“Perceptions better change, OK?” Heat forward Mike Miller said before Game 5. “You would be looking at a three-time MVP and a world champion. There’s a very, very, very, very, very short list of those. A very short list. The way I’ve seen him improve in just the two years I’ve been around him, I’ve seen the maturation the whole time, and it’s a scary thought because it’s not going to stop. It’s a freight train right now.”
James is 27 years old. Michael Jordan was 28 when he won the first of his six championships.
Which raises one question that might just scare a few people around the NBA: Could this just be the start of what James is going to accomplish?
Most talked-about as well.
He regretted lashing out at a question about critics posed not long after last season’s finals ended, one where he answered by saying “I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things I want to do.” That criticism was deserved. But some is just silly. He even takes heat for his hairline.
With James, nothing is off-limits for critiquing.
“He’s been through a hell of a lot these past two years, and that makes you stronger,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “Just the fact that he can just come out and play and show his strength, his strength of mind, his will to win, I think that’s just really important for everybody else to see, not only us but everybody in the stands and watching on TV how much a person can really have some perseverance and really grow as their career goes on.”
There is no in-between with James, it seems. Fans either love him or hate him. They love his ability. They hate that he left Cleveland. They love the staggering statistics. They hate the phrase “take my talents.” He might be more criticized than any athlete in American pro sports today, and that’s even without some huge glaring incident of wrongdoing on his resume.
It took time for the Heat to get used to that element of the James world.
“It’s different than anything I’ve been around, there’s no question about that,” said Spoelstra, who, it bears noting, has spent the vast majority of his adult life around another lightning-rod personality in Pat Riley. “It’s unfortunate that somebody who has the qualities that he has would be critiqued as negatively as he’s been because he embodies so many of the things that you would want from a professional athlete.
“He’s never been in trouble,” Spoelstra added. “He’s a team guy. He’s a pass-first guy. He’s a scorer, he’s a defender, a two-way player, he’s a great teammate. He’s honored all of his contracts and he has a dream that he’s been trying to chase but he’s been doing it within a team concept.”
The mouthpiece he wore throughout these playoffs said “XVI” _ the Roman numerals for 16, how many postseason wins it takes to win an NBA championship. The towels that the Heat handed out Thursday night said the same thing, both a reminder of the goal and a tribute to what James flashed every time he opened his mouth on the court in these past four series.
XVI wins later, the mission is complete.