James finally summoned the courage to watch the Finals and studied every game except the first one, his best. He was a wallflower in the fourth quarter of Games 4 and 5, scoring two points combined. "I make impact plays," James says. "I make game-changing plays. I'm not saying I didn't make any in that series, but I didn't make nearly enough. I'm used to making double-digit impact plays per game, and there were a few games I had single-digit impact plays. It was time for me to get back to the fundamentals."
For years coaches have harped on James to move off the perimeter and into the post, where he can pass out of double teams or bulldoze to the hoop. Dallas provided the motivation. "I didn't do it because people told me I needed to do it," James says. "I was looking at myself thinking, How can I get better and ultimately make our team better? The post game was something I needed to work on." He flew to Houston and spent three days with former Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon, videotaping the workouts. Olajuwon showed James variations of the Dream Shake to use against bigger defenders, smaller defenders and when the shot clock is winding down. James uploaded the video onto his computer and took it everywhere he traveled—England, Spain and China—repeating the footwork in individual sessions with his private trainer.
James also believed his ball handling was deficient, so he went to Kentucky to work with Brandon Weems, a high school teammate and Wildcats assistant director of basketball operations. James practiced with two basketballs at a time while Weems shadowed him as he dribbled, leaning against him and smacking his wrists and hands.
"The greats always stay uncomfortable," says Spoelstra. "LeBron is no different. He came back looking like a new player in terms of his offensive skill set." James traditionally shot three-pointers with the guards after practice. Suddenly, he was bodying up with the centers. "If I'm going to work more in the post, I have to give up something," James says. "I had to decide, Is it the mid-range? Is it the fadeaway? To be more efficient, it had to be the three, because I'm more effective in the paint." James hung around AmericanAirlines Arena for hours with assistant David Fizdale, honing two basic power moves on either block: one to the middle and one to the baseline. When a second defender arrives, he sidearms the ball to the open man, quick as a shortstop turning a double play. "Everything we did was about being good at less, great at more," Fizdale says. They even tinkered with James's shot, noticing too many instances when he fell away from the basket. He repeated hundreds of open and pull-up jumpers with his chest squarely over his feet.
In Milwaukee in February, against a defense that typically dares him to let fly from outside, James made 16 of 21 shots and only one from more than 15 feet. The next day, in Indiana, the Heat played its third road game in three nights, and James took a taxi to the arena four hours before tip-off. He was in uniform and on the court when the first team bus arrived, and he went for 23 points in a Miami win. But ask James to recount his finest performance of the season, and he refers to a clunker at home against the Magic in March in which he scored 14 points on 4-of-14 shooting. "I shot horrible," James says. "But it didn't stop me from doing other things." A glance at the box score reveals that he racked up 12 rebounds, seven assists, five steals and a 91--81 win over a team that has caused the Heat trouble. To see the look on his face as he talks about that game—pure satisfaction despite only 14 points—is to peek inside his basketball soul.
James started playing in an Akron rec league when he was eight years old and there were only five games on the schedule. He was taller than everybody, so he wanted to rebound, and faster than everybody, so he also wanted to push the ball. When defenses keyed on him, he passed, and he relished that too. His team inevitably went 5--0, and at the postseason banquet, coach Frankie Walker would give an MVP trophy to everybody on the roster. "I didn't understand it," James says. Clearly, he was the MVP. "You're going to be in the limelight a lot," Walker told him. "You have to remember to bring your teammates with you."
An only child raised by a single mother, James yearned for family, and he called his teammates brothers. He still does. In 2009 he wrote a 256-page book, Shooting Stars, about his teammates at St. Vincent--St. Mary. Being a good teammate—a good brother—means finding the one with the best shot. "If two guys are on you, a teammate is open," James says. "It's four against three, easy math." When he was a junior, his team lost the state championship after he dished to an open man in the final seconds, but his arithmetic has never changed. In Cleveland, coaches tried to explain that four is not always superior to three, because a bad shot from him is better than a good shot from almost anyone else. He couldn't agree. "He has to make the right play every time," says Nuggets assistant Melvin Hunt, who used to be with the Cavs. James recoils when he sees a player rise up for a long jumper over three defenders. He beams when his seven-year-old son, LeBron Jr., dishes to a forgotten kid.
In Miami, teammates have taken on even greater significance for James. "In the crazy world he lives in, this is really the only bastion of normalcy he gets," says Battier of the Heat locker room. "In here we bust his balls and talk about his beard and his chin and all that stuff. But we say it out of love while everyone else says it out of spite. He knows how much he means to us, and he takes that responsibility very seriously—maybe too seriously." In Utah in March, James scored 35 points with 10 rebounds and six assists, but instead of launching the game-winner, he passed to an open Udonis Haslem, who missed. In the All-Star Game he scored 36 points, but when Bryant challenged him to take a potential game-winning shot, he tried to dish to an open Dwyane Wade; the pass was stolen.
Jordan would not have six championships if he didn't kick out to John Paxson and Steve Kerr, but crunch time is the one period where James has faltered this season. Stars generally misfire more often at the end of games, but according to 82games.com, James's shooting percentage had fallen to 38.6% in clutch situations. "It's not the pressure of not wanting to fail," James says. "It's the pressure of not wanting to let your teammates down. I hate letting my teammates down. I know I'm not going to make every shot. Sometimes I try to make the right play, and if it results in a loss, I feel awful. I don't feel awful because I have to answer questions about it. I feel awful in that locker room because I could have done something more to help my teammates win." Heat players and coaches have repeatedly told James not to worry so much about disappointing them.
Like Peyton Manning, James can remember minuscule details of plays he made years ago and details of the defense against him. This season he has spent more time scanning his vast mental catalog for fourth-quarter flourishes: the 25 straight points he scored in Detroit in the 2007 Eastern Conference finals; the buzzer-beating three he sank against Orlando in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals; the duel he won with Wade in the '06 regular season when they seemed to be playing H-O-R-S-E. "Everyone needs a place they go when things aren't going well," James says. "Maybe it's something great you did in school, or a moment when you were with your family on vacation. I go back to those games and think, This is you."