Commentary

LeBron James is in the zone of his life

Originally Published: June 1, 2011
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- When someone asks him someday to tell the story of his first-ever win in the NBA Finals, LeBron James is bound to rewind straight to that momentum-turning triple he splashed as he was falling out of bounds.

Or maybe the game-sealing throwdown Tyson Chandler couldn't bring himself to contest once LeBron lost Shawn Marion at the free throw line and took off.

Or maybe it'll be that sneaky lob hoisted by his driving buddy Dwyane Wade for LeBron to catch and hammer through and stake the Heat to a 1-0 series lead over the Dallas Mavericks.

"It's one in the books," James said with satisfaction.

None of the above, though, is the snapshot that's going to stick here.

This one might seem mundane compared to rest of the highlight reel, but I'm still stuck -- on the Day After -- on the absolute calm and conviction that oozed from James on what turned out to be a pretty crucial corner 3.

Because James made you think, before the ball even left his hands, that there was no way in the world that shot had any chance of missing … which isn't exactly the sort of fear he's known to inspire.

Because it's already clear, one game in, that the Mavericks won't be winning this series if they can't knock James out of the zone of his life.

LeBron shot a very mortal 33 percent from deep during his first season on South Beach, but just the way he's addressing and stepping into these shots now tells you he's in a different, scary place for the rest of the NBA.

It happened in Tuesday night's third quarter, when Miami quickly erased the Mavs' only taste of a real Game 1 lead. James took a pass from Mike Bibby in the left corner, tauntingly pounded the ball for one dribble as he backed up and got his feet set, then swished a 3-ball like he's been swishing them his whole life. Peja Stojakovic-style.

"It's just my confidence," James explained.

It's off the charts.

The Mavericks packed the paint, ran extra bodies at James and, in the words of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, did a "good job of corralling him" on pick-and-rolls. Wade's second-half surge didn't surprise the Mavs one iota, since they've seen that movie before, but Dallas was determined to make James prove -- right from the start of this Finals reunion -- that he has the self-belief to keep the best jump-shooting month of his life going.

Sure looks like he does.

Like Boston and Chicago in the last two rounds, Dallas discovered that James trusts his stroke under pressure more than ever, which only generates more adrenaline and spring for him to wreak havoc at the other end, as a clamped-down Jason Terry (held to zero points in the second half) found out.

Finals jitters? Not even one that anyone in the building could see.

Back on the big stage after four long years, James had a look of supreme self-belief from the start, when he lined up for a right-wing 3 that he drained in the first quarter. He's up to 40.3 percent now on 3s this postseason, after hitting the Mavs with four 3s to match his total for his entire brick-filled 2007 Finals. That's when LeBron had no one like Wade or Chris Bosh to suck defenders away and got swarmed and swept by the broom-wielding San Antonio Spurs, shooting 4-for-20 on 3s and 36 percent overall for the series.

The Spurs' strategy was obvious to the world in '07.

"Dare me to shoot," James said.

Now?

"That's pretty much gone," James claimed.

Maybe it's too early for such proclamations, but Miami's best shooter backs LeBron up. After a toe injury held him out of Game 1, James Jones happily sat at his locker and told stories about the heated shooting games that go on at the end of Miami's practices. After nine months of those battles, Jones swears he sees a different guy.

"His stroke looks really good," Jones said. "Those guys [James and Wade] have been shooting a lot against each other, shooting against me and Mike [Miller], and when you're in that environment like that you've got to get better.

"LeBron picks up everything so fast, especially when he locks in. He can do whatever he puts his mind to."

Asked if that means he's actually lost one of those shooting games to James, Jones said: "No way. But he's competitive.

"He's never beaten me shooting, but that's what I do. That's all I do. He does a billion other things. It speaks volumes about how talented he is."

The truth is that the Heat don't want James and Wade falling in love with the 3 ball. Spoelstra and his mentor, Pat Riley, don't see that as a winning formula. Yet even Riles and his young pound-it-inside protégé had to be struck by how smoothly James (24 points, nine rebounds and five assists) transitioned to a pressure-packed setting that Chandler admitted had the more experienced Mavs unnerved for a half.

It's true that James never had looks this good as a one-man band in Cleveland, but he's never looked as convincing in Heat colors as he does now. He carried all the momentum built up in those flexing displays against the wounded Celtics and the limited Bulls right into the cauldron of the Finals. Effortlessly so.

In Game 1? With the unexpectedly superior bench and LeBron calmly showing off that ever-improving perimeter touch, Miami beat the Mavs at their own game. The Heat capitalized on what passes for an underwhelming night for Dirk Nowitzki these days, with Dirk needing 18 shots to reach 27 points while a mostly ice-cold supporting cast made sure he'd stay swarmed.

"I knew what he was going to do," Wade said of LeBron's fallaway bomb to end the third quarter. "He let the clock go all the way down to four before he decided to move. When he had it in his right hand, I knew what he was going to do. I shoot with him after practice every day, so I know him."

If this is what and who LeBron will be from long range from now on, with the room and the talent to get even sharper and all the swagger these 3s are pumping into his game, it's not just the Mavs who have a Texas-sized problem.


Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics