A year after being shredded for not rising to the moment on the league's biggest stage, and vowing that he would change that perception this time around, LeBron James has helped carry the Heat back to the spot where it all went wrong in 2011. They're halfway home in these finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and will take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series into Game 4 in Miami on Tuesday.
So far in the series, James is averaging 30.3 points and 10.3 rebounds. A year ago against Dallas, he averaged 17.8 points and 7.2 rebounds when Miami lost the title round in six games.
"He's here," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "This is what he's dreamt about his entire life so he's going to make the most of his chance."
This time, that seems to be exactly what's happening.
James has not been flawless in fourth quarters against the Thunder, far from it, really. He's shooting just 5 for 14 during those periods in the series, but leads the finals in fourth-quarter free throws made (11) and attempted (13). He's averaging 7 points in the last quarter, second-best in the series behind the gaudy 12.3-per-game clip being put up by Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant.
But he did more than enough down the stretch in Games 2 and 3, both Miami victories. One example: His layup with 2:19 left in Game 3 came on a play that would be difficult for most players and seemed commonplace for him. James dribbled with his left hand down the left side of the lane towards the basket. He jumped, spun about 180 degrees, put the ball in his right hand, then flipped it over his shoulder, off the backboard and through the net.
"Yeah, that was a gifted shot," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "I don't know if he can really work on that one."
Making it better for the Heat, and in turn, worse for the Thunder, is that every Oklahoma City player on the floor at that time probably could have done something a little better on that play.
Thabo Sefolosha lost James after running into Chris Bosh's pick.
Kendrick Perkins was the next line of defense, and offered little resistance.
Russell Westbrook, a few feet away on James' left, crouched in defensive position but never moved.
James Harden was under the basket and seemed to just get out of the way.
Durant took a couple steps towards the rim, looking for a rebound that never came.
The basket gave Miami an 86-79 lead, and was essentially the game-winner. Oklahoma City scored the next six points, but no more after that. James passed the ball to where only Bosh could catch it with 1:19 left, setting up two free throws to stop the Thunder run. James hit a free throw for a four-point Miami edge, and moments later grabbed the last rebound of the night, dribbled over midcourt and flipped the ball to an official as time expired in the 91-85 Heat win.
"I just try to be a leader, out on the floor, in the locker room, and do whatever it takes for us to win basketball games," James said. "You know, at the end of the day, they look at me to make plays. They look at me to lead them. But I'm not the only leader of this team."
Afterwards, the Thunder simply tipped their caps.
"He's an aggressive player," Harden said. "He's been aggressive all year, all postseason. He's tall, strong, and physical. He's a tough matchup."
And he certainly looks tougher than he did a year ago at this time.
The Heat played 21 postseason games last year, and are at that same number this year. James has taken 90 more shots in these playoffs, 61 more free throws, grabbed 28 more rebounds and scored 148 more points. With him on the floor in last year's playoffs, Miami outscored teams by just 29 points. So far in these playoffs, the Heat have outscored opponents by 171 with James on the court.
Some of those offensive jumps are largely because of the Heat needing more when they were without Bosh for nine games. Still, the simple fact that Miami is alive in these playoffs is because when James had to do more, he found a way. Like the 40-point, 18-rebound, nine-assist game that turned the Indiana series around. Or the 45-point, 15-rebound performance that saved the season at Boston in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The league's MVP this season is playing at an "even higher" level now, Haslem said. "He's pretty much done whatever we've asked him to do."
Their next request: Avoid a repeat of what happened in Game 4 of the finals last season.
James was awful in that game against Dallas, scoring just eight points as the Mavericks won 86-83, the first step in a three-game slide that ended the Heat season.
So the Thunder know a 2-1 deficit in a series is hardly insurmountable, even though the home-court roles are reversed this time around. And if Oklahoma City needed more proof, all the Thunder need to do is remember the Western Conference finals and how they lost the first two games to San Antonio, becoming the 19th and 20th entries on the Spurs' incredible winning streak. The Spurs didn't 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, they're very competitive, they're very resilient. They've always showed that type of effort every game, and we've always been a great bounce-back team."
The question is, will James continue putting together a bounce-back finals?
If he does, his nine-year quest for his first NBA championship might finally be nearing an end.
"He wasn't himself last year and I think he's on record for saying that, trying to be too serious all of the time," Bosh said. "He's one of the best players in the world. He doesn't have to do anything differently just because the title is put on this series. He just has to continue to be who he is, play his game, and things will work out."