2013 NBA Finals: LeBron James must find killer instinct to enter rare company


LeBron James of the Miami Heat looks on during Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Sunday. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Mike Wise
Columnist June 17, 2013

LeBron James is about to enter uncharted territory in the Best Player in the World business.

He needs to backpack the Miami Heat to consecutive victories in Games 6 and 7 of the NBA Finals to secure not just back-to-back titles but also achieve something never accomplished by Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and many other NBA luminaries: rebound from a 3-2 Finals deficit to win it all.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Magic Johnson’s Lakers in 1988, Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets in 1994 and Kobe Bryant’s Lakers in 2010 were the only teams to do it in the current 2-3-2 format. (And, okay, Jordan’s Bulls never let a Finals go past six games in six tries.)

It’s going to take every bit of will and skill James possesses. It’s going to take Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra not getting outsmarted by Gregg Popovich, who has pushed all the right buttons thus far. It’s going to take help from every teammate.

And for LeBron, it’s also going to take an important intangible still in its infancy stage:

A ruthless side. A nail-in-the-coffin, foot-on-the-throat-of-your-opponent persona that all the best players in the game had before him.

He can’t beat the Spurs alone twice at home, of course. But provided his teammates show up Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena in the fourth elimination game Miami has faced in a little more than a year, LeBron has to refine the ornery, take-no-prisoners part of his game.

He’s already acquired every other attribute of a champion.

Hubie Brown has seen and done everything in his seven decades of basketball. In his first assistant job, he coached Kareem and the Big O in Milwaukee. Hubie later coached against Magic, Larry, Michael and Kobe.

When I asked the ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer what he really thought about LeBron James the other day, he didn’t spare praise.

“I’ve never seen a player who can do more than him, who does everything so well with the size, strength and speed of LeBron has since, oh, ’73,” said Brown, alluding to his first season on an NBA staff.

“Magic was unbelievable with the passing and the peripheral vision, okay. But this guy, with his speed added to it, we’ve never seen anything like it.

“Name three players in the league right now faster with the ball end to end.”

I stalled after Russell Westbrook and John Wall.

But then I thought hard about the great players I’ve either seen or come to know the past three decades in the NBA and one of the traits they all had in common: They enjoyed crushing an opponent psychologically.

In jock parlance, this is called killer instinct. It’s making sure the other guy stays down when a big blow is landed.

Kobe and Michael delighted in burying teams in the playoffs. Magic. Bird. Reggie Miller. Shaq. Hakeem. If they sniffed fear or frailty, they jumped on their opponent.

LeBron is still learning that it’s okay to be the bully in certain situations on the court, that being disliked immensely by an opponent’s fan base is actually a sign of begrudging respect — not universal disapproval.

Memo to @KingJames in 140 characters or less: It’s not just okay to rule by fear as an elite athlete; sometimes it’s a necessity.

The Spurs were wobbling after the Heat’s Game 4 blowout in the second half. LeBron came out a day later and stated his team needed to break the pattern of not winning two games in a row during the postseason, which went back to the first game of the Eastern Conference finals against the Pacers.

In that series, the Heat had a perfect opportunity to bury Indiana in Game 6 and give a gimpy-kneed Dwyane Wade a few more days off before the Finals. Miami couldn’t do it. The series went seven games, and the Spurs got extra rest prior to stealing Game 1 on the Heat’s floor.

Maybe the Spurs have captured magic in the aging limbs and legs of their three 30-something stars. Maybe the notion of a Heatpeat was too much for this Miami supporting cast.

But if LeBron James really cares about growing his legacy in the Best Player in the Game business, the time is now for his desire — and his on-court demeanor — to rise to a level of no-holds-barred nasty to get the job done and another championship won.

For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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