By Israel Gutierrez
McClatchy News Service
MIAMI — Think back to the Finals failures that stand out most.
The LeBron James step-back jumper from the baseline when all that stood between him and the basket was a 6- 4 Jason Kidd.
LeBron's awkward post-up attempt against the even smaller J.J. Barea that resulted in an offensive foul.
Go back even further to the regular-season failures in game-winning situations.
The swatted attempt against Amare Stoudemire and the Knicks. LeBron's difficult lefty layup attempt over Joakim Noah in the torturous loss to the Bulls.
Nothing about those moments looked comfortable for LeBron.
He's among the most intimidating presences in the league, with maybe only Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin even comparable, and yet in the most meaningful of moments and in the most meaningful of games, LeBron couldn't find a way to use that to his advantage.
In fact, some would even say he looked intimidated in those moments because of his indecision.
This is where his post-up game, the area that so many have called for LeBron to perfect but he never dedicated himself to until now, becomes a factor.
Forget for the moment that it took LeBron eight years in the league to truly work on this area of his game. He has had so much individual success without it, perhaps it took a Finals debacle to force him to acknowledge the void in his repertoire. And maybe his reasoning — that he was required to handle the ball so much in Cleveland that it wasn't a regular option for him — is a legitimate explanation.
What matters now, in LeBron's second year with the Heat, is only whether he can make this a comfort zone after only one extended offseason's worth of work.
For someone with so many physical talents, LeBron always has lacked a true home on the floor. He has never had a default place that, when a game or a series or a championship is on the line, he goes to without hesitation and without complication. A place that, from the very beginning, LeBron believes he's in full control and the defense feels almost entirely helpless.
When you think of his memorable game-winning moments, save for the resounding finishes at the rim against the Pistons in that 2007 playoff game, most of them came from the perimeter. Last postseason was no different, as he finished off the Celtics and Bulls with either long pull-up two-pointers or the timeliest of three-pointers.
But those low-percentage shots shouldn't be the go-to option for a player of LeBron's versatility or physicality.
Of the game's greatest players, the ones regularly called upon to close out games for their teams, LeBron's go-to game seems the least fitting, and certainly the least comfortable.
Start with Kobe Bryant. It's almost unfair to classify anything as a go-to option for him, because he works on so many elements that he's practically comfortable attempting any shot at any time.
But when at his unstoppable, demoralizing best, Kobe works out of the mid-post. It could result in a quick pull-up with his defender frozen, or it could end with his back to the basket and shooting that unguardable, Jordan-like fade-away.
In either scenario, you're assuming two things: One, that the defender is practically defenseless, and two, that the shot's going in.
Carmelo Anthony's default place is simple but consistent. He's in triple-threat position from about 20 feet out. You know at some point, whether two, one or zero dribbles, he's going to rise up for that crusher of a jump shot.
Dwyane Wade's default mode usually has him attacking the rim, steering his way through a defense like no one in the game can. But he also has that pull-back jumper that has earned him game-winners against the Knicks, Jazz and Pistons, among others.
LeBron never really has claimed an area, a move or a shot as his comfort zone in crunch time. And it says even more about his extreme individual success that he has accomplished what he has without it.
But now that much of his game failed him on the league's largest stage, it has become apparent even to him that he needs one.
And it only makes sense that this post-up game becomes his area, his comfort zone, his go-to game in times of need.
It's not too late to develop it. The only question is, will LeBron be comfortable enough with it this season to make it work for him right away?
Through a public scrimmage and two preseason games, the most common result of LeBron post-ups has been an impressive fade-away that has swished more often than not.
If that's the shot he wants to perfect first, it would only make sense. Michael Jordan and Bryant made it their almost exclusive dagger for years.
But LeBron didn't work with Hakeem Olajuwon just to learn how to shoot a fadeaway. So you can almost guarantee LeBron has counters ready for display, along with some fancy footwork that'll earn him some much easier baskets.
As long as he keeps turning to the post-up game through the first three quarters, it will remain comfortable for him in the fourth.
And if he goes through an entire season utilizing the back-to-the-basket game, then you know he'll use it extensively in the postseason.
For LeBron, this is what's necessary — more so than any new attitude.
He needs an area where he feels absolutely dominant, other than the fast break, and where a defense's only plan to stop it includes leaving another player wide open.
He needs to expose a mismatch, because he should be a matchup nightmare. But LeBron taking a mobile big man like Noah off the dribble isn't, necessarily, a mismatch.
Backing down DeShawn Stevenson is a mismatch. And it's one he didn't expose at all in the Finals.
It goes back to a comment Pat Riley made recently when referring to LeBron's performance against Dallas.
"When you get to the moment of truth, you've got to be relaxed," he said.
If LeBron can get comfortable dominating foes in the post, he will be relaxed there regardless of the magnitude of the moment.
Think back to those Finals failures.
Now look at where LeBron has taken his game as a result.
He seems to have gotten the message.