "Wow, that's more repeating champions than I expected," look at it a different way. Think how many teams have failed to defend their title, and don't forget about all of the dynasties and mini-dynasties listed above. Each of them failed to defend a title and saw their run at the top come to a screeching halt, with the current exception of Miami.
The burden of a champion is a hefty one, and it only grows larger as the ensuing season wears on and on. Even with the weight of the proverbial monkey lifted, the expectations can take their toll.
The Ridiculousness of the Legacy Questions
When a player is at the top of the pile in the NBA, everyone wants to knock him off. The media is looking for a new narrative, the other players are tired of being dominated by the same guy, and the fans sometimes can't help but root for the underdog.
During the 2011-12 season, LeBron defined his legacy. He was tested and emerged from it as a champion.
Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals with the Boston Celtics was supposed to be the make-or-break game of his career. He passed that test, so Game 7 became the legacy-defining contest. Again, he passed that one with flying colors.
So, in search of a new narrative, the 2012 NBA Finals were the standard that LeBron had to pass. It was his third go-around in the final series, and he took down the Oklahoma City Thunder. As he said, it was "about damn time."
Were we content after that?
Nope. Of course not.
Fast forward to the 2013 playoffs, when the brutal series against the Indiana Pacers was the new set of games by which we would define LeBron's legacy. He put together some incredible performances against Paul George, Roy Hibbert, David West and the rest of the yellow-clad warriors, so it was on to the NBA Finals.
Once the Heat were on the brink of elimination, here came the questions about his legacy once more. That was true for Game 6, and once Miami pulled off the miraculous comeback, his mark in the NBA was set to be shaped by just 48 minutes of action.
Regardless of LeBron's individual performance against the Spurs in the series-decider, there were two possible outcomes: win and be compared to Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and the all-time greats throughout the summer; or lose and be called one of the biggest chokers in NBA history, a player who couldn't get it done on the big stage.
That seems like a pretty fair legacy disparity for one game, right?
LeBron is a student of the game, and you can be sure that he was well aware of how important this single contest was for all those wondering about his legacy. That knowledge would take a toll on 99 percent of the athletes out there, but James was able to compartmentalize and put the concerns aside.
He won, and by doing so, he joined Michael Jordan and Bill Russell as the only players to win league MVPs and Finals MVPs in back-to-back seasons.
The Decline of His Teammates in the Finals
LeBron came to South Beach so that he could play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, forming one of the elite Big Threes not just in the current NBA, but in the history of the Association. Little did he know that the Big Three would end up resembling a certain show that used to star Charlie Sheen.
In Game 7, Bosh put up the first scoring-column donut since his rookie season. And he played 28 minutes, double the amount of time he spent on the court during his first scoreless outing.
To be fair, the big man did a great job making Tim Duncan's life difficult, and he also came up big down the stretch in Game 6 multiple times. But still, Bosh was quite disappointing on the game's biggest stage.
Take a look at his per-game stats over the past two sets of NBA Finals:
Bosh had trouble finding his shot, and without his ability to space the floor, LeBron's job was all the more difficult. The Spurs were comfortable collapsing around the MVP when he drove into the paint, and Bosh's jumper wasn't scaring them away from doing so.
In a lot of ways, the play you see above was representative of Bosh's performance against San Antonio.
That said, the disparity between showings was even greater for Wade:
Now a three-time NBA champion, the shooting guard was even more off and on than Manu Ginobili during the 2013 finals. He played admirably during Games 5 and 7, but he was severely hampered by his bum knees throughout the rest of the series.
Quite simply, this wasn't the Big Three that LeBron signed up to play with. He wasn't supposed to go into Cleveland Mode to carry his team, yet he had to during full games and crucial stretches of others.
Coming off a 50-minute outing in Game 6, one in which he carried Miami down the stretch and set the stage for Ray Allen's overtime-forcing dagger, LeBron had a right to be tired. It would have been understandable if he'd failed to live up to the expectations his own performances had set. It was time for his teammates to step up and shoulder more of the burden.
Instead, he played 45 more minutes and had his most impressive outing of the series. And this was a series in which he'd already recorded two triple-doubles.
LeBron finished Game 7 with 37 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two steals, but it was the manner in which he recorded those numbers that was truly outstanding. He shot over 50 percent from the field and made Gregg Popovich pay for his willingness to turn James into a jump-shooter, drilling five three-pointers and countless mid-range attempts.
The only thing he was missing was a shrug.
This is not meant to be even remotely disrespectful to the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the San Antonio Spurs were a much more challenging opponent for the Heat.
After a Game 1 loss in the 2012 NBA Finals, LeBron and Co. embraced their small-ball identity and won the next four games. They were difficult victories, but it quickly became quite clear that the Heat were in a different class than the Thunder.
That wasn't the case in 2013.
Miami and San Antonio were as evenly matched as possible, and the coaching battle between Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra was as compelling as the on-court action. Each move was met with a counter-move, and no team could win consecutive games until the Heat's clinching victory.
There may have been blowouts, but the teams took turns testing the waters and throwing jabs. There were no knockout punches dealt in the series until LeBron rejected Mario Chalmers' screen and hit the mid-range dagger in Game 7.
After the trophy ceremony, it still felt like this series would have come down to the final game even if it were a best-of-15 format.
In addition to the quality of the opponent, just look at how the games progressed. Against the Thunder, Miami needed only five games to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy. After stealing Game 2 in OKC, the series wasn't really in doubt.
It was very much up in the air throughout the 2013 finals. And, if nothing else, just remember that seven games were necessary to emerge victorious.
Over the course of LeBron's already legendary career, he's averaging 27.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.8 blocks per game with a 27.6 PER. In the postseason, those numbers read as 28.1 points, 8.6 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.9 blocks per contest with a 27.3 PER.
He's led the league in scoring, made nine All-Star teams, been selected to nine All-NBA and five All-Defensive teams, won Rookie of the Year, been named MVP four times and won two championships, shaking Russell's hand as the Finals MVP in each.
Despite the long list of accolades, this title stands alone above the rest. Between the pressure of winning consecutive championships, the quality of the opponent, the performances of his teammates and his own showings against the Spurs, nothing can match this one.
Now we get to see what the kid from Akron, Ohio, will do next.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com.
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