LeBron James Enters the Playoffs, as Always, with His Legacy on the Line

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LeBron James Enters the Playoffs, as Always, with His Legacy on the Line
Lynne Sladky

MIAMI — We have never actually seen the bathtub.

And we never will, not in physical terms. It's there, buried in Pat Riley's busy mind, and the Miami Heat president first revealed its existence to reporters on a May day in 2012, after watching LeBron James receive the third of four regular-season MVP awards. At that stage, James had still not held another trophy, the only trophy that truly matters, and the world was wondering, questioning, doubting whether he ever would.

Riley regaled reporters by recalling the words of Michael Jordan, back when the tongue-wagging one was delivering dunks for Chicago rather than signing checks for Charlotte. Jordan had fallen short for six seasons before finally breaking through, at the seemingly advanced age of 28.

"And the first words that came out of his mouth was that this was the most difficult thing that he ever accomplished," Riley said. "The storyline was that he finally became a team player. That’s what the storyline was. All those years he averaged 28, 30, 35 a game but he could never win anything. And then, all of sudden, he won. It’s like when you fill a bathtub up with water and you forget about it, you walk out of the room. What happens? It overflows. And he overflowed for the next six, seven years. He won six out of seven titles. By being a team player? Nah. He did it by being Michael Jordan."

That was more than enough.

Riley believed James would be more than enough eventually, too.

"I think he’ll get his championship," Riley said. "There might be a lot more, too. He’s 27 years old and he’s got 10 more years, at least, ahead of him at a very high level. That’s what I want to see for him. That’s what I’ll be cheering for."

So perhaps even Riley's been too busy to notice the water's rise.

Soon, it may be time for the mop and flip-flops.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

 

***

Two.

That's how many times LeBron James has earned the right to hold Larry O'Brien high.

Those two gave him satisfaction, redemption, elation. Two even gave him a couple of layers of protection, against the sharpest arrows of his antagonists.

But two is still too few.

Two is too few for him.

Two is too few for us.

Two will never make him one, which is what he has openly aimed to become.

Some will say that it's already too late to earn that singular status, as the best that ever was. Too late to match Bill Russell's 11 rings, after it took him eight seasons to fit a single finger. Too late to undo his underperformance against Dallas in 2011, the sort of shrinkage that Jordan never showed, not while winning all six of his NBA Finals series.

Still, it's not too late for him to sink some of those memories, as he tosses new ones in the tub.

James just completed a regular season that was exceptional by any standard other than his own, suffering slight regression in most of his major metrics, just enough that he will almost certainly finish second to Kevin Durant for MVP. But that doesn't matter now, no more than it mattered that David Robinson topped Hakeem Olajuwon in 1995 or that Charles Barkley and Karl Malone beat out Jordan in 1993 and 1997, respectively. All that mattered was what happened in the spring, in the end.

This is where men are measured, where, as Dwyane Wade put it Friday, "the elite become the elite. You don't get the elite name unless you've done it at this level. Especially when you've had multiple years in the league. That's why they pay us the big bucks, is for this time of the year. It's our job as leaders to step up to that challenge, that billing, to be who we are."

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

This is what James understands, more than anyone currently active, and more than he ever has.

"Yeah," James said. "Yeah, absolutely. And I know that. I've been able to put together some pretty good second seasons in my career, and hopefully I can continue to do that."

He can say that proudly and confidently now, and it won't invite any snickering. Sure, he'd had plenty of brilliant efforts before winning a championship, with his share of buzzer-beaters (2009 vs. Orlando, 2006 vs. Washington) and fourth-quarter blitzes (most notably 2007 Game 5 vs. Detroit), and gaudy series statistics even in defeat. But perception didn't truly start to turn until Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012, when he beat Boston by himself. Since then, what he's done against Oklahoma City, Indiana and San Antonio—better late than never against the latter—has been seen in a more favorable light.

And now, it's appropriate to review his overall postseason record, rather than just picking apart the pieces.

He is 88-50 (.638), including 46-21 with Miami.

Jordan, through his first 138 playoff games?

He was 88-50.

Then he went 31-10 for the rest of his career, to finish at 119-60 (.665).

While he would need two dominant playoff runs, of 16-5 or better, to pass His Airness in both wins and percentage, he has already proved himself as an all-time "elite" by Wade's definition.

How should we assess star players' postseason play?

"Obviously, it's about wins," Wade said. "But as an individual, if you played at a high level in the regular season, you want to be able to play at that level or higher. You never want to go below it. And when you do, it's frustrating. And then it's from playoff to playoff series. From series 1 to series 2 to series 3, when the stakes get higher, you want to be able to get higher as well."

No, James hasn't always done the latter, certainly not in 2011. But his overall numbers hold up well compared to other recent greats, in terms of holding up close to regular-season levels. Regardless of what his detractors may allege, his dominance hasn't generally dipped when the competition has toughened and the pressure has spiked. He has usually been whom he is.

LeBron James G MPG PPG RPG APG TPG FG%
Regular season 842 39.5 27.5 7.2 6.9 3.3 49.7%
Playoffs 138 43.1 28.1 8.6 6.7 3.5 47.2%
Michael Jordan G MPG PPG RPG APG TPG FG%
Regular season 1072 38.3 30.1 6.2 5.3 2.7 49.7%
Playoffs 179 41.8 33.4 6.4 5.7 3.1 48.7%
Larry Bird G MPG PPG RPG APG TPG FG%
Regular season 897 38.4 24.3 10.0 6.3 3.1 49.6%
Playoffs 164 42.0 23.8 10.3 6.5 3.1 47.2%
Magic Johnson G MPG PPG RPG APG TPG FG%
Regular season 906 36.7 19.5 7.2 11.2 3.9 52.0%
Playoffs 190 39.7 19.5 7.7 12.3 3.7 50.6%

Basketball-reference.com

 

***

Friday, after practice, James declared himself "ready to go," even with a practice day to spare. He has already started his social-media shutdown—something he calls Zero Dark Thirty-Six—and he said that he's staying away from "sports talk radio or television that has anything to do with sports." His focus will sharpen and his mood may darken in the coming weeks.

This is what the spring brings.

"I'm kind of just gearing toward locking in (Saturday) night, and go from there," James said. "But I don't need no motivation. I don't need extra motivation. I'm motivated enough. This is the best part of the season, it's the best time of the year, and I'm happy to be here once again."

He is here with a team that's been bored and battered this regular season, but that appeared energized Friday. All 15 players practiced, including Wade, whose maintenance program has worked mostly to plan. The first round is against a foe that the Heat have beaten 16 straight times, offering them the chance to get clicking and comfortable before more challenging encounters down the East road.

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

So James has cause to feel confident.

Thursday night, he relaxed by watching the documentary on the late 1980s Detroit Pistons, the "Bad Boys," and it put him in a good frame of mind.

"It's always great to get the inside of a great team," James said.

The Pistons' style was diametrically different, but their ultimate aims were the same.

Remind him of any of what the Heat have gone through, during this run?

"Yeah, of course," James said. "When they said they went to three straight Finals, they won two in a row, (and) now they are looking to go to a fourth straight Finals. I looked at my wife, I said, 'Who's that sound like?' It sounds just like us, trying to go to our fourth straight Finals appearance, and try to win three in a row."

Listen closely, to hear another sound.

Sounds like someone left the faucet running.

 

Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.

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