"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." -- Gregg Popovich on LeBron James
MIAMI -- Dwyane Wade was holding court at his practice day press conference as Wade does, which is to say that he was smooth, charming and engaging. His calm demeanor and effortless presentation in these settings is perhaps one of the reasons why his late-season slide isn't held up to closer scrutiny.
That may sound like a knock on Wade but it's really not. It's just a part of the superstar package that he has developed during his career. If all players were as good with the press as Wade, reporters would have far less to grumble about. It goes without saying that writers live to complain about everything.
From somewhere off stage left a voice cried out, "Huuuuuurrrry up!"
It was LeBron James, having some fun. A few minutes later, James ushered Wade off the podium holding an NBA TV camera looking for all the world to see like a man without a care. (Wade later one-upped LeBron by sneaking into the back of the room and manning a camera station while James spoke, cracking him up in the process.)
At one point during his session, James was asked about some comments he made before the series started about not being forced to do things on the court that he didn't want to do and then some that he made after Game 1 about how the Spurs made him be a passer.
"I was waiting for one of you guys this year," James said. "The literal journalists."
There is no catching him off guard this time. We are free to fire away with our questions and suggestions and our suggestions that are posing as questions and he is free to bat them away with a champion's prerogative.
The press conference is one of the odder entities involved with playing in an event like the Finals. On the one hand it means nothing. The Heat's easygoing banter was offset a few moments later by an appearance of Salty Pop. One would have never guessed that the Spurs actually won Game 1 or that the Heat were facing, as Wade put it, "a must-win game" on Sunday.
On the other, it's a small window into the minds of the participants and if you dig in deep enough you can find all kind of subtle maneuvering and plot points. Example: James suggested that he could tell by looking at Wade where he's "at in the game."
"I don't know if it's maybe his knee or maybe frustrated at times or maybe he's just not in the rhythm," James said. "But I can see it on his face when he's there. That's what I told him, even if sometimes you're not in the rhythm, I need to see your face that you're in tune and you're ready for the next possession and ready to move on from whatever is going on. For me as one of the leaders of the team who has the ball in his hands a lot, I have to do my part as well to help them, I guess, get that face, where he feels like he's involved, and where he feels like he's a part of everything that's going on, both offensively and defensively."
This was, essentially, James establishing himself as the team's focal point and conscience while subtly calling attention to Wade's struggles. These are two things that everyone who has been paying attention already knows, but it was also a point that he felt needed to be reinforced.
It's debatable whether LeBron would have felt comfortable enough to express these feelings three years ago, although longtime Heat observers say that his approach fundamentally changed after the disappointing loss to the Mavs in the 2011 Finals. He needed another edge and he found it by blocking out the noise that comes with being the most scrutinized player on the planet on the most carefully watched team.
Reporter: A lot of people when they watch you in a game where your team falls short, maybe you don't score at the end.
James: "I should have done more, right?"
Reporter: Should have done more. Triple‑double not quite enough for you.
Reporter: When you hear that, do you think, I need to be more aggressive or do you know you need to be more aggressive?
James: "No, I can't get involved in that honestly, because I've done more and lost before. I mean, we played Orlando -- when I was in Cleveland we played Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals and I think I averaged 38, 36 (points) or whatever I averaged. I guess I should have done more in that series as well. But I can't.
"I can't really get involved or care. I don't really read too much. I know what I say to you guys and I know the questions you guys ask me, but I don't really read too much of what people say. I do what's best for the team. What's best for the team, it doesn't always result in a win."
In that casual give-and-take, LeBron turned the narrative upside down by reminding everyone that when he did have to do practically everything by himself it didn't turn out so well, while also expressing a calm confidence in himself and his methods. Left unsaid was that four points were all that separated us from raining glory upon a truly versatile Game 1 performance and praising James for letting the game come to him.
After a calendar year that saw him win his first title, lead the United States team to an Olympic gold medal and turn in perhaps his finest regular season en route to a fourth MVP award in five years, he has earned that right. Perhaps more importantly, by not only filtering out the noise but dealing it with head-on he has removed one more distraction from a world that is filled with them.
It's a change that's been noticeable for some time and not just by those around South Florida. No less an authority than the Spurs coach picked up on it as well.
"All the chirp, chirp, chirping about what he should have done, I thought it was hilarious from the beginning," Popovich said. "Frankly, I was very happy for him as the year progressed when it became obvious he was comfortable in his own skin and didn't need to listen to any of you all."
None of this will help James deal with the Spurs' front-loaded defensive scheme. It will not help him execute a 1-4 pick and roll and it won't make Wade or Chris Bosh more effective. It is, however, a step in his evolution as a public figure and if he is vindicated on Sunday it won't be the first time.