LeBron James blamed himself when his first trip to the National Basketball Association Finals ended without a championship.
“I’ve got a lot of things to work on to get better,” James, the 2007 playoff leader in points, steals and assists, said after his Cleveland Cavaliers were swept 4-0 by the San Antonio Spurs. “It starts with me first.”
Tonight, James again faces the Spurs in the NBA Finals, this year as a four-time league Most Valuable Player and a member of the Miami Heat, who are favored by oddsmakers to win their second straight title.
San Antonio center Tim Duncan told James at the conclusion of the 2007 series that “the league is going to be yours soon.” The prediction came true through an improvement in James’s supporting cast and his own efforts to get better.
James’s weakness six years ago, the jump shot, is now his strength, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Sports. Having increased his field-goal percentage every season since, to 56.5 percent from 47.6 percent, James has become one of the league’s most accurate outside shooters. He made 46 percent of his jumpers from 16-23 feet this season, better than heralded shooters Stephen Curry (44 percent), J.J. Reddick (45 percent) and Kevin Durant (43 percent). James also shot a career-best 40.6 percent from 3-point range, compared with 31.9 percent in 2006-07.
A forward, James is the only non-point guard in the top 20 in assists per game this postseason, with a higher average than guards such as Curry and Jeremy Lin. James’s 20.8 defensive rebounding percentage, an estimate of the percentage of available defensive rebounds a player grabbed while he was on the floor, was higher this season than interior players such as Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies, or Roy Hibbert and David West of the Indiana Pacers.
With improved shooting, rebounding and assists came more wins. In examining advanced statistics, James’s win share per 48 minutes, an estimate of how much a player contributes to a victory, was 0.3220, the highest since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (0.3225), the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, in 1972-73. The league average is about 0.1.
“I’m 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the ’07 finals,” James said after the Heat beat the Pacers in Game 7 to win the Eastern Conference title on June 3.
The Heat, with fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh struggling at times in the postseason, are going for their third championship since 2006, and the club’s second since James joined Miami as a free agent in 2010. The Spurs are seeking their fifth title since 1999, Duncan’s second year in the league.
Duncan, 37, and James, 28, “are going to go down as two of the greatest to ever play,” according to former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy.
“Duncan’s longevity has been incredible,” Van Gundy, an analyst for Walt Disney Co.’s ABC, which will broadcast the finals, said on a conference call. “His ability to come in as a power forward and then evolve into this center is a testament to just his willingness to adapt.”
Guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili both have been Spurs since the franchise’s 2003 title, joining Duncan on a team known for unselfishness. San Antonio swept the Los Angeles Lakers, topped the Golden State Warriors in six games and then swept the Grizzlies to win the West on May 27. It marked the 14th time a team entered the NBA Finals coming off a 4-0 sweep.
It’s the sixth time that an NBA Finals will be held between one team that swept its conference-final series and another that needed seven games to advance. The most recent was 2001, when the Lakers swept the Spurs in the West and the Philadelphia 76ers needed seven games to get past the Milwaukee Bucks in the East. The Lakers won the championship, four games to one.
Teams coming off 4-0 conference-final sweeps are 4-2 against those who needed seven games to reach the title round. The last club to play a seven-game conference final and then top an opponent coming off a sweep was the Chicago Bulls in 1998. Michael Jordan’s Bulls won a seven-game series against the Pacers in the East and then took the title over the Utah Jazz, who had swept the Lakers in the West.
Miami is a 5 1/2-point favorite in Game 1 at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers, with a 68 percent chance to repeat as NBA champions based on betting lines, according to Las Vegas-based handicapping information website Pregame.com.
James is a decisive favorite to repeat as NBA Finals MVP, with 4-9 odds at online gambling website Bovada.com. Wade, the 2006 finals MVP, is the second favorite with 8-1 odds, meaning a successful $100 wager on Wade to take the honor would net $800.
It’s the first trip to Miami this season for Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, who were sent home by coach Gregg Popovich prior to the team’s Nov. 29 game at the Heat, San Antonio’s fourth road contest in five nights. The decision led to a $250,000 fine against the Spurs for resting players “in a manner contrary to the best interests of the NBA.” In what Popovich later hinted was gamesmanship, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra sat James and Wade for Miami’s March 31 game in San Antonio, citing injuries. The Heat won both regular-season contests.
So tonight marks the first game this season between the teams’ complete lineups, and one in which San Antonio has had 10 days to prepare for basketball’s most dominant player. They may need every second of preparation, according to the man whose defense against the then-22-year-old James in the 2007 finals helped the Spurs coast to a title.
Bruce Bowen, now an ESPN analyst after a 13-year NBA career, said in a phone interview yesterday that James’s experience, discipline and supporting cast in Miami “allowed him to focus on his craft and get better.”
“You’ve got to go through something before you realize what you need to work on,” Bowen said.