MIAMI -- Another year, another life, LeBron James might have let Lance Stephenson win, might have succumbed to Indiana's childish young star's desire to make the series all about him. For years a principle part of Boston's strategy was to crawl under James' skin, to shake his confidence in his Cleveland days with physical play and an unrelenting diet of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett yapping in his ear. Those Celtics won many of those battles, but they steeled James in the process. This James wouldn't be sucked back into Stephenson's bear trap, wouldn't allow a frustrating Game 5 performance to consume him. This James wouldn't lose focus again, this James wouldn't be distracted.
And so there was James in Game 6, faced once again with Stephenson's antics, with pushing and shoving, with bumps before and after the whistle. Yet there was no stopping James, who delivered another superior playoff performance, a 25-point, six-rebound effort that propelled Miami into its fourth straight NBA Finals.
"I thought LeBron really imposed his will at the start of the game," Pacers forward Paul George said. "He really just sunk his teeth all over this game."
So much has changed for James in his four seasons in Miami. Questions about his mental toughness, about his ability to produce in the clutch are gone, washed away on the shores of Biscayne Bay. He is the NBA's gold standard, the player all of today's stars attempt to measure up to. There's no doubt Stephenson's boorish behavior affected James in Game 5, but the hard lessons learned years earlier ensured he would not allow that to happen again.
"A really good friend of mine told me that the best teacher in life is experience," James said. "When you go through so many things, you are able to learn from [them]. You are able to know how to go about it. Next time you face those trials and tribulations... you're better prepared for it."
James ceded the MVP to Kevin Durant this season, but in many ways this year has been one of his finest. With Dwyane Wade sidelined for 28 games by knee and hamstring injuries, James carried an even bigger burden. Some of his numbers -- specifically his 27.1 points per game and 56.7 percent shooting -- ticked up from last season. And while Indiana grabbed the top spot in the Eastern Conference, James deserves a large share of the credit for pushing the Heat to 54 wins and into yet another championship series.
As much as some are loathe to put James into Michael Jordan's category, even his harshest critic has to admit: He's getting there. At 29, James has four MVP's and two titles on his resume. The Heat will open the Finals next week in either San Antonio or Oklahoma City but are more than a match for either. There will always be a faction that will hold James' decision to leave Cleveland against him, that will point out that Jordan and even Kobe Bryant never left the team they started with. But Jordan didn't win anything without Scottie Pippen and Kobe's teams were mediocre without Shaquille O'Neal or Pau Gasol. James may have clumsily sought greener pastures, but lets not pretend that any superstar has won anything without help.
Whatever team Miami faces in the Finals, James will be presented with another sizable challenge. If it's San Antonio it's Kawhi Leonard, it's Gregg Popovich, it's an aging dynasty that came within one miracle shot by Ray Allen from beating the Heat in six games last year. If it's Oklahoma City it's Durant, it's the most difficult defensive matchup James could possibly face. There is no easy path, no way for Miami to win with James just along for the ride.
No one expects him to be, either. Pacers coach Frank Vogel sat on the dais late Friday night, a twinge of emotion in his voice and a weary look on his face. For the third straight year Indiana had been eliminated by Miami, had been a victim on James' road to greatness. As Vogel struggled to explain that reality, he paid James the ultimate compliment by invoking the name of one of the few James is chasing.
"We're competing against the Michael Jordan of our era, the Chicago Bulls of our era," Vogel said. "They play at a championship level."