After facing so much criticism for his past playoff failures, LeBron James has led the Miami Heat to two-straight championships and has them on the verge of a dynasty.
While James wasn't always at his best throughout the postseason and had some especially rough stretches in the Finals, he rose to the occasion when it mattered most and brought another title to Miami. And now he can also cross "Winning an NBA Finals Game 7" off his bucket list after a 37-point, 13-rebound effort.
What's really impressive is that LeBron's "sub-par" Finals would be incredible for most players. James averaged 25.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists while shooting 45 percent from the field. Darn good numbers -- he had a pair of triple-doubles! -- but almost pedestrian for James. The guy has set such a high bar for himself that anything less than near perfection is criticized.
James' Game 6 went a good 36 minutes before The King put on his crown. He scored 16 of his 32 points after the third quarter, hit a three-pointer to set up Ray Allen's game-tying three that forced overtime and did his part in silencing Spurs point guard Tony Parker. His sudden assertiveness turned a Spurs title into a one-game fight for the championship that Miami won.
And then, MAN, LeBron's Game 7. The Spurs kept up their strategy of giving him space, but instead of hesitating and clanging jumpers, James drilled them. He hit five threes and an array of open mid-range looks, including the bucket that sealed the deal by turning a two-point lead into a four-point lead with under a minute to go. That got the Heat the title and LeBron another well-deserved Finals MVP trophy.
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In this age of social media, it almost feels like every single play has an effect on James' legacy, even though it shouldn't be that way. Every time James fails or defers late in games, he's labeled a choker by some despite proving just how clutch he is. All he can do to silence the naysayers is win, and that's exactly what he has done the past two years.
The comparisons to Michael Jordan will likely never stop, although James and M.J. are very different players. Nevertheless, with every ring James wins, he gets closer to Jordan in terms of legacy. And after Thursday night, they're the only two players ever to win regular-season MVP and Finals MVP in back-to-back seasons.
James has others to surpass before the Jordan talk should be an issue. During the All-Star break, James was asked to respond to Jordan's proclamation that he'd take Kobe Bryant over James because the Lakers star had more rings. James responded by pointing out that rings don't define greatness. Just as a Charles Barkley isn't lesser than Jud Buechler because of a jewelry count, James isn't chasing Devean George.
But it's hard to imagine James even being in the subjective conversation of labeling the greatest ever without him winning more rings.
So in the relatively modern era, James is chasing Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal's four titles each, Bryant's five and Jordan's six.
Even within the current state of the game, James is fighting off a ring-less Kevin Durant while playing catch-up to Bryant and Duncan. Beating the Spurs certainly puts a likely halt to Duncan and the dynasty created in San Antonio. It also announces the potential for the Heat's own dynasty to begin -- as in, 2012 wasn't a one-time deal.
Duncan sits on four rings to go with five-combined finals and regular-season MVP awards. Whereas James unseated Duncan in terms of the latter with his sixth career MVP award on Thursday, he has inched within a reasonable two-title deficit of Duncan in the former. It also narrowed the gap with Bryant. It's hard to see the Lakers challenging for another championship, which gives James a reasonable about of time to catch Kobe, considering their respective ages.
And that's how much Game 7's outcome was worth in terms of the legacy narrative. While it reeled in Bryant, it was also a two-title swing in James' favor when comparing him to Duncan.
Bryant and Duncan are reaching the end of their careers. James has so much more time to continue writing his legacy. Thus far, he's already there.
-Kevin Zimmerman and Rodger Sherman contributed to this piece.