Will LeBron James Ever Face Tougher Challenge Than 2013 NBA Title?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 22, 2013

Shortly after securing his second NBA championship in as many years, LeBron James spoke on the surprising difficulty of his team's achievement. Whether he knew it or not, James had probably just completed the most difficult task of his NBA career.

Think about it: James overcame a number of remarkably dangerous opponents, held together a Miami Heat team that—at times—practically abandoned him, and passed every individual test with flying colors. Under immense scrutiny and facing constant questions about his legacy, the pressure could hardly have been more intense.

But he persevered.

I know what you're thinking: "But didn't James fail in the finals in 2007 and 2011? Shouldn't those series, in which he actually couldn't meet the challenge, count as more difficult tasks?"

In some ways, those are reasonable questions. But those shortfalls had more to do with the fact that James was not yet fully formed as an all-powerful basketball juggernaut. Plus, the expectations weren't nearly as high. The price of a potential failure wasn't as great.

James may have just collected the most impressive achievement of his entire career.


The Quality of Early Competition

Sure, the Milwaukee Bucks were a joke. A playoff team in name only, the Deer didn't put up a fight against the Heat in a four-game first-round sweep.

It might also be tempting to downplay the difficulty of beating the Chicago Bulls in the second round, but that would be a disservice to the hard-nosed brand of basketball Tom Thibodeau's team is famous for. Remember, Chicago ended the Heat's 27-game winning streak during the regular season and employed an ultra-physical style that clearly bothered Miami.

The Bulls took Game 1 and managed to get the Heat to play on their rough-and-tumble terms throughout the series.

Miami took care of business in five games, but in the aftermath, it knew it had been in a fight.

Things got tougher in the Eastern Conference Finals when the ascendant Indiana Pacers gave the Heat all they could handle. Paul George elevated himself to true superstar status against James, trading highlights and earning the King's respect.

James answered the call against a truly worthy opponent throughout the series, though. He registered a triple-double in Game 1, although most people will remember his buzzer-beating winner more than his stat line.

Ironically, that basket would be among the easiest of the series for James, who had to contend with George on the perimeter and the massive Roy Hibbert in the lane. Always ready to adjust, LBJ scaled back his finish-at-the-rim game whenever he got into the paint against Hibbert. Instead, he administered a much heavier dose of dump-off passes when the big man challenged him.

The Heat and Pacers alternated wins and losses for the rest of the series, with James forced to pick up the slack for a hit-or-miss Dwyane Wade (15.4 points per game on 43.6 percent shooting) and an invisible Chris Bosh (11.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game on 37.7 percent shooting).

James logged an average of 43.3 minutes per game in the series, but still managed to post a ridiculous stat line: 29.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 51 percent shooting. If doing all that while carrying a flagging supporting cast wasn't enough, remember that the Pacers were the best defensive team in the league during the regular season.

James, operating largely as a one-man show, beat them.


Champions in Everything But Name

If the Pacers were a tough opponent, I'm not even sure what to call the San Antonio Spurs. Truthfully, Tim Duncan and Co. were champions: They just happened to run into James on the way to the title.

The Spurs club that James and the Heat defeated could very well be the best team to ever lose in the finals. That's somewhat of a subjective argument, and the regular season statistics hardly show the Spurs to have been an all-time great team. But there's no getting past their dominant run to the finals, or the truly breathtaking display they put on in a brilliant seven-game series.

James will almost certainly never see a finals opponent with more poise or experience than the Spurs had.

Duncan was inspired, particularly in the final two games of the series. He totaled 54 points and 29 rebounds in Games 6 and 7. But he wasn't alone.

Danny Green set a finals record by hitting 27 threes, and Kawhi Leonard showed the world that at just 21 years old, he's already a guaranteed star.

Gregg Popovich is widely regarded as the best coach in professional sports, and his Spurs schemed expertly from game to game.

Because the Spurs were so well-constructed from a coaching and talent perspective, it shouldn't have come as a surprise that they gave the Heat such a run. Remember, if not for a wholly improbable five-point comeback in the final seconds of Game 6, San Antonio would have won this thing.

That fact alone, the sheer proximity to failure for James and the Heat, makes winning the series a massive accomplishment. For all intents and purposes, the Heat lost the series to the Spurs; they were defeated in Game 6.

Except they weren't.

James followed up his triple-double (in 50 minutes, mind you) in Game 6 with an even more impressive showing in Game 7. In fact, that final game provides a good pivot point to the other aspect of James' playoff run that made it so incredible: his personal triumph.


Adaptation Under Pressure

James lived every second of these playoffs under the pressure of potential failure. After a spectacular individual regular season and 66 wins for his team, anything short of a title would have constituted an epic disappointment.

Worse still, the blame would have been laid squarely on James no matter what the reason for failure might have been.

Had James suffered a finals knockout, he would have had the distinction of being a three-time loser in the season's final series. There would have been a large contingent of naysayers for whom that fact would have been the final word on James' legacy.

In Game 3 against the Spurs, it certainly looked like James was ticketed for that third finals defeat.

The Spurs sagged off of him, daring him to execute the kinds of shots—mid-range jumpers—that he desperately wanted to avoid. Don't be mistaken, James was a phenomenal jump-shooter during the regular season. The cerebral part of him, however, knew the inherent inefficiency of those shots, and the unselfish nature of his game made him want to attack and dish instead.

James hit 1-of-9 mid-range shots in Game 3, and it looked like the Spurs had figured out how to stop him.

But in the do-or-die atmosphere of Game 7, James relished in those same shots. He welcomed the even larger cushion the Spurs afforded him, taking a whopping 20 jumpers and hitting nine of them. Typically in attack-the-paint mode, James shockingly attempted only three shots at the rim in the series' decisive game.

He finished with 37 points, 12 rebounds and four assists on 12-of-23 shooting.

James may put up bigger stat lines in future playoff runs, but he'll never have to make as many difficult strategic adjustments as he did against the Spurs. And he won't have to do so under the insane pressure he faced in this past postseason.

James will climb a few more mountains before he's done, but his 2013 NBA title run was definitely his Mt. Everest.


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