LeBron James arrived for practice Monday wearing lime-green sneakers, a highly fluorescent shade.
It was the fashion statement du jour for the leagues three-time MVP, much like the eyeglass frames hes been sporting after games throughout this postseason. But those sneakers probably would have remained tucked away in the drawer beneath his locker during last years NBA finals, since very little about James game would be considered glowing or luminous during those two weeks.
Different year, different story.
For the second consecutive season, the Miami Heat hold a 2-1 lead in the NBA finals. Theres a glaring difference this time around that being James is playing at the top of his game. And hell try to help the Heat move within one win of a championship tonight, when Miami plays host to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 4 of this title series.
Were a totally different team than we was last year when we was up 2-1, James said Monday. Were a totally different team. We understand what it takes to win, weve used that motivation, and we will continue to use that motivation. But last year is last year, and were not going into a Game 4 on someone elses floor. Were going into a Game 4 on our floor with a lot of experience in this type of situation. Well be ready. We love the challenge.
Miami lost Game 4 in Dallas last year, the start of a three-game slide that ended with the Mavericks hoisting the title trophy.
So the Thunder know a 2-1 deficit in a series hardly is insurmountable, even though the home-court roles are reversed this time around. And if Oklahoma City needed more proof, all the Thunder need do is remember the Western Conference finals when they lost the first two games to San Antonio, becoming the 19th and 20th entries on the Spurs incredible winning streak. The Spurs didnt win another game the rest of the way.
We were down 2-0 against San Antonio, and everybody thought the series was over, Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. But I know our guys; theyre very competitive; theyre very resilient. Theyve always showed that type of effort every game, and weve always been a great bounce-back team. I thought last night was a great bounce-back last night. Its unfortunate we didnt make a couple plays, and uncharacteristic, also.
Uncharacteristic. That also would be a fine word to describe how James played in the finals last season. He freely acknowledges that he didnt make enough plays against the Mavericks a year ago, and the numbers 17.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game back that up, as do his well-chronicled fourth quarter struggles in that series.
So far in this years finals, James is averaging 30.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and four assists, and in the final minutes of Miamis two wins in the series hes done his part to slam the door on the Thunder.
Hes been aggressive. Hes an aggressive player, Thunder guard James Harden said. Hes been aggressive all year, all postseason. Hes tall, strong and physical. Hes a tough matchup. It takes five guys to really lock down on their offense because theyre a very offensive team, especially with LeBron and (Dwyane) Wade.
James is shooting 46 percent in the series, not even close to the 57-percent clip Kevin Durant is putting up for Oklahoma City. But heres maybe one piece of proof to support that aggression notion Harden was speaking of James is 25-for-29 from the foul line in the three games, while Durant is just 14-for-19 so far in the series.
James has done much of his work near the rim in these finals. But while it wasnt his most memorable shot, perhaps the biggest one he hit all night in Miamis Game 3 victory was a 3-pointer late in the third quarter, one of just five shots the Heat made from outside the paint in that game. That shot put Miami up entering the fourth and seemed to extend the Thunder defense just enough to allow James, Wade and Chris Bosh to create more in the lane late.
The biggest evolution of great players is they always stay in a constant state of being uncomfortable, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. They dont stay satisfied. And LeBron every summer has added something to his game. Ive seen it when Ive followed him from afar, and now that Ive gotten to know him hes added two, three, four different elements now to his game, the well-documented one of the post-up game, which we needed. But he continues to try to improve and stay uncomfortable. I think thats a sign of greatness.
Another sign of greatness? Rings.
James first is just two wins away, again. And yes, the memories of what went wrong in 2011 still drive Miami now.
Experience dont guarantee you anything, Wade said. It just lets you know Ive been here before. That doesnt mean its going to be successful for you.
A year ago, the talk was how James shied away from the biggest moments, the brightest moments.
Its not happening now. Miami overcame a 10-point deficit in the third quarter of Game 3, becoming the first team in these playoffs to dig out of that large a second-half hole against the Thunder.
Not pretty, but more than good enough to put the Heat back in the spot where last years finals went awry.
I dont give a damn how we get four, James said. We can win 32-31. It doesnt matter to me. We can win any type of game. We can win a gritty game, a high-paced game, but we take every game as its own.
Yeah, I dont care how we get four, he said.