“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.