MIAMI – Before leaping into Tim Duncan’s arms to celebrate the third NBA championship they had won together, Bruce Bowen felt compelled to console a 22-year-old player whom he believed was a legend in the making.
LeBron James’s first trip to the NBA Finals in 2007 ended with a devastating sweep that exposed his flaws and the shortcomings of his limited supporting cast with the Cleveland Cavaliers. James didn’t try to mask his disappointment as he trudged to the locker room, downtrodden. Having no interest in watching the San Antonio Spurs revel on his home court, James stared blankly at the floor as Bowen addressed him.
“I said: ‘Pick your head up. This is part of the process for you. This is what you have to go through to succeed to where you want to be,’ ” Bowen recalled Tuesday in a telephone interview.
After his encounter with Bowen, James was in a slightly better mood when he bumped into Duncan outside the interview room at Quicken Loans Arena. Duncan hugged James and told him: “This is going to be your league in a little while. But I appreciate you giving us this year.”
Six years later, Duncan is once again standing in James’s way. But after helping the Miami Heat become the first team from the Eastern Conference since the Chicago Bulls from 1996 to 1998 to make three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, James believes that he is in a much different place – in experience, supporting cast and, of course, physical location – and more prepared for a rematch against San Antonio.
“I’m a much better player,” James said. “I'm 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the ’07 Finals.”
The math might be a tad skewed, but Bowen wouldn’t dispute the assertion when asked how much James has improved from a time that predates his four MVP awards, six straight all-NBA first-team selections and one NBA championship.
“I do agree with him. He is. He’s gotten so much better and I think a lot of that is being in Miami and the culture there as well,” said Bowen, who played parts of two seasons in Miami. “I mean, [Heat President] Pat Riley understands what it takes to be a champion. No disrespect to anyone in that Cleveland organization, but they don’t know what it takes.”
Bowen was the primary defender on James when the Spurs limited him to just 22 points per game — five fewer than his season average — on 35.6 percent shooting in the 2007 Finals. He harassed James, stayed in front of him to prevent head-of-steam drives and guided him into a second line of defense that featured big men Duncan, Fabricio Oberto and Robert Horry.
James’s frustrations in that series were complicated by a supporting cast that featured Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Daniel Gibson and an injured Larry Hughes, which allowed to Spurs to apply even more pressure on him. The stresses of carrying a team on his own eventually pushed James to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh three years later in Miami.
“In the Finals, everyone is in tune to exactly what’s necessary to limit the effectiveness of a player of that caliber,” Bowen said. “He gets by me, he has to realize he has a couple of other guys to contend with. It’s one thing to be one or two plays ahead, but you never really get to the process of, ‘Man, it’s even three.’ I think it was more or less of a surprise.
“We said, ‘If we take these things from him, maybe somebody else will be able to help out or maybe not,’ ” Bowen said. “It was more or less on the not side.”
This time around, in his fourth Finals appearance, James doesn’t expect to encounter the same problems. “First of all, I think our team is more experienced,” James said. “My Cleveland team, we were very young, and we went up against a very experienced team, well-coached team. And they took advantage of everything that we did. I think for this team, this is our third year advancing to the Finals. So we're very experienced as well. We’re not young, we're not inexperienced. We understand the opportunity that we have.”
While the loss to San Antonio was the first of several humbling experiences that have fueled James, his flameout against Dallas in his second trip to the NBA Finals with Miami in 2011 would serve as the ground floor for the bounce back.
“I think the zone and the comfort level I’m in right now happened because Dallas beat us,” James said. “I just went back to the basics. I went back home, I went back to Ohio. I worked out with my high school coach. I went back to my high school gym, and just put myself in the mind-set of what made me fall in love with the game. And it's because I had a lot of fun with it.
“I'm happy I’m able to play this game at the highest level,” James said. “I love to compete. I love to represent what basketball stands for. But I don’t put too much added pressure on myself, because I know it’s just a game.”
Bowen felt that James’s struggles against Dallas were partly the result of developing chemistry and learning how to trust capable teammates for the first time.
“You can’t just win it on your own in the playoffs,” Bowen said. “It’s one of those deals where you’re learning, it’s on the job training in its best form. It’s those sink or swim moments. And he sank in two of those moments [against San Antonio and Dallas]. And now he’s starting to do things and, I mean, look at his season, he shot 56 percent from the field? That’s video game stuff. . . . He works so hard. I don’t think people really realize how much he works. I asked him once, What is it that motivates you? He said, ‘Bruce, I want to be the best.’ ”
When asked how he would guard James now, Bowen said James has become so advanced that he has turned most opponents’ defensive schemes against them and still managed to come out ahead.
“I just kind of want to be in his way more or less, be kind of like a gnat. That’s what I would do,” Bowen said, before adding, “He’s so good now.”