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LeBron James sat over a fruit plate on the sixth floor of the Four Seasons in downtown Miami last Saturday afternoon, picked up a fork and stabbed a strawberry. "There were times," he said, "I couldn't eat." Before a game he was too anxious. Afterward he was too wired. The 6'8" James is listed at 250 pounds, but like a grizzly before hibernation he packs on an extra 10 to 15 in preparation for the playoffs. As his minutes rise he inevitably sheds a few, but this spring he dropped them all. "It was the stress," he says, "and the work." James usually sleeps seven or eight hours. For three weeks he rarely stole more than two. The night before Game 7 of the NBA Finals, he watched YouTube videos of Muhammad Ali's knockouts and nodded off as he visualized his Heat beating the Spurs, the trophy in his hands, the confetti on his head. Then he awoke with a start to a far different image, losing the game, losing the trophy, confetti raining on Tim Duncan.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra asked every Heat player to sign a personalized contract in late April, and James's read, "Do everything to help the team, no matter what the cost." James used the formal version of his two autographs. "I wrote out LeBron James," he says, "like it was a check." In 23 playoff games he logged 960 minutes, by far the most in the NBA, and his minutes are more arduous than anybody else's. The 2013 postseason was the culmination of three indefatigable years in which James played 292 games across three Finals chases and an Olympics, all the while serving as his team's primary ball handler, playmaker, post threat and defender, tailing point guards on one possession and wrestling power forwards the next. He did all this, of course, with the implicit understanding that if the team ever lost it was entirely his fault.
Because James is built like one of the X-Men, coaches and teammates often assume he is immune to exhaustion, but big biceps and a lofty vertical don't help with a second wind. After almost every playoff game James required treatment at his home or hotel room from trainer Mike Mancias—ice and massage, cold tub and hot tub, stimulation machine and lower-body NormaTec machine—and off days were spent either doing Pilates or hitting the heavy bag at Body & Soul gym in Coconut Grove. "I was trying reverse psychology," James says, "so my body wouldn't think it was tired." When he lost lift on his jumper early in the Finals, he added an extra shooting session at San Antonio's AT&T Center, grunting with each pivot. In Game 6 he dropped to one knee during a fourth-quarter stoppage, and he audibly struggled to stand up from the podium following his press conference. He was setting more screens than at any period in his career, meaning more collisions, more wear.
James hoisted Miami through a 27-game winning streak that spanned nearly two months, a seven-game battle royale with the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals and a seven-game magnum opus with San Antonio in which he averaged 43.0 minutes, led the Heat in every major statistical category and shadowed Spurs dervish Tony Parker around hundreds of pick-and-rolls. James admittedly paced himself for a few plays on offense, but never on defense. He looked forward to teammates' free throws. In fourth quarters he nodded at Spoelstra when he needed him to call a timeout, less for strategy than for yoga. "You feel like you have no more room left in your lungs and you're gasping for air," James says. "You have to control your breath." When he was gassed he'd picture himself riding his bicycle with his friends in the hills outside Akron, pedaling home. "He is strong and he's fast and he can jump, but what separates him is how far he goes," says Heat forward Shane Battier. "It's preternatural. He is telling his body, Here's the deal: You're not allowed to break down."
Last Friday morning, after Miami's 95--88 win in Game 7, basketball's indestructible man woke up and wondered if he had been in some kind of accident. "I felt all these nicks and bruises and little injuries I didn't know I had," James says. "My back, my hamstring, my ankle, both my elbows, they were all aching. I guess I just didn't pay attention to them." At least his belly was full. The night before, as he and his teammates toasted their second straight championship with Drake and Dom Perignon at Story Nightclub on South Beach, James had wolfed pizza slices and chicken fingers.
During a rare rest in the second week of the Finals, James was lounging in his hotel room at the Westin La Cantera Hill Country Resort in San Antonio when Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals came on ESPN Classic. He watched until Michael Jordan held the pose on his last jumper in Utah.
Most teams clog the paint against James, daring him to shoot outside, but San Antonio employed an exaggerated form of the defense, known as gapping. Swingman Kawhi Leonard, assigned to James, played off him by more than an arm's length. Two other Spurs, positioned behind Leonard, kept an eye fixed on James, so that even if he beat Leonard, a convoy was waiting for him at the hoop. "They're begging him to take that 16-footer," a Heat assistant said. "He can will that thing in."
The 28-year-old James views himself as more slasher than sniper, dating to his rookie year as a Cavalier, when he failed to scratch 30% from three-point range. Last November, when he was shooting higher than 40% from three, he dismissed the spike as a fluke. He was wrong. James finished at 56.5% from the field this season, 46.0% from 16 to 23 feet and 40.6% from beyond the arc. "That's crazy," he says, shaking his head. He is among the NBA's elite marksmen, even if he doesn't buy it, and the Spurs used his reluctance against him. When James caught the ball at 16 feet, he would pause, considering whether he should dribble, pass or let fly, and the indecision upset his rhythm. Through the first six games James averaged 8.2 points outside the paint on 33.9% shooting and 29.2% from three. Midrange jumpers are considered the least efficient shots, but the Heat wanted him to unleash more.
Before Game 7, Miami assistant David Fizdale showed James cut-ups of the San Antonio defense leaving him alone near the free throw line. Then coaches underlined his sterling percentages in that area this season. "Even the best have self-doubt at times when what they're doing isn't working," James says. "You need a reminder." He does not study hot maps, but he does watch old tapes. He found one that was taken last summer in his high school gym, at St. Vincent--St. Mary, when he was burnishing his J. Why would you abandon this thing that's helped make you what you are? James asked himself. Stop second-guessing yourself. Go do it. Make it happen.
For the first time since he was five years old James was not regularly speaking with Maverick Carter, his close friend and business manager. They normally talk after every game but stopped late in the Finals because they worried they would argue over LeBron's approach. Rich Paul, James's agent, was the one at his house on Wednesday night watching Martin reruns and music videos. "What happens tomorrow has already been written," Paul told James. "God chose you. Nothing can get in your way."