MIAMI—The last time LeBron James was in the NBA finals, hardly anyone bothered to watch him.
James was a one-man team swatted away by three great players, his Cleveland Cavaliers held to the worst offensive performance in finals history and swept aside by the San Antonio Spurs in 2007. Those finals drew the worst U.S. TV ratings ever and ended with James admitting his team was simply overmatched, that nothing could have been done to change the outcome.
That led him last summer to sign with the Miami Heat for a partnership with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and the promise of multiple championships. Less than a year after coming together, they have a shot at their first when they face Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in a series that started late Tuesday.
“I know what this league is all about, about having multiple guys on the court that can dominate a game,” James said. “With teaming up with these guys, I feel like we can compete for a lot of years to come. We’ve proven a lot of people wrong so far. We have a lot of work to do still.”
And this time, people will be watching James — even if only in hope of seeing the Heat humbled after their theatrics of last summer.
“It’s probably going to get the highest-rated finals, maybe ever. Just because of what they were assembled to do, and then the team that we have, I think it makes for great TV,” Dallas guard Jason Terry said.
James announced his free agency decision in a summer televised special which was blasted throughout the league, and his popularity tumbled further when the Heat celebrated with what seemed to be part rally, part rock concert.
It cast him in the villain role, but James only cares about the result.
“You know, we’ve got a lot of flak this year, mostly because of myself. And we’ve tried to use that as motivation every day we get on the basketball court,” James said. “All we can do is play the game of basketball at a high level. Play Miami Heat basketball.”
Five years after Wade largely overwhelmed the Mavericks by himself to win the Heat’s first championship, the teams arrive at Game 1 of the rematch through decidedly different constructions.
The Heat essentially sacrificed seasons for salary-cap space, making the playoffs through Wade’s greatness but with no realistic chance of winning. The gamble paid off in July, when James and Bosh agreed to come and Wade committed to stay, giving Miami the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 players on perhaps the greatest free-agency list in NBA history.
Nowitzki’s name was on it, too, and he even said he would have listened if James and Wade had tried to recruit him. His preference was to remain in Dallas, as long as owner Mark Cuban would do what it takes to give the big German another shot at a championship.
“Ultimately, that’s where my heart was at. I almost felt like we had unfinished business after ’06,” Nowitzki said. “Had a great meeting with Mark there, free agency. All I needed was reassurance that he was going to keep going and keep building around this team, and keep putting all his resources for us to hopefully be up there one day. We’re here again at the big stage. Hopefully we can turn it around this year and finish strong.”
With reliable role players such as Jason Kidd, Terry and Shawn Marion but no defined second scorer, the Mavericks arrived in the playoffs as an afterthought, maybe even a first-round upset loser to Portland.
Instead, a stunning sweep of the Lakers in the second round was followed by Nowitzki’s spectacular play against Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals, making the Mavericks the last hope for the Heat haters.
“We are facing a very tough team, a very good team with a bunch of closers and leaders. And so we’ve got to just go from there and bring our best game,” Nowitzki said. “But we as players, we’re not really worried about who are the good guys or the bad guys, what the fans want. That’s not going to matter to us.”
Nowitzki believed the Heat were the favorites “on paper” last summer, but things changed by the time they met twice in the first two months of the season. Dallas beat Miami both times — the Mavericks have won the last 14 regular-season meetings — as the Heat stumbled to a 9-8 start amid speculation coach Erik Spoelstra could be fired, and criticism that James’ and Wade’s styles couldn’t work together.
The Heat have sorted out themselves now: James and Wade alternating big shots, Bosh grasping his role as the third scorer, key reserves Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller getting healthy at just the right time after nearly season-long injuries.
So the Heat could win, like it or not. And they’re aware the more likely answer is not.