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Last year’s loss still stings LeBron James

Mike Segar/Reuters

Still haunted by last year’s NBA Finals collapse, LeBron James has been brilliant during the Heat’s playoff run.

MIAMI - While LeBron James is using action to reveal his desire to win an NBA championship - not silly words at some staged runway show - the three-time MVP is also displaying his passion with an expanded arsenal that’s been critical to the Heat climbing within two games of his career-long goal.

James is averaging 30.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1.7 steals in the NBA Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a testament to his versatility and prowess. James, because of his size (6 feet 8 inches, and listed at 250 pounds), has always possessed the ability to score at will.

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He is one of the league’s most unstoppable forces. Yet, as Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, and Kobe Bryant discovered, there are easier, less physically taxing ways to score besides soaring above defenders and attacking the rim.

James admitted falling into a deep depression following the 2011 NBA Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks and he has responded with an improved all-around offensive game this season, most specifically his ability to finish around the basket by using the backboard and fury for following his own shot, something that repeatedly hurt the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.

In the fourth quarter of Sunday’s Game 3, James drove left past Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins and converted a difficult backhanded layup with his head turned away from the rim, a 10 on the degree of difficulty. James is still capable of high-flying dunks on alley-oops or when he uses his freight-train frame to glide to the basket.

But when he is prevented from reaching dunk territory, he has consistently scored with a soft touch around the hoop, something that wasn’t always the case in his days in Cleveland.

“I think the areas that he’s really improved are his lefthanded finishes,’’ Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s tremendous extending with that left hand, and his mid-range is in the paint from about 8, 10 feet, floater over his left shoulder, and then obviously his post game. But those are special plays for special players.”

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James was a man-child when he entered the NBA out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio. He was perhaps the most physically ready high school entry in league history. But accolades have been slow for him in regard to his overall game. It seems now, James is blending skill with pure athletic ability and that combination has been unstoppable.

“I think the biggest evolution of great players is they always stay in a constant state of being uncomfortable,’’ Spoelstra said. “They don’t stay satisfied. And LeBron every summer has added something to his game. I’ve seen it when I’ve followed him from afar, and now that I’ve gotten to know him he’s added two, three, four different elements now to his game, the well-documented one of the post-up game, which we needed. But he continues to try to improve and stay uncomfortable. I think that’s a sign of greatness.’’

James has been rather solemn, humble, and mellow during the series, determined to carry the flawed but entertaining Heat. James appears uncomfortable talking specifically about his games, especially when the Heat remain short of the ultimate goal.

“I just try to be a leader, out on the floor, in the locker room, and do whatever it takes for us to win basketball games,’’ he said. “You know, at the end of the day, they look at me to make plays. They look at me to lead them. But I’m not the only leader of this team, D Wade [Dwyane Wade] is also a leader. Udonis [Halsem] is also a leader. Chris [Bosh] is a leader. Shane [Battier] is a leader.

“Everyone has leader aspects in their game. But they just look at me, and when they look at me and they need something done and they need a play in a big game, I try to make it happen to the best of my ability.’’

The difference between this James and the erratic James from last year is confidence, according to longtime NBA point guard Jason Kidd, whose Mavericks beat the Heat last year.

“He’s not settling [for a jump shot], he weighs between 260 and 270 and so he’s putting his body on his opponent,’’ Kidd said. “He’s taking the ball to the basket. He’s playing on a different planet right now. You talk about a guy who’s scoring 30, 8 [rebounds] and 6 [assists], those numbers are just unheard of and he’s doing it on a nightly basis. He’s like a quarterback, he’s understanding situations and he’s delivering, making the right pass or finishing the play. He’s playing at a different level than last year.’’

Last year the Heat fell apart as a team and James was behind the collapse. Coming short of vowing that won’t happen again, James said the team remembers melting under the pressure.

“Yeah, of course it stuck with us, all the way to this day,’’ James said. “But we’re a totally different team than we were last year when we were up 2-1. We’re a totally different team.

“We understand what it takes to win, and we’ve used that motivation, and we will continue to use that motivation. But last year is last year, and we’re not going into a Game 4 on someone else’s floor. We’re going into a Game 4 on our floor with a lot of experience in this type of situation. We’ll be ready. We love the challenge.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.

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