BY TIM REYNOLDS, AP BASKETBALL WRITER
SAN ANTONIO (AP) — LeBron James should be used to the NBA Finals by now. After five trips to the championship series in eight years, it would make sense if he had a been-there, done-that attitude when stepping onto the sport’s biggest stage.
On Wednesday James took a seat inside a makeshift interview area, sneaked a quick glance at the NBA Finals signage that was off to his left side, and beamed like a kid in a candy store. Just a couple years removed from being ripped for not delivering in the moments that decide championships, James seems more comfortable in these surroundings than ever.
“I’m blessed, man,” James said. “That’s all I can say.”
And then, without stopping, the four-time MVP said much more.
“This is my fifth appearance in a finals,” he continued. “I’m blessed. I was a kid who watched so many finals appearances and, you know, watched Michael Jordan and watched Shaq and Kobe … we watched throwback finals games. … I just wished maybe I could see the finals verbiage behind me and be a part of this.”
His wishes come true again Thursday night, when James and the Miami Heat open these finals against the San Antonio Spurs, the NBA’s first championship-series rematch since 1998. The Heat are going for a third straight title, the Spurs are trying for their fifth crown since 1999.
If Miami wins, the perception will be James came through.
If Miami loses, the perception will be he didn’t do enough.
James knows that’s the reality. He doesn’t mind.
“I play for my teammates, our team, the city of Miami, my friends and family, and I gave it all for that,” James said. “And at the end of the day, win, lose or draw, I’m satisfied with that. I don’t get involved in what people say about me and my legacy. I think it’s actually kind of stupid.”
By now, the story behind James’ rise to a champion is no secret. He left Cleveland in 2010 because he felt Miami gave him a better opportunity to win titles. In 2011, when Miami lost to Dallas in the final round, James said he was relying too much upon proving his doubters and naysayers wrong.
So the next season, he vowed to play the game the way he had in the past. Championship No. 1 came in 2012, championship No. 2 came last season in an epic seven-game series against the Spurs, and now the shot at No. 3 is here.
“He’s really taken his game to a whole other level,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “Obviously as an individual he’s grown, as a man, both on and off the court from his own experiences. So I think he’s done a phenomenal job. … If I sit back and look from afar, he’s done an unbelievable job under the microscope that he’s been under since he was 16 years old of doing things his way and been very successful at doing them.”
If James is feeling pressure right now, it doesn’t show publicly.
Away from the public eye, though, teammates have marveled all season about how someone who makes more than $50 million a year in salary and endorsements is working perhaps harder than ever.
“Nothing he does is normal,” Heat forward Michael Beasley said. “He practices wearing a weight vest. Does that sound normal?”
James spent the majority of his question-answering time Wednesday laughing or smiling. Off-stage, he joked with a few other people, chatting and seeming as relaxed as he would if this was the eve of a Heat-Spurs game in January, not one in June.
The Spurs are worried about stopping James, they know that won’t happen.
“We understand LeBron is the best player in the league and just physically he’s just a monster,” San Antonio forward Tim Duncan said.
In 2007, when the Spurs swept Cleveland, James was still learning.
In 2011, he felt like he absolutely had to win, and failed to get it done.
In 2012 and 2013, he just played the game the way he felt it needs to be played. And it’s no coincidence that it’s all fallen into place since.
“Every time I come up here and talk to you guys or I do something, you know, very well on the basketball floor or off the floor, my city is rewarded by that,” James said. “My family is rewarded by that, my friends are rewarded by that, the kids and all the kids in the world that look up to me are rewarded by that. That’s enough to get me by. Everything else is extra credit.”