MIAMI – LeBron James was walking down the hallway that the Miami Heat call “Championship Alley” a few minutes after last season’s NBA Finals, when he decided the time was right to send a message.
It wasn’t for his fans.
It was for his detractors.
“Keep giving me motivation! I need it!” James shouted in the crowded corridor, as the champagne for a second straight NBA title started spraying in the nearby locker room. “Keep doubting me! I need it!”
James still has his haters, of course. But with the start of this year’s playoffs looming, the four-time NBA MVP said Friday he doesn’t necessarily need to be fueled by them anymore, not with the Heat having a chance to become just the fourth franchise in league history to capture three straight titles.
And if doubt exists — to be clear, it surely does after Miami lost 14 of its last 25 games — James said he’s not noticing.
“I sent out a few tweets but I haven’t been reading anything,” James said after Miami ended practice Friday. “I’m kind of just gearing toward locking in tomorrow night and go from there. But I don’t need any motivation. I don’t need extra motivation. I’m motivated enough. This is the best part of the season, it’s the best time of the year and I’m happy to be here once again.”
Miami’s path toward what it hopes is a third straight title and fourth straight appearance in the NBA Finals starts on Sunday against the Charlotte Bobcats, a team the Heat swept this season and are 15-0 against since James arrived in South Florida. Still, no one needs to tell him how much more difficult this postseason could be for Miami, since history isn’t exactly on his team’s side.
Only two franchises — the Lakers and Celtics — have won as many as four straight conference titles. James got a reminder of that Thursday night when he watched a documentary about the “Bad Boys”-era Detroit Pistons, a group that won back-to-back NBA championships and reached the Finals three years in a row, just as the Heat have now.
“When they said they went to three straight Finals, they won two in a row, now they’re looking to go to a fourth straight final, I looked at my wife and said, ‘Who’s that sound like?’ ” James said. “I know exactly what they were going through.”
Thing is, those Pistons couldn’t get it done.
Whether or not Miami does largely hinges on James.
He averaged 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.4 assists in the regular season, shooting nearly 57 percent — the seventh straight year in which he’s set a career best in that department. He had a career-high 61-point night against Charlotte last month, climbed five more spots to No. 27 on the league’s career scoring list, and is likely to pick up his eighth All-NBA first-team selection.
And even if James doesn’t wind up getting his fifth MVP award, with Kevin Durant of Oklahoma City appearing to be the favorite this year, the Bobcats know the enormity of the challenge awaiting them.
“Obviously he is the best player in the world,” Charlotte guard Chris Douglas-Roberts said. “He’s the best player on the planet and we know he is going to make shots that are contested and will have nights he gets 30. . . . But we like our chances on the defensive end.”
Fairly or unfairly, everything the Heat and James have done to this point in the season is now irrelevant.
They’ll all be judged by what they do in the next two months. James knows and accepts that’s the case, as do his star teammates Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
“This is what makes elite players elite players,” Wade said. “You don’t get the elite name unless you’ve done it at this level.”
Over the last two postseasons, James has made the elite look ordinary.
The 45-point, season-saving game at Boston in 2012. A triple-double in Game 5 of that season’s Finals against Oklahoma City to wrap up his first championship. A layup at the buzzer to beat Indiana in Game 1 last year. A 32-point game in Game 6 of last year’s Finals against San Antonio, followed by a 37-point outing in the second straight title-clincher.
The Heat can only hope for more of the same this time around.