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 ?
Ray Allen saved LeBron's legacy. Imagine how different it would feel now for LeBron and the Heat as they visit San Antonio tonight for a Finals rematch. Instead, in Game 7, with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich repeatedly motioning for Kawhi Leonard to back off LeBron and dare him to shoot from the perimeter, LeBron made Pop pay by hitting 5 of 10 3s and scoring 37 points. Heat Repeat! Under the circumstances, I thought that was LeBron's greatest game.
Still, despite winning a second championship, the King reacted oddly in late January when the basketball world rushed to crown Durant. LeBron James started sounding threatened by a Durant with zero MVPs and zero rings -- by a Durant he was able to take advantage of in the 2012 Finals because LeBron was in such a comfort zone against a buddy he had trained with and played so much one-on-one against in offseasons.
Lately, LeBron hasn't sounded as if he wants to remain buddies with KD. (TNT's David Aldridge recently reported Durant is now closer to Carmelo Anthony than to LeBron.) Lately, LeBron has sounded more like some up-and-coming Richard Sherman trying to attract attention by attacking the established star, Durant. LeBron has sounded more like the challenger!
LeBron told reporters he could score as much as Durant if he were allowed to take as many shots. (At the All-Star break, Durant had taken 246 more shots.) Durant sarcastically responded: "I'm pretty sure LeBron can do whatever he wants."
After guarding all five positions in L.A. against the Clippers, LeBron told reporters: "That's why I deserve to be defensive player of the year." Huh? What happened to the humble good-guy LeBron we see in the phone commercials?
Then came an even less-humble response to NBA TV that he, LeBron James, will one day belong on pro basketball's Mount Rushmore alongside MJ, Magic and Bird. Wait, over Kareem, Bill Russell and (LeBron's fourth choice for now) Oscar Robertson? Sounded like LeBron was still saying, "Remember me?"
LeBron topped (or bottomed) off his vocal MVP campaign by saying Durant won't feel any pressure to win a championship "until I retire." Ouch, King.
But what you had to love was the way LeBron began backing up his surprising words with stunning deeds. Durant's explosion while Russell Westbrook was out -- especially the 112-95 number KD & Co. did on LeBron's team in Miami on Jan. 29 -- helped create a new monster, Angry LeBron.
I've seen only flashes of this LeBron, when he played for Cleveland, provoked by courtside hecklers (in Toronto and in Atlanta). Then, LeBron took it out on the scoreboard. That's it, LeBron!
At Phoenix three weeks ago, it appeared he was provoked only by Durant's shadow. Without Dwyane Wade, LeBron played possessed in the fourth quarter, scoring 14, refusing to lose.
A night later at Golden State, still without Wade, LeBron faced his old phobia: down two with the clock running out. How many times have I criticized him for opting not to do what he does better than any human: attack the basket!
But of course, driving the ball greatly increases the risk of getting fouled and having to stand alone with no time left and having to make two free throws to force overtime. Under pressure, LeBron can be a shaky free throw shooter. So, often he has settled for a deep 3 with a built-in excuse. Well, it was a tough shot.
I remain astonished that, through almost 11 NBA seasons, King James has made only one regular-season walk-off shot, at Golden State in 2009. This time in Oakland, LeBron should've driven on Andre Iguodala but once more chose to take the step-back 3.
Nothing but net.
LeBron shot that shot with such conviction -- such will-not-be-denied anger -- I couldn't criticize his shot selection on the next morning's show. Technically, it wasn't a buzzer-beater -- .1 of a second remained. But on air, I gave it to him.
The following game in Dallas -- back at the scene of his Finals "crime" -- LeBron said the Mavs still trash-talked him in the fourth quarter, just as they did in 2011, telling him he couldn't shoot. Can you imagine MJ ever being told he couldn't shoot in the fourth quarter?
The Mavs were up 3 with 7:47 left. LeBron responded to the trash talk by trashing the Mavs. He went MJ. He scored eight straight. Game over. He wound up with 42 points on 16-of-23.
Next came the rematch with Durant in Oklahoma City. It was over in about five minutes. Angry LeBron scored the Heat's first 12 points while KD could manage only two turnovers.
LeBron's nose was broken in the fourth quarter, forcing him to miss a game, then wear a mask. But did that slow his onslaught? Nope.
Monday night, without Wade, LeBron James scored 61 against Charlotte's fifth-ranked defense, thanks mostly to making his first eight 3s. It felt like the Masked Man had caught and passed the "Runaway MVP."
Maybe LeBron thought so, too. Monday night at Houston, he didn't play angry. He mostly played tired.
Will Durant continue to infuriate and inspire LeBron over the final 20-odd games? Or has LeBron learned how to push his own MJ button? I hope so. The man has been a joy to watch the past month.
Yes, I just wrote that.