Sir Isaac Newton died more than a century before Dr. James Naismith ever hung that first peach basket up in Springfield, Mass., but he still may have levied the same criticisms against LeBron James as so many other basketball pundits and fans after the 2011 NBA Finals.
Whether inspired by offseason with Hakeem Olajuwan, the ceaseless verbal swipes of Skip Bayless or perhaps even Newton's second law of motion, James has altered his game and his tactics to become an unstoppable force in the 2012 NBA Finals.
Newton's second law of motion states that Force equals the product of Mass and Acceleration. The results over five games of aggressive play indicate that when James gets his impressive mass accelerating from the perimeter into the paint that he is a force to be reckoned with. While that formula might not impress any physics professors, it certainly was too much for the Oklahoma City Thunder to handle.
James entered this best-of-seven series with the Thunder with 10 career Finals games on his resume. In those games, he topped 30 points zero times. In Game 1 of the 2012 Finals, he dropped 30. In Game 2, he poured in 32. In Game 3, he went off for 29. Entering the final minutes of Game 4, James was on 21 points before he was waylaid by leg cramps. Despite sitting out the final 55 seconds, James netted a team-high 26 points as the Heat got one step closer to the Larry O'Brien Trophy. In the title-clinching Game 5 triumph, James again went for 26 along with 11 rebounds and 13 assists. In every game in this series, he scored more points than he had in any game during his previous trips to the Finals. Similarly, he's produced career Finals bests in rebounds and assists, too.
The key to James' Finals success is a dogged determination to attack the paint in order to make "game-changing plays," as he likes to put it. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he has scored 15 or more points in the paint in the first four games of the series. He opened the scoring in Game 5 with a dunk and went on to make eight more shots in the paint as the Heat ran off to a 121-106 win. By comparison, he averaged just 8.7 points per game in the paint as the Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the '11 Finals.
Perhaps no stretch better epitomized James' earlier Finals tentativeness than the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the 2011 Finals, when he failed to score a point as the Mavericks rallied to win the game and tie the series. Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated best captured James' ineffectual performance by describing him as "a bizarre mix of James Jones, spotting up in the corner while the big boys did the work, and a ho-hum point guard running endless pick-and-rolls but unable (or unwilling) to penetrate into the lane."
With such a tepid performance in the Heat's 4-2 loss to the Mavericks coming less than a year after "The Decision," James was excoriated and mocked. While he hadn't set the world on fire against the San Antonio Spurs in 2007, that was different. At the time, James was 22 years old and playing for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. That he would return to the Finals and eventually bring a title back home with him seemed likely. A subsequent move to Miami, made one of those things an impossibility while his play made the other seem anything but a certainty.
By delivering an assertive, alpha-male performance in the 2012 NBA Finals, James has gotten the train back on the tracks and running full steam ahead. Yes, his off-balance jumper at the end of regulation against the Celtics in Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals seemed straight from the 2011 lowlight reel and he occasionally got away from his attacking style against the Thunder. But James did, by and large, play just like his fans hoped he would and his critics said he couldn't.
From 2007 through 2012, take a look back at each of James' Finals games and see how he has evolved.