For the past two days LeBron James has had to sit with it. That uncomfortable feeling of going back to a place he hoped never to revisit. That memory of how things went so badly here in Texas just two years ago. That fear that it might happen again.
On the first night he simply owned it. Said he hasn’t been good enough, not even close to good enough for the Miami Heat.
On the second day he beat himself up some more, allowing all those who revel in such things a full day to swing at him. But on the third day, the day that mattered, he let it go.
Really, truly, deeply let it go.
“I’m blessed to have, I guess, a next day,” James said after rebounding from his Game 3 malaise with a resounding 33 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals in Miami’s 109-93 win over the Spurs in Game 4 of the NBA Finals Thursday night.
“I never went to college, so I never had to worry about if you lose the first one [in the NCAA tournament], then it’s like I don’t have another opportunity. I’m not saying I take the game for granted, I just know there’s a tomorrow. And I can’t worry about what happened yesterday.
“As bad as I played in Game 3 — I put all the pressure on me to say I can’t afford to play like that and hope for us to win, not at this level — I was able to forget about it.”
For as long as he plays, endless hours of discussion will be devoted to analyzing James. His personality, his game, his growth, his greatness and his failures will always be fascinating.
Far too little time is spent on his maturity.
Because in the two days between Games 3 and 4 of these Finals, which are now tied at 2-2, James was able to do what he was not able to do just two years ago: forget.
His tepid first three games of this series did not snowball on him as they did in the 2011 failure against the Dallas Mavericks, when he seemed to be swallowed up by the moment and shrinking by the game.
“I think that’s just called maturity,” Heat forward Shane Battier said. “It’s his 10th year in the league. He’s a father of two. You don’t care as much about what people say about you as you get older.
“There are not too many situations he’s going to be put in where he’s going to take more spitballs than he did a couple years ago. Everything else is pretty tame.”
Those spitballs hurt, but they also helped.
James let himself get hit by them. He didn’t duck or hide or run. A little at first, but for the most part, he seemed to know that feeling all that then would dull just about any pain that might come his way in the future.
And so after one of his worst performances of these playoffs Tuesday, a game so bad all those old criticisms came rushing right back in, that’s exactly what he did again.
“It hurt,” James said. “I watched the film. It hurt watching it. I didn’t like the way I was playing.”
He’d hurt before though. Hurt just like this. And it taught him how to move past it.
“I just came in with a whole new clean slate tonight,” he said. “And I was blessed to be able to make a few plays to help us win.”
As he had for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, James arrived at the arena wearing a camouflage vest and pants. This game, for all intents and purposes, was a must-win for the Heat, and he treated it as such.
But again, he’d been here before. And he came out aggressive from the jump, attacking the Spurs defense early in possessions, before it could set up and frustrate him as it had in Game 3.
“Just being aggressive,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, when asked what the biggest difference in James’ play was Thursday night.
“They don’t make it easy. There’s going to be people in the paint. He was making the right reads and we were able to get into a better flow.
“It takes time to figure out an opponent. Each round is different. The challenge is different.”
True, but in this case the challenge is the same as it ever is for James.
He’s just been down this road before and knows his way back.