LeBron James readily admits that San Antonio had the superior team when he and the Cleveland Cavaliers faced the Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals. James was still a young, could-do-wrong phenom back then, beloved in his home state and quickly delivering on his draft day promise to light up Cleveland “like Vegas.”
An athletic freak capable of punishing opponents with his freight-train drives, James was also susceptible to coming up short when turned into a jump shooter. The Spurs exposed those flaws, exploited his weaknesses and eventually danced on his home court to celebrate the NBA championship.
“They were a better team,” James said Wednesday while discussing that humiliating sweep six years later. “The team beat you 4‑0, are you going to say, ‘They weren’t better than us?’ It was obvious.”
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich called that period “ancient history” but the memory still burns within James as he pursues his second NBA championship against a familiar foe that has stood the test of time. And even though he may not have been ready to claim a crown in his first Finals appearance, James still believes that San Antonio took something that belonged to him.
“I won’t forget that. You shouldn’t as a competitor. You should never forget that,” James said. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen the series. I’m pretty good with going back on my mental about what happened. It was tough. We ran against a team that was more superior, more experienced, more better – that’s not even a word – better than we were at the time. And they took advantage of every miscue, inexperience thing that we did on the floor. That allowed them to raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy.”
Now a four-time most valuable player, two-time Olympic gold medalist and one-time NBA champion, James believes that he is “20, 40, 50 times better” than he was the last time he met the Spurs – at age 22. In that series, James shot 35.6 percent and committed 23 turnovers.
“When I got the ball, they kept me on the sideline …and dared me to shoot it, and didn’t allow me to get to the paint where I did most of my damage,” James said. “If you go into my pick‑and‑roll now, I’m going to shoot. And I’m confident I’m going to make every last one of them. I’m just more confident in my ability to shoot the ball. But at the same time, I also have a lot more weapons this time around going against this team, where in ’07 they loaded three guys to me a lot on the strong side of the floor. So like I said, I’m a better player, and you can’t dare me to do anything I don’t want to do in 2013.”
Popovich didn’t bother assigning a numerical measurement of James’s improvement but said: “He’ll be a lot more of a problem than he was in ’07, that’s for sure. … He was basically a neophyte at the time, wondering how all this stuff worked and how it’s put together. We were very fortunate at that time to get him so early.”
After the 2007 Finals, Tim Duncan approached James in front of the interview room and told him that the league would his one day, while thanking James for letting him get a fourth ring. The image has been replayed repeatedly in recent days, but James has no interest in reliving the exchange.
“It’s cool for you guys. It wasn’t cool for me,” James told reporters on Wednesday. “He had just won and I just lost. I don’t know. I didn’t remember too much about it until I seen the footage once again. I appreciate having an opportunity to go against a great team and just use that as motivation to get me better.”
James has made two trips to the Finals since that encounter, while Duncan experienced a six-year drought since winning his fourth NBA championship. “I hoped to back here,” Duncan said. “Whether he would be here or not, I couldn’t predict that. Knowing the player that he was then and the trajectory he was on, I had no doubt he would be back here. I had no doubt he would be tops in this league at some point. And I’m glad and honored to be back here playing against him.”
Dwyane Wade was certain that revenge would serve as motivating factor for James. “Obviously having this opportunity right now is probably something he always dreamed of, of getting back to The Finals and playing the Spurs again,” Wade said. “I’m sure he’s looking forward to the challenge. And being a better player, being in a better situation with a better team, a little bit more confident, but at the same time, he does understand how tough it is to go against that team as well.”
In addition to getting even with the San Antonio, James would also like to even his record in the NBA Finals and avoid going 0-3 against Texas teams. “Well, I’ve lost enough,” James said. “I’ve lost two Finals. So I don’t need any more fuel from losing the Finals.”
More on the NBA Finals from The Post: