MIAMI — LeBron James watched the San Antonio Spurs celebrate an NBA championship on his now-former home floor in Cleveland four years ago, a memory he still finds haunting.
He needs to buck some history to avoid a repeat of that scene in Miami.
For all that James has done in his career — two MVP awards, seven All-Star appearances, a scoring title — there's one thing he still hasn't managed, and that's getting his team off the ropes when facing elimination. The Cavaliers never advanced in the five playoff series that opposing teams won three games against Cleveland during James' run there.
Now Miami is facing elimination for the first time in these playoffs, entering Sunday's Game 6 of the NBA finals down 3-2 to the Dallas Mavericks. James' latest challenge may be his toughest yet.
"Every situation has felt like it was an our-back-against-the-wall situation," James said Sunday morning after Miami's shootaround practice. "We've been able to figure it out and find our way through and scratch our way through. This is the last test. This is the last pop quiz for us that we need to pass in order to make it all worth it."
James has played seven previous games when facing elimination, going 2-5.
His numbers in those games are eye-popping: 31 points, 10.1 rebounds, 7.5 assists on average.
That's a far cry from these finals so far, where James has averaged 17.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7 assists against the Mavericks. And in the fourth quarters, his struggles have been the talk of the series. James is shooting 4 for 16 in the final periods, all four of those makes being either dunks or layups.
James had a triple-double in a Game 5 loss at Dallas, and said he wouldn't look for specific stats in Game 6.
"I take what the game gives me," James said.
In other words, he won't force things unnecessarily, even now. Which is fine with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who said he plans to take a similar approach when it comes to choosing the words he'll use before Game 6.
"There's a great deal of thought that goes behind what you say to your team," Spoelstra said Sunday morning. "And there's different moments during the season and in the playoffs where sometimes it's a little bit more, sometimes it's a little bit less. It depends on the situation. What we're trying to accomplish right now in a finals series is relatively normal. What we deal with sometimes on the exterior can be very abnormal. But we wouldn't expect anything less."
True, it's been a season like no other in Miami's 23-year history.
Starting with the buzz created last summer, when the Heat not only kept Dwyane Wade but landed Chris Bosh and James to complete what was immediately dubbed the "Big 3," Miami has been at the epicenter of just about everything in the NBA for the past 11 months.
The way they celebrated those signings raised the ire of many in the league. Opposing coaches groaned when asked incessant questions about the Heat over the course of the season. They were called "Hollywood" at least twice by the Bulls' Joakim Noah, had their competitiveness questioned by the Orlando Magic, got mocked in every building they visited throughout the season.
None of it seems relevant to the Heat now.
"We understand that in order for us to win it all, we have to win two," James said. "But tonight, just like any other game, is its own. That's the way we've always approached every game this season, every game this postseason. We approach every game as its own and go from there. We feel like if we do the things that need to be done in this game, we'll give ourselves a great chance to win."
It's all so different now for Wade, who elevated from stardom to superstardom by winning a title in 2006, then was part of the U.S. team — along with James, Bosh, the Mavericks' Jason Kidd and others — who led the so-called "Redeem Team" to gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
"We were playing for America in the Olympics and we had the support of everybody in America," Wade said. "Now in '11, we don't. And that's just the way it is. I don't think it's anything personal. A lot of people out there that's rooting against us don't know LeBron James as a person, don't know me as a person, don't know a lot of people in this locker room. But us as a team, that's fine."
James nodded as Wade said those words.
This season really started in Miami when they signed their contracts on the night following James' infamous "Decision" special on ESPN. The Heat were vaulted into the pressure-cooker at that moment, knowing nothing but a title would allow this season — and those that will follow — to be considered a success.
"Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven," James said last July 9, at the welcome-to-Miami party for the Big Three, referring to the number of championships he'd like. "Hey, and when I say that, I really believe it. I'm not just up here blowing smoke at none of these fans, because that's not what I'm about. I'm about business. And we believe we can win multiple championships if we take care of business and do it the right way."
What he said 339 days earlier, in his mind, still rings true entering Game 6.
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