Miami is off to a good start in pursuit of a third consecutive NBA title, and winning it would be a rare feat. Fortunately for the Heat, LeBron James knows how to achieve big goals.
The league’s best player led Miami to victories in the first two games of its first-round Eastern Conference playoff series against the Charlotte Bobcats. And James’s fantastic performance in leading the Heat to the past two NBA Finals silenced silly critics who said he wasn’t capable of becoming a champion. But the four-time league MVP still doesn’t receive enough credit for one of the best parts of his game: mental toughness.
James’s strong psyche has been as important as his unique physical skills in the Heat’s impressive run. After its most challenging regular season since James joined the club, the Heat will need James’s best to become the fourth franchise to win at least three straight championships. Miami is following the right guy to make it happen.
The Heat is seeking entrance into the exclusive back-to-back-to-back club, whose only members are the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and Lakers. From 1959 to ’66, the Celtics reeled off a record eight straight NBA championships. The Bulls three-peated twice, and so did the Lakers, first in Minneapolis and then in L.A.
Celtics legend Bill Russell, with 11 titles in his career, and Bulls great Michael Jordan, who has six rings, are considered the greatest winners in league history. Although James isn’t in their category, he has recently displayed the same type of focus under pressure that enabled Russell and Jordan to thrive in the postseason, Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor said.
The Baylor-led Los Angeles Lakers and Russell’s Celtics teams had many classic Finals battles — all of which the Celtics won. Later, in his role as an NBA executive, Baylor closely studied Jordan. Russell, Baylor’s longtime good friend, and Jordan “were just so tough,” Baylor told me in a recent phone interview. “Man, you just couldn’t beat Russell. The focus he had was incredible. The minute the game started, you saw something change.
“I never played against Jordan . . . but you could see the same thing. You couldn’t get him [rattled]. So when everything was happening around them, it didn’t bother them. A lot of guys, real talented guys, take bad shots, throw a bad pass or forget [a defensive assignment]. You see it all the time in the playoffs. With Russell and Jordan, you just didn’t see that stuff happen [often]. And with James . . . James is a terrific player. He’s the ultimate team player, and he has shown how [mentally] strong he is by what his team has done.”
Behind James, the two-time defending champion Heat has played in the last three Finals. In the process, James, the winner of consecutive Finals MVP awards, shed his undeserved reputation as a player who couldn’t deliver at the most important time of the season.
History has proved that even superstars “need to be surrounded by other really good players” to win championships, Baylor continued. “Once he got into the right situation, you see what he’s doing. There’s no such thing as a perfect player. And some people are always going to find something to criticize, even if it’s not there.
“But you had people saying he wasn’t mentally tough enough [to win a championship]. Are you kidding me? Absolutely, he was always tough enough. If you can’t handle pressure, you can’t do what he does [in the playoffs].”
During the regular season, James faced more pressure than usual. After Dwyane Wade experienced severe knee pain throughout the 2013 playoffs, the Heat’s training staff developed a program designed to help him enter this postseason in top form. Wade missed 28 games, most of which were scheduled in an effort to reduce the wear and tear on his knees.
The move appears to have paid off; Wade was sharp in the Heat’s first game against Charlotte. Wade’s extended absence, however, clearly took a toll on James.
Even when Wade is in the lineup, no team asks more of a player than Miami does of James. The 11-year veteran is the Heat’s No. 1 option on offense and its top playmaker. James also usually draws the toughest defensive assignment. James’s workload increased considerably with Wade out, and Miami was 18-10 without him.
In part because of the Heat’s late-season slide, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant is expected to end James’s stranglehold on the MVP award — James has won four of the past five — and win his first. The Thunder finished second in the West despite playing 36 games without Russell Westbrook, a three-time all-NBA selection, and Durant was terrific shouldering more while Westbrook was sidelined.
Wade is a future Hall of Famer. James’s ability to fight through physical and mental fatigue to keep the Heat afloat for much of the season — it’s seeded second in the East — without Wade was no less impressive than what Durant accomplished with the young Thunder.
Ultimately, James will be judged on how the Heat fare in the playoffs. Unless Miami holds another season-ending parade, many NBA observers will say James failed. Miami was built to win championships, so that’s fair. Regardless of how things turn out, though, it’s time to acknowledge James is more than just physically gifted — he also has a lot going on between his ears.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.