MIAMI _ The numbers are back for LeBron James. But this time it has nothing to do with, ". . . not three, not four, not five . . .," although this latest return to the NBA Finals could move his championship counter from one to two and closer to the progression he anticipated when he joined the Miami Heat in 2010.
No, this time it's about where he stands as he prepares for a second championship round against the San Antonio Spurs, having been swept out of the 2007 NBA Finals by Tim Duncan & Co. while with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"I'm a much better player," James said, bolstered by the confidence of last season's championship run and this third consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals. "I'm 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the '07 Finals."
And better supported. In those 2007 Finals, the Cavaliers' second-leading scorer was Drew Gooden, with Daniel Gibson as Cleveland's third-leading scorer, in a series the Cavaliers could only muster 80.5 points per game.
Now there is Dwyane Wade, coming off his Game 7 revival against the Indiana Pacers, and Chris Bosh, and his improved confidence, at least from a rebounding perspective. And instead of Sasha Pavlovic, Damon Jones and Donyell Marshall, there are veteran, proven quantities alongside in Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Chris Andersen.
"I think our team is more experienced, first of all," James said, before taking Tuesday off, to return to AmericanAirlines Arena for Wednesday's media day and then Thursday's 9 p.m. series opener against the visiting Spurs. "My Cleveland team, we were very young, and we went up against a very experienced team, well-coached team. And they took advantage of everything that we did.
"I think for this team, this is our third year advancing to The Finals, so we're very experienced, as well. We're not young; we're not inexperienced. We understand the opportunity that we have."
It took James four years to get back to the Finals, an equally distressing series, when the Heat were dumped by the Dallas Mavericks in six games in 2011.
But then came last season's 4-1 Finals win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, and now this opportunity to back up last year's title.
As was the case in last season's Finals, James said he arrives in a better place, no longer acting as a villain, as he attempted in his first Heat season, when he arrived with the hubris of his ". . . not three, not four, not five . . ." championship forecast.
"Ever since I lost the Finals to Dallas, my mind frame changed that offseason," he said of shutting the curtains to the outside world for weeks after the 2011 Finals. "I just wanted to get back to playing the game that I love and have fun and play it at a high level.
"So my mindset has been the same since we lost to Dallas. I'm looking forward to it."
After falling to the Mavericks, James hit the low-point of his black-hat approach, when he said after being eliminated, "All the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live."
And then there was Tuesday night, when there not only were 32 points of personal brilliance in the closeout victory over the Pacers, but also a concerted effort to shake Wade and Bosh out of their collective malaise. And this time, there was a different perspective, words not about himself, but about Bella Rodriguez-Torres, the 10-year-old South Florida Heat fan who died days earlier after a six-year fight with cancer.
"At the end of the day," he said of Tuesday's victory and what will come next, "it is just a basketball game. There are so many things in life that happen that you can just put the game, you can put life, in perspective. Like I said the other day with the little girl that passed away, "Live Like Bella" that we had on our shoes, a little girl that passed away here in South Florida. Once again that just put the game of basketball _ it's just a game _ it put life in perspective."
This time, LeBron vs. Spurs is different. Greater support in the lineup. Arriving with the first of what he still hopes will be many championship rings. A changed outlook.
"I'm happy I'm able to play this game at the highest level," he said. "I love to compete. I love to represent what basketball stands for. But I don't put too much added pressure on myself, because I know it's just a game."