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Why this NBA title is the most impressive one yet for Lakers, LeBron
SportsPulse: The Lakers and LeBron are back on top. LA gets their 17th. LeBron get his 4th. Both should look at this championship for what it is- arguably their most impressive feat yet.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Three years ago, LeBron James uttered peculiar words after he won the Eastern Conference championship and advanced to the NBA Finals for the seventh consecutive time.
“What else do I have to prove?” James asked. “Seriously, what else would I have (to do)? I’ve won championships. I won my first one, and I’ve won for my teammates. I came home and won. There isn’t anything I have left to prove.”
Maybe that was true in 2017. Maybe it was his way of trying to minimize criticism in case he lost another Finals, which he did that season and the following year.
But midway through his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018-19, an injury changed James’ mind. He missed 17 games with a bad groin and reconsidered his stance.
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In the glow of his fourth NBA championship — via a 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the Finals on Sunday — James sat in a chair with a cigar, smoke wafting in the non-smoking arena.
“Thinking I have something to prove fuels me,” he said. “It fueled me over this last year-and-a-half since the injury. It fueled me because no matter what I’ve done in my career to this point, there’s still little rumblings of doubt or comparing me to the history of the game. And has he done this? Has he done that? So having that in my head, having that in my mind, saying to myself, ‘Why not still have something to prove?’ I think it fuels me.”
That aligns more with what he told Sports Illustrated in 2016 following his championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers. “My motivation,” James said, “is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.”
James and Michael Jordan are forever linked because they are the two greatest to ever play the game, and despite being different types of players in different eras, James can’t escape the talk and he knows it.
This isn’t to compare the two because that’s been done, and it won’t change anyone’s mind. As ABC NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy said, “comparison is the thief of joy.”
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What James is trying to show is that no matter how many championships he wins or loses, he is painting an original.
“I’ve been able to, I guess as Frank Sinatra would say, I did it my way,” James said after Los Angeles eliminated Denver in the Western Conference finals.
It is a remarkable 17-year career — he has great seasons left, too — that began in Cleveland. He won his first two titles in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, altering free agency with unprecedented player power. Then he went back to Cleveland and brought a championship to the Cavs, the city and northeast Ohio, coming back from a 3-1 Finals deficit to beat Golden State.
After eight consecutive Finals appearances — four with Miami and four with Cleveland — he wanted to play for one the league’s iconic franchises. He chose the Lakers.
And in his second season, he won his fourth title and third with three teams and won his fourth Finals MVP, becoming the first player to win the award with three teams.
You hear coaches talk about how difficult it is to win a regular-season game and how much more difficult it is to win a playoff game. James has played in 10 Finals, including nine of the past 10. That in itself is amazing and a feat that may not be repeated. No one in NBA history has won more playoff games than him.
And it’s just not the geographical hopscotching that makes James’ career unique. It’s the way he plays the game, too. He is unapologetic about making the right basketball play even if it means passing to a wide-open teammate who misses a game-winning shot.
The nitpicking misses the greatness.
“The way I play the game, how I was taught to play the game when I picked up a basketball when I was 8 years old, it’s OK to play that way and be able to win,” James said. “No matter how many people tell you, ‘You should maybe shoot more, you should maybe do this more, you should maybe be like him more,’ it let me know that the way I play basketball and the way I was taught to play basketball is the right way to play it because you do see results.”
James didn’t indicate if he still feels he has something to prove. But he probably does.
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.