Of all the criticism of James, the biggest will always be anything that's thought to keep him from a title. And, nine years later, enough experimentation has been done that most exterior excuses have been stripped away. It's all on LeBron now. Why can't he win the big one?
The consensus coming into this year's playoffs, where James finally has an excellent supporting cast (and a fellow MVP in Dwyane Wade), is that James does not lack the ability to get it done. He is on par athletically and skills-wise with the greats. But plenty of people think James doesn't have the mindset he needs to come through in the tough times, to weather the long road through intense playoff competition, to stick the dagger in his opponents again and again until the deed is done.
Yes, the killer instinct. That's what most agree that Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant (to name a precious few) had and still have, and that James does not.
These men didn't just play; they conquered. They would not be denied, from hours of practice to become better than everyone to performances that pulled their team above the fray and into championship territory.
As the Heat steam into this year's playoff gauntlet, though, maybe it's time to stop asking whether James has the killer instinct. He's never looked like he does, but that may not be an issue anymore. This year, James may finally be good enough to win it all without needing to own the court.
James has been excellent this season, putting up MVP-caliber numbers. He increased his intensity in the playoffs, especially defensively. He's already a level above most of his opponents both physically and in raw talent, and he hasn't done anything less than dominate. He's locked in.
James put in a lot of time in the offseason to develop his game, but what was interesting was what his mindset was when he did it. The stereotype of a championship contender is the brooding star who works in the shadows, sweating as he remembers all the slights against him. He pictures his foes and destroys every one with each step on the treadmill, each rep on the bench press, each hundredth shot.
The champions are the tortured souls, the ones not happy with anything short of perfection. They are Jerry West, writing a biography of depression and regret decades later. They are Joe DiMaggio, living inside a castle of pursuits, blocking out anyone who dares to detract from the legend. They are Michael Jordan, still grumpy over perceived slights against his ascension even as those who once helped him waste away.
James isn't that kind of guy, and he never will be. When he was working on his game in the offseason, he was just working on it. If anything, he was moving farther away from having the killer instinct than ever before.
While a strong, fierce player, James' default personality is more fun-loving. He likes to enjoy his sport, seek out situations where he can play with his friends and smile his way through life and basketball.
James admitted so much in last week's Sports Illustrated cover story. He said he's never been the icy conqueror, and that he’s struggled with the mountains of criticism coming his way in recent years. When he tried to raise his game with anger, he said, he found his play only suffered. He was tired of trying to be someone he wasn't. So, now he's back to having a good time as he works on his game, and that's the way he wants it to stay.
So, now that it's championship time, James is going to enjoy himself rather than channeling a decade of abuse and riding it to the top? If that's his plan, it's one without much precedence in professional sports.
But James, who has always wowed all who watch with his raw ability and incredible physical tools, may be the one who can do it.
James and the Heat tore past the Knicks in their opening-round series. In their first game, which the Heat won 100-67, James had 32 points and was superior on defense. In Miami's Game 2 win, he scored 19 more and added seven rebounds and nine assists. In Game 3, it was 32 points, eight rebounds, five assists. He brought it every night. His game is ascending in playoff season, and he shows no sign of being the disappearing act that he's been in postseasons before.
Whether that will be enough — whether James, through brute force and ability, will be able to carry his team to where he's never gone before — is the question that will be answered throughout the next few weeks. With Wade and plenty of other capable teammates, the only outlier is how James will perform this time. He's stopped trying to be someone he isn't, but is who he is enough?
James took more heat before Game 2 on the news that he had sought out Magic Johnson for advice on winning a championship, a very un-champion-like thing to do. James may wonder what all the fuss is about. He may ask it in the same voice he used in the Nike commercial that aired after he jilted Cleveland, when he asked fans, "What should I do?"
Kobe would never ask that, and Jordan definitely wouldn't. Few with the killer instinct would ever seek to please the crowd or the critics on a blinder-focused march to glory.
The answer fans have been giving James' "What should I do?" since his first day in the NBA is simple: "Go and get it. Don't just call yourself the king. Be one."
It may be too much to ask James to be the king, to go for the kill. But if he keeps playing this way, he may not need to be. He may win it all by just being himself.
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