Miami Heat small forward LeBron James, left, and shooting guard Dwyane Wade joke during practice, Wednesday, June 20, 2012, in Miami. The Heat play Game 5 against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
MIAMI — The only thing that can stop LeBron James’ championship coronation is another Thunder comeback.
LeBron is on LeBrink, a victory from winning his first NBA title. Appearing relaxed Wednesday, he said he has recovered well from the cramping issues that knocked him out of Game 4.
He apologized for his performance in last year’s NBA Finals and what he called his immaturity toward fans and media afterward. He appears completely different now, more comfortable on and off the court and seeming to have figured out everything it takes to become a champion.
He’s almost there, but won’t think about it until his Miami Heat have picked up one more victory.
“As crazy as it sounds, I haven’t got caught up in it,” James said. “I won’t get caught up in it because I’m not going to let, you know — the human nature is to automatically think about after we win it, what are we going to do. I’m not there. I won’t get there until those zeros hit and I see that we won.
“I’m the leader of this team, and I’m not comfortable right now. I’m comfortable in my game, but I’m not going to be comfortable until we seal this thing.”
The Heat have three cracks at it, starting with Game 5 on Thursday on their home floor. No team has overcome a 3-1 deficit in the finals, but the Thunder already wiped out one big hole just one round ago in the Western Conference finals.
“I’ve been down 0-2 against San Antonio and everybody said it was over then, and we won,” Kevin Durant said. “But it’s over with. That’s old. It’s a new series. We’ve got to be ready to come out here and try to get this Game 5 tomorrow. We’ll see what happens. We’re not going to give up. We’re going to keep fighting to the end and hopefully we can take this thing back to the crib.”
The series was hyped as a James-Durant matchup, the league’s MVP against its runner-up and scoring champion, the winner earning the right to be called best player in the game. They are fairly even in the box score but James is far ahead in the only place that matters to them: the scoreboard.
And somewhat surprisingly, he’s gotten more help from supporting players, from Shane Battier’s 17 points in Game 2 to Mario Chalmers’ 25 points in Game 4, including a huge basket after James was forced from the game for good. Meanwhile, Durant has watched Sixth Man of the Year James Harden miss 16 of his 20 shots in Miami.
“You know, everyone was excited to finally get an opportunity to see two of the best players go head to head, myself and KD, but for me personally, it’s not a head-to-head battle,” James said. “When I go out on the floor, I do want to dominate the guy in front of me, but this is a team game, and I have all the trust in my teammates, and I try to do everything that needs to be done individually to help our team win.”
He couldn’t do it in either of his first two finals appearances, his Cleveland Cavaliers getting swept by the Spurs in 2007and the Heat losing to Dallas in six games last year.
James joined the Heat in 2010 after Miami convinced him that he would have enough help to win a championship — more specifically, that he wouldn’t have to carry the load by himself, like he did so many times in Cleveland over his first seven seasons. The Heat were keeping Dwyane Wade, adding Chris Bosh and filling out the roster with a mix that would be best described as unconventional.
If that axiom — more options are better — needed proof, Game 4 provided it. James could not finish the game, though he returned after the first wave of cramps hit and delivered a tiebreaking 3-pointer. With James watching the final minute, Wade and Chalmers helped close out the Thunder, Miami winning 104-98 to move one win from the franchise’s second championship.
“This team, I think we understand that the moment is the biggest thing,” Wade said. “We’re excited about the possibility of playing better, doing things better defensively, but also offensively. We don’t feel like we’ve played our best game yet, and we feel that’s still to come.”
Oklahoma City’s losses in the last three games were by four, six and six points. A play here, a bounce there, this series might look a whole lot different. And that’s why the Western Conference champions are conceding nothing, especially since things seemed pretty bleak when they were behind 2-0 against a San Antonio team that had won 20 in a row. They went on to become the 15th NBA team to come back from that deficit.
“You know, this group of guys never give up, regardless of what happens,” said Russell Westbrook, who scored 43 points in Game 4. “We’ve been through many different situations throughout this playoffs. Just another task for us. We’ve just got to be ready to play for the next game.”
So will James.
He was his usual self in practice Wednesday, laughing with teammates while shooting a few free throws, looking at ease. And most important to Miami, he was moving without too much pain.
James had to be carried off the court in the fourth quarter of Game 4, unable to walk to the bench. A lot of fluids and rest later, some of the bounce was back in his step on Wednesday.
“I feel a lot better than I did last night. That’s clear,” James said. “I’m still a little (sore) because of the muscles just kind of being at an intense level, very tight. I’m still sore. I was able to get some treatment last night. I was able to get some treatment this morning. ... And also with the game being basically at midnight tomorrow night, I have all day tomorrow, too, to prepare. I should be fine by tomorrow night.”
It’s a 9 p.m. tipoff, actually, but the point is made.
By Thursday night, James will be ready for the championship stage. And so will his team. What started on Christmas Day in Dallas, watching the Mavericks hoist the banner that will forever commemorate their championship celebration on Miami’s home floor last year, could end as the perfect turnaround story for the Heat.
Or, it could be the start of another Thunder turnaround. A victory would force a Game 6 back in Oklahoma City, where they are 9-1 this postseason. That celebration that James wouldn’t consider Wednesday would become no sure thing if the Heat have to try to win it on the road.
“Game 5 is a Game 7 for us, you know, and it’s a must-win for them,” James said. “But it’s a must win for us, too, and as a leader of this team, I’ll approach it that way, and hopefully I won’t have to be dealing with cramps tomorrow night.”