Miami • With six simple words, LeBron James explained the philosophy behind the way he now plays the game.
"I've done more and lost before."
Such was the response to a question presented to him Saturday one day before he and the Miami Heat take on the San Antonio Spurs and try to even the NBA Finals at a game apiece about the perception that he needs to be more aggressive at times. It was almost as though he was waiting for such a query, because he had his answer at the ready.
In short, James has put up awesome numbers in past playoffs but never got the awesome result he sought for nearly a decade until last season, when he and the Heat won a title.
"When I was in Cleveland we played Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals and I think I averaged 38, 36, or whatever I averaged," James said, referring to the 2009 series where he averaged 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8 assists. "I guess I should have done more in that series as well. But I can't. … I do what's best for the team. What's best for the team, it doesn't always result in a win."
Case in point: Orlando won that series in six games.
Case in point again: James had a triple-double, one of the longtime gold standards in defining an outstanding all-around basketball game, in Game 1 of these Finals against the Spurs an 18-point, 18-rebound, 10-assist effort. But it came in a loss in which he took only 16 shots, so the second-guessing was predictable and prevalent.
And on Saturday, James' style of play got defended not just by those on his side, but also by the guy leading the other side.
"He's a grown man," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He doesn't need any of you to tell him anything. He knows more than all of you put together. He understands the game. If he makes a pass and you all think he should have shot it, or he shoots it and you think he should have made a pass, your opinions mean nothing to him, as they should not mean anything to him."
James will be judged by history when he leaves the game. But for now, he's often judged against his own history.
Perhaps the most memorable game of his Miami tenure was Game 6 of last season's Eastern Conference finals at Boston, when he put up a 45-point, 15-rebound effort to simply dominate the Celtics and force a Game 7 which the Heat won for a trip to the NBA Finals. It's often forgotten that he scored 45 points in a playoff game at Boston once before, in what was the final game of Cleveland's 2007-08 season.
"The Game 6 in Boston, I mean, that was LeBron James Show," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "We did our job defensively, but we gave him the ball and got … out of the way. That was the moment, us being able to go into that game and for him to perform the way he did and us being able to dominate the way we did, that was the moment I said, 'Yeah, we're a championship team.'"
Still, Wade was asked, isn't it unfair to expect that level of James in every game?
"Well, yeah," Wade said. "But LeBron can do whatever he wants. He can control the game in any number of ways."
James created a stir during this year's East finals when he said he had to revert to his Cleveland way of thinking and assume more of the offensive workload. That was when Chris Bosh was struggling and Wade was particularly slowed by the right knee pain that he's battled unsuccessfully at times for about three months.
After all, when he left Cleveland as a free agent after seven seasons and came to Miami in 2010, he said he wanted to be part of a better overall team that could contend every year for titles. And clearly, given that the Heat are in the finals for the third time in three seasons and have a chance to win back-to-back titles, he's gotten his wish.
"I wish we could go 16-0 in the playoffs," James said. "That would be awesome. There's challenges that come from the game. You learn from game to game in ways that you can get better. I want to win just as bad as anyone. I'm going to put myself and my team in a position to win. I have to try to make the plays. I can't worry about if people are saying, 'You should have done more, you should have been more aggressive' because you got a loss."
As for what's in store for Game 2, James insists he does not know.
He often has said he doesn't predetermine how he's going to play try to score more, pass more before a game and just lets the flow and what his team ultimately needs be his guide. And he's reiterated that stance between Games 1 and 2 of this series.
As long as Miami wins, his stat line, he insists, will not matter.
"The Spurs did a good job of shrinking the floor ... so if that's their game plan, we're going to continue to exploit that," James said. "And I believe our guys will be there to knock those shots down. But there's also a few plays I could have been more aggressive as well. But Game 1, I think I improve as the series goes on as well, seeing ways I can be more aggressive from possession to possession."