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On 06/11/2012 08:01 PM in NBA

LeBron James on Finals redemption quest after 'letting down' Heat in 2011

LeBron James on Finals redemption quest after 'letting down' Heat in 2011

OKLAHOMA CITY -- LeBron James was defiance personified during the 2011 NBA Finals.

In some ways, it seemed like an out-of-body defiance, an unnatural and defensive reaction to criticism that built over the course of a series that saw him play unusually passive and unproductive basketball on the league's biggest stage.

James snapped at a reporter who questioned his offensive impact, instructing him to watch both sides of the ball. He and Dwyane Wade mock coughed to poke fun at Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, who played through an illness during the Finals. He admitted to reporters that he had stayed up reading their articles for inspiration and, perhaps most memorably, he lashed out at his detractors after the Mavericks won, pointing out that anyone who wanted to see him lose would now simply have to go back to their regular lives.

As the 2012 NBA Finals open, the defiance is gone. It's not totally clear what has replaced it, as James has adopted a mostly monotone, detached approach to his endless media availabilities. He's preached several points repeatedly over the last few days: a respect for the Oklahoma City Thunder, a sense of happiness for Kevin Durant making it to his first Finals and a readiness for the challenge that awaits when the series begins on Tuesday night.

Most important, James made clear before practice on Monday a desire to atone for his 2011 mistakes and shortcomings.

"I didn't play well," James said. "I think I said that 100 times this year. I didn't play well. I didn't make enough game-changing plays that I know I'm capable of making. I don't know. I don't know if that's something I haven't said before. Just didn't make enough plays."

The Heat lost in six games to the Mavericks despite holding homecourt advantage. James averaged just 17.8 points on 15 shots against the Mavericks. Both his scoring and shot attempts were significantly lower in the 2011 Finals than during Miami's three previous series. He particularly struggled during the three road games in Dallas, a tough stretch that was low-lighted by eight points on 3-for-11 shooting in a Game 4 loss.

The Dallas defense was captained by center Tyson Chandler, a long and agile shot-blocker who both clogged the lane and cleared the defensive boards. The Mavericks used a number of perimeter players -- including Shawn Marion, DeShawn Stevenson and Jason Kidd -- to defend James in an effort to show him different looks and spread out the fouls.

By the numbers, the 2012 Thunder slightly trail the 2011 Mavericks in defensive efficiency. Oklahoma City gets it done defensively by pressuring and gambling. Durant will see most of the time on James with help from guard Thabo Sefolosha and possibly James Harden. Oklahoma City has an excellent help defender in shot-blocking specialist Serge Ibaka plus a space-filler in Kendrick Perkins, who will be able to camp down in the paint whenever Miami isn't using small lineups.

But James seems more focused on his own mental approach rather than any particular defensive schemes.

"Last year, so much had gone on with that series and the whole season," he said. "I played too much to prove people wrong last year, instead of just playing my game and doing what needs to be done."

James enters the third Finals of his career -- still seeking his first title at 27 years of age -- playing the best basketball of his career. During the 2012 playoffs, James has averaged 30.8 points, 9.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.9 steals and shot 50.8 percent from the field. He's defended all five positions and carried the Heat through Chris Bosh's three weeks of absence due to injury and some inconsistent play from Wade.

After putting up 45 points against the Boston Celtics in a historic performance during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, James said that he planned to play Game 7 in such a manner that would leave him free of regrets, win, lose or draw. He then powered Miami to a strong close-out victory.

Whether or not James is able to find redemption against the Thunder, he's stressed in recent days that he's reached a peace of mind that he didn't have during his first season with Miami.

"I'm just at ease now," James said on two separate occasions on Monday. "I'm going to play my game, try to do whatever it takes on both ends to make plays and help us win. And at the end of the day, whatever the results happen, I'm going to be satisfied with that. I'm going to be happy with it because I know I'm going to give it my all, and I won't leave nothing behind.

"I'm happy and I'm humbled that I can actually be back in this position less than 12 months later to do a better job of making more plays, more game-changing plays out on the floor on a bigger stage. So we'll see what happens."

As always, everyone will be watching.