MIAMI — Before reaching the top of basketball, LeBron James was run over by the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs swept James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2007 NBA Finals, so long ago that the winning game plan focused on exploiting James’ weaknesses. Those are nearly impossible to find now, and James essentially warned the Spurs that they shouldn’t bother looking.
The Spurs already know.
“He’ll be a lot more of a problem than he was in’ 07, that’s for sure,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Wednesday.
Tim Duncan told the beaten James minutes after that series that the league would someday belong to him, and he was right. The NBA’s MVP guided Miami to last year’s championship and the league’s best record this season.
Now the Spurs will try to take it back.
But James is now the best player in the game, is surrounded by more talent in Miami than he ever had in Cleveland, and still carries the memory of the beating the Spurs laid on him.
“I have something in me that they took in ’07. Beat us on our home floor, celebrated on our home floor. I won’t forget that. You shouldn’t as a competitor. You should never forget that,” James said.
He joined the Heat in 2010, experienced more finals failure a year later, then was finals MVP last year when Miami beat Oklahoma City in five games. Another title now would put him halfway to the four that Duncan and Popovich have won together.
“That’s what I’m here for,” James said. “I’m here to win championships, and you’re not always going to be on the successful side. I’ve seen it twice, not being on the successful side.”
He was just 22 at the end of his fourth year in the league when he carried to the Cavs to their first finals appearance. But there were holes in his game, from an unreliable jump shot to an undeveloped post game, and the Spurs took advantage of every one of them.
James shot 36 percent in the series, and committed 23 turnovers.
“Well, LeBron is a different player than he was in ’07,” Popovich said. “That was like ancient history. 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.”
James wasn’t interested in discussing much of that series, but he recalled the way the Spurs’ strategy kept him from getting into the paint and dared him to shoot jumpers.
“If you go under my pick-and-roll now, I’m going to shoot. And I’m confident I’m going to make every last one of them,” James said. “I’m just more confident in my ability to shoot the ball.
“But at the same time, I also have a lot more weapons this time around going against this team, where in ‘07 they loaded three guys to me a lot on the strong side of the floor. So like I said, I’m a better player, and you can’t dare me to do anything I don’t want to do in 2013.”
Duncan and James probably wouldn’t have thought it would take so long to see each other in the finals again after their meeting in the hallway of Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena. San Antonio had built a quiet dynasty, winning four titles in nine years, and the core of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili would keep giving the Spurs chances.
But they couldn’t get out of the West even while finishing with the best record in the conference the last two years, just as Cleveland couldn’t in the East during James’ last two seasons there.
“I hoped to be back here. Whether he would he here or not, I couldn’t predict that,” the 37-year-old Duncan said. “Knowing the player that he was then and the trajectory he was on, I had no doubt he would be back here. I had no doubt he would be tops in this league at some point. And I’m glad and honored to be back here playing against him.”
The Spurs have been off since finishing a sweep of Memphis on May 27. The Heat were forced to overcome a rugged Indiana team and the struggles of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in a seven-game series that wrapped up Monday.
That set up a finals between teams built in decidedly different ways but with mutual respect. While others around the league seethed, Popovich even called Pat Riley to offer congratulations after the Heat architect signed James and Bosh in 2010.
It gives James a chance to pay the Spurs back for their 2007 romp, when they forced the Cavaliers into the worst offensive performance in finals history.
“I believe that after that finals he probably always obviously wanted to get back again. But I think he probably always wanted to get back and play them,” Wade said. “So obviously having this opportunity right now is probably something he always dreamed of, of getting back to the finals and playing the Spurs again.”
The Spurs’ Big Three didn’t have to endure the same wait to win. Duncan won a title in just his second season, and Parker was only 21 when he earned his first. Yet eventually they stalled, so they’re as eager for this opportunity as James.
“When I was 21 and I won my first one, it was kind of fast and we think it’s going to happen every year. We think it’s easy. But after a lot of years in the league, you realize it’s really hard to go to the finals,” Parker said. “Now we take nothing for granted. We appreciate every moment, and we’ll see what happens.”