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Miami's LeBron James shares what's different about this time

Superstar known for his skills, and ego, is on verge of redemption; the Heat leads Oklahoma City, 3-1, in the Finals. He says he has matured and learned from his mistakes to lead team to this point.

June 20, 2012|By Ben Bolch

MIAMI — The table with black drapes might as well have been a black leather couch.

The army of reporters who sat before LeBron James might as well have been a phalanx of psychologists.

For roughly 10 minutes Wednesday, the Miami Heat forward provided a rare glimpse into the psyche of a superstar on the verge of redemption.

James is one victory away from a championship, an achievement that could silence — for the moment, at least — critics who cringed when he uttered such phrases as "I'm going to take my talents to South Beach" and "Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven" when asked about the Heat's bid to win multiple NBA titles when he signed with the team in July 2010.

The player widely regarded as having an ego even bigger than his outsized talent could obliterate five years' worth of regrets Thursday at AmericanAirlines Arena when Miami plays the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

A victory by the Heat would give James his first championship after two Finals flops.

"I have a job to do," James said Wednesday, "and my job is not done."

Some might say it's just getting started.

In a wide-ranging interview, James was unusually introspective about topics including his new reading program, his kinship with Hakeem Olajuwon and lessons learned from past Finals failures.

Oh, and the leg cramps James experienced in Game 4 that twice forced him to the bench in the fourth quarter? They shouldn't be an issue in Game 5. "I'm still a little sore because of the muscles' just kind of being at an intense level, very tight," James said. But … "I should be fine by [Thursday] night."

James also acknowledged the errors of his largely mysterious ways in two previous Finals appearances. He "was inexperienced" with Cleveland in 2007, when the Cavaliers were swept by the San Antonio Spurs. And he hadn't grown up enough last year when the Dallas Mavericks rallied from a 2-1 deficit to polish off the Heat with three consecutive victories.

"I was very hurt that I let my teammates down, and I was very immature," James said. "I played to prove people wrong instead of just playing my game, instead of just going out and having fun and playing a game that I grew up loving."

James has rekindled his love of basketball this season, in part by devouring books during the playoffs. He has read "The Hunger Games" trilogy and rapper Jay-Z's "Decoded," in addition to Jerry West's autobiography.

Books, James said, "give me an opportunity just to read and think about something else, and get a sense of what else is going on besides the game of basketball. It's made me comfortable. I'm not saying it's the trick. It's just something that I decided to do at the beginning of the postseason, and it's worked for me."

So has building a relationship with Olajuwon.

James traveled to Houston last year to meet with the former Rockets legend, who advised him to seek more easy baskets in the post and "to continue to have fun."

He has obliged, to the point that he said expectations no longer bother him.

"The pressure?" James asked. "I haven't really felt it that much. Last year it was much more than it is today."

All the strain now seems to fall on Oklahoma City, the typically high-scoring team that has failed to break 100 points in three consecutive games.

The Thunder has not found much production other than from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

James Harden, the NBA's sixth man of the year, is averaging a relatively meager 10.8 points per game in the Finals while shooting 35.1%. Oklahoma City has made only 21 of 77 (27.3%) three-pointers. Defensive stalwarts Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have combined for only 12 blocks in the four games.

Durant also has struggled in the fourth quarters since the series shifted to Miami. After averaging 16.5 points in the first two games, Durant has averaged 5.5 points while making four of nine shots combined in the fourth quarters of Games 3 and 4.

"They're loading up, they're fronting, and they've got somebody sitting in my lap when I'm trying to catch the ball," Durant said. "There's a lot of people around me."

James figures to be surrounded by a mob of adoring teammates and fans if the Heat can finish the Finals with a flourish.

Not that James is thinking ahead.

"The human nature is to automatically think about after we win it, what are we going to do," said James, who is averaging a robust 29.3 points in the Finals. "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."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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