MIAMI — Six years earlier, he had endured one of the most exasperating weeks of his NBA career, a green student schooled by the NBA's masters. And even after all LeBron James had grown during the years between, it wasn't a complete surprise for him to struggle some in his 2013 NBA Finals rematch against so many of the same old Spurs.
The surprise, considering his usual abundance of confidence, was that the struggle was largely in his head.
The Spurs had done the seemingly impossible: They had turned him against himself.
Their strategy—which was disrespectful to a degree—had made him think more and do less.
After breaking through in Games 6 and 7 last year (with a combined 69 points, 15 assists and 22 rebounds), the Miami Heat forward gave the media a window into his mind.
"Two‑and‑a‑half games I watched film, and my mind started to work and I said, 'OK, this is how they're going to play me for the whole series," James said then. "I looked at all my regular‑season stats, all my playoff stats, and I was one of the best mid-range shooters in the game. I shot a career high from the three‑point line. I just told myself why—don't abandon what you've done all year. Don't abandon now because they're going under. Don't force the paint. If it's there, take it. If not, take the jumper."
He felt he'd done a decent job of that in Game 4, and even in Game 5, though many didn't fall. And so he continued in Game 6.
"[I just reminded myself] everything you've worked on, the repetition, the practices, the offseason training—no matter how big the stakes are, no matter what's on the line, just go with it," James said. "And I was able to do that."
He did it well enough to win a second championship.
Now, he'll need to do it again, starting Thursday in San Antonio, to have a clear shot at a third.
"LeBron, for the last three years, has been one of the most accurate perimeter shooters in the league," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "If it comes within the context of what we're trying to do, you have to be able to take those within rhythm. It's part of our game. ... We don't want any of our guys hesitating."
Especially No. 6. James seemed to recognize that after Monday's practice, even if his answer to a question about the Spurs' strategy got his mind working in contradictory directions.
"They actually didn't focus on me last year," James said, laughing. "They didn't guard me. And I didn't make shots. But they had a great game plan, I guess. It wasn't much of a game plan—they didn't guard me. They went under every pick-and-roll I had, dared me to shoot. And I didn't make shots for the first couple games. [I] just started to stay with it, watched the film, [saw] ways I could help our team and started to make shots to open up the floor for all of us."
Then James quickly stutter-stepped back.
"I'm joking," James said. "They guarded for sure. They guarded me. They have a game plan versus me. And I understand they would rather me shoot jumpers than be in the paint. I think every team in our league would rather that. And, you know, for me, I just go out confident. If they give me the shot, I take the shot, I shoot it with confidence. And when I have a lane, I take it, put pressure on their defense, to help our team and help myself."
The lane will likely be locked much of the time, whether Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw or Danny Green is initially assigned to him on the perimeter. Will the Spurs play James the same way?
"I would assume yes," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "They always have a wrinkle. That was a pretty good wrinkle last year. It did take us five games to figure it out. I would presuppose that they are going to make Dwyane [Wade] and LeBron beat them with jump shots."
Especially now that Wade's legs are far more lively than they were in the last NBA Finals, when he managed 19.6 points while limping to the finish.
"Same way," Wade said of what he anticipates. "Exact same way."
What differentiates that way from those other teams try to keep both players out of the paint?
"They do it at a higher level," Battier said. "They really run two or three guys into the paint. They will put their chest in front of a guy. They will run two guys, and run their chest in front of LeBron and Dwyane, just to make them pull up and take an out-of-rhythm jumper."
Wade noted that the jumper "will be there." He believes the key is finding a balance.
"I think one thing you have to do against them is mix it up," Wade said. "They're going to give you certain shots, but you can't take it every time. You've got to understand the moments when to take it."
Chris Bosh sees it similarly.
"You're given the jump shot in initial defense," the Heat center said. "They're a very smart team, they know about statistics. A mid-range two, they'd rather give that up, a late contest, rather than LeBron getting to the bucket or an open three. They feel they do their job if they force you into quick shots, which we saw against OKC. [The Thunder] didn't have the discipline to continue to work their offense. They took a lot of those shots. Some went in, but when it got tough, a lot went out. You just have to pick and choose your spots. Sometimes, it's a good shot, but most times you're going to have to be patient."
Wade said he believed that the Heat did that as the series progressed last year.
"Early on, we were kind of off rhythm with it," Wade said. "But I thought we did a good job later on of mixing it up: 'OK, they're giving it to me, I'm going to take it. But OK, they're giving it to me [again], I'm going to take more. I'm going to try to get more. I'm going to try to get a better shot for my teammates than just settling for this.' It's a mind game, as well. And you have to put on your thinking cap."
The trick for Miami is doing this without overthinking, a trap that James clearly couldn't avoid for much of the past Finals, especially since he rarely felt the freedom of the full-court sprint.
Monday, he noted that, in addition to "just trying to funnel everything into their bigs" in the half-court, the Spurs send multiple players back in transition, "not allowing us to get fast-break points, where we can get a couple of layups, and get in a rhythm. So they've done a good job of that."
The numbers certainly say so. James has tended to take a higher percentage of perimeter jumpers against the Spurs, but, perhaps due to his discomfort with taking so many, he has made them at a lower rate. This regular season, 42.9 percent (581 of 1353) of his shots came in the restricted area, according to the NBA's official stats site. He made 50.4 percent of his paint attempts outside the restricted area, 38.5 percent of his mid-range shots and 37.9 percent of his three-point tries.
And while James' difficulties penetrating the Pacers' paint—and scaling Roy Hibbert—are well chronicled, he did attempt 38.8 percent of his shots from the restricted area. He made 50 percent of his paint attempts outside the restricted area, 37.0 percent of his mid-range shots and 33.3 percent of his three-point tries.
Against the Spurs?
During the 2013 NBA Finals, only 32.7 percent (49 of 150) of his shots came from the restricted area. He made just 21.1 percent (four of 19) of his paint attempts outside the restricted area, 37.5 percent (18 of 48) of his mid-range shots and 35.2 percent of his three-pointers—largely because he made 5-of-10 from behind the arc in Game 7.
In that contest, and the one before, James stopped fighting the system and instead just lifted and fired. Only 26.5 percent (13 of 49) of his attempts in Games 6 and 7 came inside the restricted area, but by taking most of his 32 jumpers without hesitation (and making them at a reasonable 37.5 percent rate), he eventually softened the Spurs defense enough to attempt 20 free throws.
But in two games this regular season, James reverted back to his early-Finals issues, attempting just 33.3 percent of his shots inside the restricted area and connecting on just three of his 16 jump shots overall. After the second game, a 111-87 loss in San Antonio, James attributed his inaccuracy in part to the NBA's special-edition sleeved jerseys, which he won't be wearing over the next two weeks. But he also pointed to something that will persist: "They played me the same way they did in the Finals."
The same way they did in the 2007 Finals and the 2013 Finals.
He should trust that they'll do the same in the 2014 Finals.
And when they do, he must trust himself.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.
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