Poking or prodding LeBron James is dangerous business these days.
He might explode.
Each and every time James has prepped for one of his four previous NBA Finals appearances, motivation has been a point of issue. This year, ahead of his fifth Finals, it's been worse. The lag that comes with four straight Finals berths and two consecutive championships is real. What's actually driving him to win at this point?
Pretty much everything, per ESPN.com's Michael Wallace:
LeBron after practice for Game1 of Finals: "I don't need any more motivation. If I had any more motivation, I'd burst."— Michael Wallace (@WallaceNBA_ESPN) June 3, 2014
Shortage of inspiration may be a collective issue, but on an individual scale, James isn't tempted by complacency. There is no room for satisfaction given what's at stake for him.
First and foremost, there is the three-peat itself, which would officially stamp out any lingering skepticism pertaining to him joining the Miami Heat. In June 2011, you couldn't have envisioned a scenario where the widely reviled decision would flirt with absolute acceptance. This is huge.
Then, of course, there is the legacy talk. How would this latest title impact James' standing among all-time greats?
Actually, strike that. Let's recognize all these legacy discussions for what they are: an evaluation of James' open pursuit of Michael Jordan.
Winning another championship won't make King James better than His Airness, but as Fox Sports' Bill Reiter points out, it would still be a boon for his historical stock:
The first is LeBron James' continuing quest to topple Michael Jordan as the greatest basketball player of all time, a goal LeBron has become candid about, including in a sitdown interview with me before the season started. ...
LeBron has a long, long ways to go. But notching his first three-peat would be a giant step in that direction.
Because James' pressure cooker apparently isn't hot enough, he has taken to manufacturing his own motivation as well.
For reference, here's what Tim Duncan said to TNT's David Aldridge following his team's Game 6 victory in the Western Conference Finals, courtesy of ESPN.com's J.A. Adande:
"It's unbelievable to regain that focus after that devastating loss that we had last year," he explained. "But we're back here. We're excited about it. We've got four more to win. We'll do it this time. We're happy it's the Heat again. We've got that bad taste in our mouths still."
If that's what hate sounds and feels like, Duncan's hugs must be wonderful.
There's little doubt that James is trying to pack his plate with as much motivation as possible. It's what he does at times like these. It's what makes him so great.
It's why the Heat have won championships for two years running.
Ahead of Thursday's Game 1 clash, if James wants to focus on Miami's quest for a three-peat, let him. If he wants to pore over highlights from each of Jordan's six titles, he should go right ahead.
And if he wants to twist Duncan's totally civil, not-at-all insinuatory remarks into a vessel for dislike, get out of his way.
LeBron is coming, and he's brimming with ambition. So much so, he might explode.
But not before he makes the most of everything—titles, Jordan, legacy, etc.—he's chasing.