Heat forward LeBron James is 1-2 in the NBA Finals and will face a Spurs team… (Rhona Wise / EPA )
MIAMI — He's always answering questions, often defending himself, scrutinized for the smallest slip-up or the slightest hint of humanity.
Being LeBron James can't be easy, but here we go again.
James is only 1-2 in the NBA Finals, finally breaking through with a championship last season, but the same questions are haranguing him after the Miami Heat needed all seven games to get rid of Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals.
With the NBA Finals starting Thursday, as the Heat plays host to San Antonio, will James somehow become the modern-day version of Jerry West, so great in so many ways but consistently unable to win often on the big stage for whatever reason? Or will he add another exclamation mark to last year's punishing championship over Oklahoma City?
And why does James still need to prove something over the next two weeks after winning most-valuable-player awards four of the last five years?
Perhaps because those trophies rewarded only his regular-season play. And maybe because the protagonist of Miami's opponent, Spurs forward Tim Duncan, is 4-0 in the Finals. And possibly this still has something to do with "The Decision," the massively hyped ESPN special in 2010 when James shattered Cleveland's heart by changing teams while invigorating the mojito-sipping denizens of Miami Beach.
"He's not relaxed. He still wants to win again," Heat teammate Dwyane Wade said Wednesday. "He's hungry."
And if Miami wins it all, James' ascension into two-championship territory will create "what it does for everybody else's legacy," Wade said. "Sets them up pretty well. Have them talked about for a long time."
Winning a championship leads to parades, a mobilized fan base, and the need to get sized for a hideously large ring. But it also causes something else — silence from the critics.
"That's what I play the game for, is to win championships," James said. "I understand that it's a long process, more difficult than anything I've ever had to do with playing basketball. That's what I'm here for."
He's a hard player to define when stacked up against other NBA luminaries.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six MVPs, Bill Russell and Michael Jordan won five and James is right behind them. At age 28, he's already of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson (three MVPs each), not to mention Kobe Bryant (one).
But the above group combined to win 36 championships, not including the one James managed in nine previous NBA seasons.
Conversely, though, James became the youngest player ever to win four MVPs after receiving 120 of 121 first-place votes from media members last month. Shaquille O'Neal in 2000 was the only other player to come up one vote shy of being a unanimous MVP winner.
So again, where exactly is he?
"He has done more than enough to solidify his legacy," said Mike Brown, James' former coach in Cleveland. "The more championships he does win, that's going to solidify it more and continue moving him up the list. He still has plenty of time to do more and that's what scary for everybody else."
James was a wildly inexperienced player when the Cavaliers lost in four games to San Antonio in the 2007 Finals. He still remembers the Spurs celebrating their Game 4 victory in Cleveland, James' former home court, causing him to say Wednesday, "I won't forget that."
His game has changed so much since that series, "evolved tenfold," Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra promised, to the point that few remember what James was like back then, other than a player who drove to the basket at all costs.
Now he's just as likely to step back and shoot in a pick-and-roll situation, his confidence from outside helping him shoot a sublime 57% this season. He's also willing to set screens more often, pass the ball aplenty and, defensively, guard everybody from centers to point guards.
In fact, James revealed he wanted to win defensive player of the year more than the MVP award, expressing disappointment when he finished second to Memphis center Marc Gasol.
James is back in his third consecutive NBA Finals, but unfortunately for him, his Big Three cohorts haven't always seemed up to the task this playoff run.
Wade doesn't look like himself, more than likely because of a balky knee that has accompanied him throughout the season. Chris Bosh scored in double digits in three games against Indiana, an unacceptable total that helped thrust that series to the maximum number of games.
The Spurs aren't fooled. They know James can still carry Miami to a title.
All that talk of his dramatic failure in the 2007 Finals? Whatever.
"That was like ancient history," Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said. "He was basically a neophyte at the time, wondering how all this stuff worked and how it's put together. We were very fortunate at that time to get him so early.
"But at this point he's grown. He knows basketball better than everybody put together in this [interview] room. So he'll be a lot more of a problem than he was in '07. That's for sure."
And if Miami wins, it will create another problem. What will all the James haters demand from him next?