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Article updated: 6/23/2013 12:57 AM

Even after repeat, LeBron and Heat remain polarizing figures

By Mike McGraw

A clear message was sent after the Miami Heat pulled off a repeat NBA championship: No one is allowed to speak badly about LeBron James again, ever.

It is tough to find fault in his finish to the 2013 NBA Finals. James scored 37 points in Game 7 and produced a 32-10-11 triple-double in Game 6.

But think about how close the storyline came to being the complete opposite.

With less than 30 seconds remaining in Game 6, San Antonio held a 5-point lead and James had just committed turnovers on two straight possessions. The Spurs missed 2 free throws, gave up 2 offensive rebounds and Ray Allen's 3-pointer tied the score with five seconds left.

If San Antonio could have eliminated any of those four miscues, or if Allen's shot had bounced off the rim, LeBron would be a three-time Finals loser. Instead, he's a hero beyond criticism.

That just demonstrates the ridiculousness of some of these narratives. James was already the best player of his generation. The difference between winning and losing these Finals was a mixture of luck, skill and the reality of counting on two 37-year olds to finish things off for the Spurs.

If Allen's 3-pointer hadn't gone down in Game 6, James wouldn't have had the chance to deliver perhaps the most clutch moment of his career.

Seconds after Tim Duncan missed a point-blank shot that would have tied the score (and pounded his fist on the court in frustration), James knocked down a jumper to give Miami a 4-point lead with 27 seconds left in Game 7.

Will a second NBA title turn James into one of America's most beloved pro athletes? Probably not in itself.

It's hardly a scientific poll, but it was funny to look at espn.com's "Who are rooting for?" map on the day of Game 7. The Spurs carried 49 states and none of the votes were close. America clearly enjoys rooting against the Heat and that's not likely to change during the Power Trio era.

One way James is judged unfairly is all the Michael Jordan comparisons. Those two are not the same type of player. Jordan was an alpha scorer. James is as much a distributor as scorer. It's like saying, "Who was better, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain or Gordie Howe?" They're too different to make a reasonable judgment.

Kobe Bryant is a fair comparison to Jordan. James is not. Instead of getting praise for being unselfish, James is often criticized for not being Jordan.

There are plenty of other reasons why James isn't wildly popular: The whining. The perception that he gamed the system by colluding with Olympic teammates to land with the Heat. The atrocious sportsmanship in Cleveland.

Q: LeBron, if dancing on the sideline during games is an acceptable activity, why don't you do it in Miami?

James' biggest perception problem is that he's never starred in a good commercial. The three breakout stars of this year's playoffs might have been Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, who could be seen at every commercial break.

James gave it a shot with "The LeBrons" years ago, but that campaign made no sense. His farewell to Cleveland ad didn't go over well, and he started last season with a spot that basically rubbed it in everyone's face that he finally got a ring, one of the all-time worst. Is this generation's Mars Blackmon out there anywhere?

The best thing James could do for his popularity is probably go back to Cleveland, which many suspect he'll do after another year or two in Miami.

In the meantime, sports fans will be quick to jump on the bandwagon of any team that can prevent a Heat threepeat. Derrick Rose, the challenge of 2011 still remains.

mmcgraw@dailyherald.com

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