This no doubt has come as a discombobulating shock to LeBron lovers who watch "First Take" in part to see just how much I will "hate" on their four-time MVP and two-time champion. But I am finally starting to love the LeBron I'm seeing late in his 11th NBA season.
Man bites dog. Pig flies. Bayless loves LeBron.
That is, I'm applauding this new guy who's finally doing what I've exhorted him to since he all but announced he was the Next Jordan coming out of high school. LeBron James has consistently played angry over the past month. Good angry. Channeled angry. Dare I say, Jordanesque angry?
I love Angry LeBron.
No, this isn't some desperate attempt to grab the back bumper of LeBron's overcrowded bandwagon. I've watched nearly every game he has played as a pro and merely react to what I see. In late January, I saw (and heard) something new.
I began saying on air that, obviously, LeBron was getting sick and tired of hearing not only that Kevin Durant had run away with the MVP but that Durant had dethroned King James as the NBA's premier player. My debate partner Stephen A. Smith had all but declared the MVP race over, saying Durant would have to fall on his face to lose it.
That's when LeBron started taking uncharacteristic shots at Durant -- shots that said, "Hey, world, remember me?" He also began making an absurdly high percentage of shots in games, especially in fourth quarters. I saw killer instinct without a flinch of doubt. I saw some MJ.
And yes, I have long doubted whether LeBron has what I call the "clutch gene" -- the ability to consistently cope with late-game pressure -- because he so often has given me embarrassing proof. The flameout against Orlando in the 2009 playoffs ? the bizarre meltdown against Boston in the 2010 playoffs ? the fourth-quarter freeze-ups against Dallas in the 2011 Finals, which prompted me to call LeBron "the mentally weakest superstar we've ever seen." Stephen A. Smith did not argue.
I've sometimes wondered whether LeBron is just too good-hearted. Michael Jordan, who played like a cold-blooded killer, would've never reacted under pressure the way LeBron did in those playoff series -- or down the stretch in Game 6 of last year's Finals, when LeBron "went Dallas" again.
In fact, he had conspicuously faded late in Games 1, 3 and 5. But, in the last four minutes of Game 6, LeBron's face tightened and his body language tensed as he tried to outchoke the Spurs with three turnovers, the last two with 40 and 28 seconds left, handing the Spurs a 5-point lead and sending many Heat fans out the arena doors. It looked as if LeBron James was stuck on one ring in four Finals tries.
With 8 seconds left, LeBron missed what appeared to be the defining 3 -- the game-saver to force overtime -- but it bounded right to Chris Bosh, who flipped it beautifully to Ray Allen backing across the corner 3-point line and ?