MIAMI – LeBron James arrived for practice Monday wearing lime-green sneakers, a highly fluorescent shade.
It was the fashion statement du jour for the league's three-time MVP, much like the eyeglass frames he's been sporting after games throughout this postseason. But those sneakers probably would have remained tucked away in the drawer beneath his locker during last year's NBA Finals, since very little about James' game would be considered glowing or luminous during those two weeks.
Different year, different story.
For the second straight season, the Miami Heat hold a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals. There's a glaring difference this time around — that being James is playing at the top of his game. And he'll try to help the Heat move within one win of a championship on Tuesday night, when Miami plays host to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 4 of this title series.
"We're a totally different team than we was last year when we was up 2-1," James said Monday. "We're a totally different team. We understand what it takes to win, we've used that motivation, and we will continue to use that motivation. But last year is last year, and we're not going into a Game 4 on someone else's floor. We're going into a Game 4 on our floor with a lot of experience in this type of situation. We'll be ready. We love the challenge."
Miami lost Game 4 in Dallas last year, the start of a three-game slide that ended with the Mavericks hoisting the title trophy.
So the Thunder know a 2-1 deficit in a series is hardly insurmountable, even though the home-court roles are reversed this time around. And if Oklahoma City needed more proof, all the Thunder need do is remember the Western Conference finals when they lost the first two games to San Antonio, becoming the 19th and 20th entries on the Spurs' incredible winning streak. The Spurs didn't win another game the rest of the way.
"We were down 2-0 against San Antonio and everybody thought the series was over," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "But I know our guys, they're very competitive, they're very resilient. They've always showed that type of effort every game, and we've always been a great bounce-back team. I thought last night was a great bounce-back last night. It's unfortunate we didn't make a couple plays, and uncharacteristic, also."
Uncharacteristic. That would also be a fine word to describe how James played in the finals last season.
He freely acknowledges that he "didn't make enough plays" against the Mavericks a year ago, and the numbers — 17.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game — back that up, as do his well-chronicled fourth quarter struggles in that series. So far in this year's finals, James is averaging 30.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 4 assists, and in the final minutes of Miami's two wins in the series he's done his part to slam the door on the Thunder.
"He's been aggressive. He's an aggressive player," Thunder guard James Harden said. "He's been aggressive all year, all postseason. He's tall, strong, and physical. He's a tough matchup. It takes five guys to really lock down on their offense because they're a very offensive team especially with LeBron and (Dwyane) Wade."
James is shooting 46 percent in the series, not even close to the 57 percent clip Kevin Durant is putting up for Oklahoma City. But here's maybe one piece of proof to support that aggression notion Harden was speaking of — James is 25 for 29 from the foul line in the three games, while Durant is just 14 for 19 so far in the series.
James has done much of his work near the rim in these finals. But while it wasn't his most memorable shot, perhaps the biggest one he hit all night in Miami's Game 3 victory was a 3-pointer late in the third quarter, one of just five shots that the Heat made from outside the paint in that game. That shot put Miami up entering the fourth, and seemed to extend the Thunder defense just enough to allow James, Wade and Chris Bosh to create more in the lane late.
"The biggest evolution of great players is they always stay in constant state of being uncomfortable," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "They don't stay satisfied. And LeBron every summer has added something to his game. I've seen it when I've followed him from afar, and now that I've gotten to know him he's added two, three, four different elements now to his game, the well-documented one of the post-up game, which we needed. But he continues to try to improve and stay uncomfortable. I think that's a sign of greatness."
Another sign of greatness? Rings.
James' first is just two wins away, again. And yes, the memories of what went wrong in 2011 still drive Miami now.
"Experience don't guarantee you anything," Wade said. "It just lets you know I've been here before. That doesn't mean it's going to be successful for you. So for us we've got to continue ... to make the game that we're in, the moment that we're in the biggest moment and the biggest game and not look back and not look forward too much. Obviously the team that was here that lost the championship last year, that burning sensation is going to be inside of us until we change that."
A year ago, the talk was how James shied away from the biggest moments, the brightest moments.
It's not happening now. Miami overcame a 10-point deficit in the third quarter of Game 3, becoming the first team in these playoffs to dig out of that large a second-half hole against the Thunder. James had eight points and four rebounds in the fourth quarter — no Thunder player had more than four points or two rebounds in those last 12 minutes.
Not pretty, but more than good enough to put the Heat back in the spot where last year's finals went awry.
"I don't give a damn how we get four," James said. "We can win 32-31. It doesn't matter to me. We can win any type of game. We can win a gritty game, a high-paced game, but we take every game as its own. ... And at the end of the day, if we play to our identity like Spo always preaches to us, then we'll give ourselves a good chance to win. Yeah, I don't care how we get four."
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