By Dylan Barmmer
“This is very overwhelming to me as an individual award, but this is not the award I want, ultimately. I want that championship. That’s all that matters to me.” --LeBron James, upon being named NBA MVP on May 12, 2012
He is closer now. And he appears hungrier than ever before.
LeBron James claimed his third NBA MVP trophy in the past four years by averaging 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.8 blocks in his second season in a HEAT uniform. He shot a career-best 53.1 percent from the floor and led the HEAT to a 46-20 mark and a second consecutive Southeast Division title during a grueling, lockout-compressed campaign. In receiving 85 of 121 first-place votes, James became only the eighth player in NBA history to win MVP honors at least three times, joining Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlin, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Moses Malone and the player he has often drawn comparisons to, Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
But as great as James was during the regular season, he's been even greater during the 2012 NBA Playoffs. And as the challenges and pressure have mounted with each subsequent round, James has elevated his game to new levels each time.
From a purely statistical level, the progression looks like this, with both James' scoring and rebounding averages rising in stride with the stakes:
--Averages of 27.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.2 steals in 5 games against the New York Knicks. James scored 30 or more points twice in that series and did not register a 10-rebound game. He handed out 5 or more assists 3 times.
--Averages of 30.0 points, 10.8 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 2.7 steals and 0.7 blocks in 6 games against the Indiana Pacers. James scored 30 or more points three times (including 40 points in Game 4) and grabbed 10 or more rebounds three times. James grabbed 15 or more boards twice in that series, including a playoff-high 18 in that same Game 4. James also handed out at least 5 assists in 5 of the 6 games.
--Averages of 33.6 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks in 7 games against the Boston Celtics. James scored 30 or more points in 6 of the 7 games (including playoff-high 45 in Game 6) and grabbed 10 rebounds or more five times. In the one game James failed to reach the 30-point mark, he scored 29. He also grabbed 12 boards or more four times, including in each of the last three games. And perhaps most impressively, James racked up at least 30 points and 10 rebounds together in the same game five times.
So if you're scoring at home, that's 11 games of 30 or more points in 18 total playoff games. Eight games with at least 10 rebounds. Eleven games with at least 5 assists. And postseason averages of 30.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.8 blocks. In other words, even James' average is about as far above average as you can get.
Of course, elite athletic competition is about more than just statistics. James' eye-popping numbers throughout the HEAT's postseason run don't completely illustrate just how dominant, active, versatile and valuable he has been, particularly on defense. And James' awesome averages in this last series -- he became the first player since Shaquille O'Neal in the 2000 NBA Finals to have six 30-point games in a playoff series -- are even more impressive when you consider they came against a veteran, battle-tested Celtics team in the Eastern Conference Finals, with a trip to the NBA Finals hanging in the balance.
When the Celtics won the middle three games to take a commanding 3-2 lead and push the HEAT to the brink of elimination, James donned a serious game face and stormed out the gates to lead his team to back-to-back wins by averaging 38.0 points, 13.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists.
James' overpowering 45-point, 15-rebound, 5-assist performance in Game 6 was only the second time such a stat line had been recorded in NBA playoff history. The other player to reach such staggering heights? Wilt Chamberlain.
James doesn't possess the same towering presence as the 7-foot-1 Chamberlin did, but his game can be every bit as huge. And in that pivotal Game 6 road win on June 7, it was absolutely gigantic.
Playing in front of a rowdy Boston crowd and facing playoff elimination, James made 12 of his first 13 shots en route to an incredible 19-of-26 shooting performance in that game. He scored 14 first-quarter points and added 16 more in the second quarter, setting a HEAT playoff scoring record for a first half. James and the HEAT would wear down the Celtics and roll to a 98-79 victory and another shot at a Finals appearance -- which James helped deliver with 31 points, 12 rebounds and 2 assists in a 101-88 Game 7 win at AmericanAirlines Arena.
"He was absolutely brilliant this series, and we all know it," said HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra. "He's playing at an historic level during the playoffs, driving us with his will...He is pushing himself beyond his limits, and he's pushing the rest of the team as well."
Of course, the final chapter of this sizzling story remains to be written. James and his hungry HEAT teammates will begin to author an ending starting Tuesday, June 12 in Oklahoma City. Awaiting them will be the deep, fast, athletic and energetic Thunder and Kevin Durant, who led the NBA in scoring at 28.0 points a game and finished second in MVP voting to James. And Durant has been penning his own personal passion play in these playoffs, scoring 30 or more points and grabbing at least 10 rebounds six times in 15 games.
The stakes have been raised once again. And James looks ready to continue elevating his own game.
He wants that championship. And it is now only four wins away.