This was LeBron James in 2007, after he failed his first course in NBA Finals education, thoroughly schooled by the San Antonio Spurs:
“I have to get better. I have to get 10 times better.”
This was James in 2013, in the afterglow of capturing his fourth conference championship, one that will put the NBA’s prized pupil right back in Professor Popovich’s classroom, with a bit less hair and a lot more game:
“I’m a much better player. I’m 20, 40, 50 times better than I was in the ’07 Finals.”
He is not that much bigger or stronger.
He is more skilled, more versatile.
But, mostly, he is smarter.
This is one of the countless reasons why there couldn’t be a better conclusion to this season than this Heat-Spurs series, one that will be as much of an intellectual exercise as a physical confrontation. Forget Indiana’s gold swagger, and all the posturing and pushing that occurred during the Eastern Conference finals.
The 2013 NBA Finals will pit the gold standard of players against the gold standard of coaches, and that competition should capsulize just how far the first has come. This is a celebration of the cerebral, a battle of wits, not words, between two men who think ahead of the curve and couldn’t think more highly of each other.
It was Popovich, after all, who most openly mocked the media for their obsession with James’ supposed lack of late-game aggressiveness, doing so during visits to Miami in October and November, and doing so again at All-Star weekend.
“None of the people talking about what he should do have near a clue of what the position is like that he’s in to make the decision,” Popovich scoffed. “And if anybody’s going to make a good decision, it’s going to be LeBron James.
“What people will say now is that he finally gets it, because he’s doing this or he’s doing that. The story will change depending on what people want the story to be. The facts are, from the very beginning, he’s done whatever he thought best to win a game.”
James, for his part, has repeatedly classified Popovich “among the greatest coaches ever,” who has admired the way Popovich “holds his players accountable” and yet “is always in tune with his players,” who has used Popovich’s teams as a model for his own squad’s patience and unselfishness.
“I love great basketball,” James said. “The way that they play, as a basketball fan, how could you not like the way they play the game of basketball?”
It was James, after all, who scolded himself for taking for granted his time under Popovich, an assistant on the 2004 Olympic team.
“I was young, so I wasn’t really into the mental game of the game yet,” James admitted.
He wasn’t in 2007, not nearly like he is now, and he had a shallow supporting cast, featuring Boobie Gibson, Drew Gooden and Sasha Pavlovic. In those NBA Finals he was defended primarily by Bruce Bowen and averaged 22.0 points on just 35.6 percent shooting as the Cavaliers averaged only 80.5 points per game. Popovich and the Spurs, three of whom remain the same, swept him away.
“My Cleveland team, we were very young and we went up against a very experienced team, well-coached team,” James said. “And they took advantage of everything they did.”
These days, James dictates, and he does so because he knows enough about the tape and the tendencies to understand every possibility of every play — what every person on the floor has done, should do or could do, and how the time and score might alter all of it.
You can bet that Popovich has been plotting for eight days, since the Spurs eliminated the Grizzlies to advance to these NBA Finals, to show James something slightly different, just enough to make him think twice about what would otherwise come naturally.
Popovich will probably give the opening assignment in Game 1 Thursday to Kahwi Leonard, a long-armed, quickly-improving defender whom he – hardly charitable with compliments – has occasionally compared to the accomplished Bowen.
“The only thing that ever makes a star uncomfortable is the individual matchup,” ESPN/ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. “Do you have a guy who has the belief, the instincts, the basketball IQ, the mental toughness that can withstand the assault that (James will) bring? The length. All those characteristics.
“Do you have a guy like that who wants the challenge? And, then, if you have a guy like that, or a couple guys like that, then you can do a couple things. Not anything he hasn’t seen. But to try to take away what he does the very best.”
We’ll see if Leonard can be that guy, and for how long. Otherwise, be assured that Popovich has Plans B through Z prepared.
“I think they have a matchup that gives them a chance,” Van Gundy said of the Spurs. “Now, you’re not stopping LeBron James, but you want to at least make him work for it, reduce his efficiency somewhat.”
You want to stump the star, if just for a second, even if that was so much easier six years ago.