Commentary

LeBron James, poised for next stage

With a closing touch in the NBA Finals, Heat star can disarm vociferous critics

Originally Published: June 12, 2012
By Israel Gutierrez | ESPN.com

If you haven't noticed amidst all this incredible basketball we've seen lately and the anticipation surrounding these star-studded NBA Finals, there seems to be a shift in the public perception and overall feelings toward LeBron James.

Now, there's no official method for determining these kinds of judgments (although there have been actual surveys taken and formulas devised to put a ranking on which athletes are hated most in this country, which is both incredibly mean-spirited and entirely unnecessary), but it does appear as if James, in his second year in Miami, has done as much as he possibly can to change that extremely negative public opinion of him, which became a worldwide trend the second he announced his free agency Decision.

James has changed his approach toward the media, going from largely defensive to largely bland, which is a tried-and-true way to stay out of trouble.

He has reintroduced the joyful element to his game, a mission he declared top priority before the season ever started.

And most recently, he delivered exactly what we've all wanted to see from James, lifting his team against difficult odds with a pair of grand performances -- one of them arguably his greatest performance, considering all factors.

Even those with a default hate mode toward LeBron have to consider reconfiguring when he's entertaining this way in moments this big.

There really would seem to be only one step left before LeBron can turn that public perception around entirely.

He has to close.

He needs to close out a tight, important game, possibly even with a buzzer-beater, possibly even in these Finals. He has done that before, yes, but he has had so many failures since that it has become the top criticism of him, the source of so many jokes that coming up with fresh ones is a challenge even for actual comedians.

And more importantly, he needs to close out a championship run. Ideally this one, of course, to avoid another year of tired jokes and building pressures, but any one will do.

Because once that's done, what would be left to hate?

Of course, anyone could choose to still dislike James no matter how stellar his play or how many rings he collects. But once he has shed those final holes in his résumé/reputation, any hatred directed toward him would be viewed as simple jealousy by fans of other teams -- teams James would very likely be stepping over.

The criticism of James would carry very little weight, if any at all, once he's able to do that.

And he appears well on his way.

Already you could feel a softening in the harsh feelings toward James as he finished off his third MVP season and started the playoffs with a ferocity that's hard not to like.

He opened the postseason making 10 of 14 shots against the Knicks. He dropped 40 with 18 rebounds in a must-have road win against Indiana to even that series at 2-2.

But nothing in those first two rounds helped LeBron soften the lingering animosity toward him like the last two games of the conference finals.

With the weight of a championship-or-bust season and possibly of his legacy on the line, the potential future of his team and his head coach arguably in his hands, and in a TD Garden where he has experienced the most pain as a professional, James provided the exact kind of performance you'd expect from a player of his caliber.

It wasn't historic. Wasn't unprecedented.

It was simply needed.

James hadn't been in a situation that extreme in his career, with the closest scenario being that Game 5 in Detroit in 2007 when he may as well have been the only Cavalier on the court in the fourth quarter and two overtimes.

So putting up 45, 15 and 5 had to have melted some of the ice, even from the coldest of basketball fans (it didn't hurt at all that analyst Jeff Van Gundy kept wondering aloud during the telecast why James was so scrutinized).

Starting with that game, this essentially was the start of LeBron's 2012 Finals, because a loss in either Game 6 or 7 and his championship dreams would've been ruined in an even more painful manner than last season.

He showed up with the cold stare and never changed his demeanor, and there was a calculated approach. He had a plan. He executed the plan seemingly every time he touched the ball. He walked out of Boston with a career-redefining win.

The follow-up? The Game 7 that would either back up his Game 6 or make it entirely irrelevant?

Well, it wasn't nearly as cold, calculated or efficient. But here's where it helped shape him: LeBron wasn't hitting every shot he took. So rather than just keep taking them, he attacked almost every single time. He didn't pull up against a bigger defender such as Brandon Bass or Kevin Garnett. He forced the action, got to the free-throw line and earned 17 free throws.

That idea of him being frightened to shoot free throws in big moments was entirely shot down in this one. The foul line was where he preferred to be, actually. Sure, he missed five of them, but his attack mentality rarely wavered, and it eventually opened up opportunities for other scorers, including Chris Bosh, who scored his final five critical points off passes from James.

It's the attack mentality everyone wanted to see in big moments, but were so often let down by a pull-up jumper, regardless of whether those jumpers went through the rim or not.

He was bullish, not passive. He was involved, not just an observer, which he was for far too much of the Finals last year and for many late moments in the Game 5 home loss to Boston.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Mark D. Smith/US PresswireWith some image-redifining performances, LeBron James has fewer wince-inducing moments.

Games 6 and 7 against Boston helped from the performance standpoint, but James' work in this perception-shifting department has been a yearlong process.

Given how many poor choices he made while speaking to the media last season -- highlighted by the post-Finals comment essentially telling his critics "you wish you were me" -- it must be considered a surprise that James has been saying all the right things this year.

Just listening to him before Game 1 of the Finals, there wasn't much to take from his comments, other than the fact he very badly wants to start playing.

"I'm happy, and I'm humbled that I can actually be back in this position less than 12 months later to do a better job of making more plays, more game-changing plays out on the floor on a bigger stage," he said. "So we'll see what happens."

It was blah. But James' camp probably welcomes blah after last year's constant combustion.

He's framing the new portrait of himself and doing it well. He's essentially not giving anyone any ammunition. Not off the court, anyway.

Heck, he even decided to officially settle down, proposing to his long-time girlfriend.

If this keeps up, last season, the one with so many ill-timed comments and poorly phrased goofs, will eventually be dismissed as a one-year slip-up, excusable because he was going through the biggest transition of his life. Bigger than the jump from high school to NBA, because at least in that scenario he had a country supporting him, and he was in his comfort zone of northeast Ohio, surrounded by friends and family.

So what would be left to hate? What would be left to nitpick about the best talent in the league?

Those who choose to hang on to that post-Decision fury are clinging to every little possible criticism.

Close, and there won't be anything left to hang on to. To find flaws in him then would be like searching for flaws in the Mona Lisa or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It would be pointless and fall on deaf ears.

Close, and in a strange way, he can start writing his actual legacy.

We sometimes have to be reminded that Jordan didn't win his first title until his seventh season, as a 28-year-old.

Once LeBron begins his collection, we might one day have to be reminded just how tumultuous a path he took before beginning his run.

And by then, the hatred will very likely be a faint memory as well.

All he has to do is close.

Now would be a good time to do just that.

Israel Gutierrez is an NBA writer for ESPN.com.