Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 4/28/12
MIAMI LeBron James' road to redemption began Saturday by leading the Miami Heat to a 100-67 beatdown of the New York Knicks. He was as fabulous, dominating and frighteningly talented in his first game of the 2012 playoffs as he was responsible for the loss in last year's Finals collapse. It was the performance of a maestro: LeBron had 32 points, four rebounds, three assists and four steals in just three quarters and he played a level of ferocious defense that helped contribute to Carmelo Anthony's abysmal day and the Knicks' lowly offensive outing. It was also, more importantly, perhaps the performance that signaled that the world's best basketball player has finally gone through enough struggle and self-awareness to sharpen his unworldly talent into a level of play and persona worthy of his self-anointed moniker, "The Chosen One." Yes, there is a long way to go. Even with Derrick Rose out for the season after tearing his left ACL in the Chicago Bulls' opening playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers, and in this series with New York's Iman Shumpert also suffering a torn ACL, the Heat still must win four series against some excellent basketball teams. Yes, LeBron James showed last season that he is capable of collapsing in huge moments when something momentous like the NBA title is on the line. Doubt follows him in the postseason as surely as MVP awards go his way in the regular season, and that will not change until the trophy is in his hands. And, yes, as Rose and Shumpert's injuries showed, the playoffs are predictable only in their unpredictability. Anything can happen. But the signs that LeBron has gone to another level most significantly within himself were everywhere. The Heat can't win a championship without LeBron playing in the postseason at the same MVP level he's displayed throughout the regular season . It is equally true that the Heat, if LeBron does just that, are far and away favorites to beat all comers. This postseason is all about LeBron James. And LeBron seemed more ready to be a champion Saturday than at any time last season. It showed in spades in his early play against the Knicks, in how he responded to a hard foul from Tyson Chandler in the second quarter, and in what he said after the game. In the first quarter, LeBron had 12 points. Anthony, often guarded by LeBron, went 0 for 7 in that same span. Then, with Miami starting to build a lead in the second quarter, Chandler fouled LeBron hard on a blind screen. The crowd went crazy. LeBron did a little acting job and wobbled to the floor. Words were exchanged. Officials declared it a flagrant 2 foul before whittling it back to a flagrant 1 after reviewing the play on video. Boos rained down. The ugliness the bad blood on the floor intensified. Then play resumed and LeBron utterly took over. He scored nine straight points to close out the half and set Miami on a 32-2 run that spanned both halves. It was marvelous stuff for Miami fans, and the stuff of nightmares for New Yorkers. The Heat went on to crush the Knicks. They got 19 efficient points from Dwyane Wade, stellar defense from Shane Battier and a resounding sense of calm and confidence in the rout, but it was LeBron's gravitas that made the mood so meaningful for Miami. Meanwhile, New York limped to a close with numbers to match the ugliness: 3-of-15 shooting from Anthony for 11 points; 24 turnovers; only 30 total points from its starters; a gloomy sense of embarrassment from a team that had entered so hopeful. Asked about the game, Knicks coach Mike Woodson sighed and pointed to LeBron. "You know, they went to the Finals last year and he's on a mission," Woodson said. "And he's played that way all year." He kept talking, about coming back Monday and playing better, about Chandler's foul, about this and that, but he'd already hit on the bigger, clearer point: LeBron James has played like a man on a mission this season, a stark change to the frail and often timid star who marked Miami's run last year. "Our guys had a noticeable look in their eyes the past 24 hours," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Now we have 48 hours and it's our responsibility to make sure we have that same look coming into Game 2." It must have been the look of hunger, and confidence, when redemption is so close. It must have been most clearly seen in LeBron. And it must have been striking, too, because Spoelstra tends to stick with platitudes and repetitive mumbo jumbo when talking to the media. I, for one, believe him. LeBron was different. The Heat were different. They must have sensed it beforehand, must have seen something in their star, and it must have made an impression on the head coach. Finally, LeBron arrived to talk. He was wearing a light purple sports coat and some new look of facial hair. He joked it was a new season now and time for a new look. Indeed, it may have been an entirely new LeBron. The guy who last year said there was never that much pressure, that they were always calm, that things were always fine, that the storm of controversy he created was always overblown and not his fault he seemed different now. I covered him all of that season, and this was the first time I heard him express with such candor how hard it had been. And subtly, it seemed to me, how much it had affected him. Someone asked him how different Saturday was than a year ago, and LeBron, instead of answering that question, spoke to the deeper truth. How different he was than a year ago. "I feel a difference between Game 1 of last year's postseason against Philly and today," he said. "Personally, I'm a different player this year. I'm a different person this year. Compared to last year, it was a lot. I've waited for this moment to get back to the postseason." A different player. A different person. Someone asked him to expand, and he did. "There's more pressure felt last year in Game 1 even though we played well," he said. "We all felt it. We all felt it. It's just more comfortable this year. I think it comes from us being together for two years now. The camaraderie, the comfort level we have right now, it definitely helps." Yes, this was, let's hope, the complete LeBron James. Dominating in the first quarter. Even better once challenged so fiercely and physically by Chandler. And then, afterward, telegraphing that perhaps all the turmoil he thrust himself into last year has seasoned him enough to reach his potential this time around. Who knows? Maybe LeBron will choke again, or will fail to rise up and meet the challengers trying to keep him and his teammates from being crowned champions. It's a tough league. The Boston Celtics are no joke. The Bulls are still very good. Indiana and Atlanta aren't going to shrug their shoulders and concede to the Heat. The Knicks are down just one game and still dangerous. The West is full of hungry, talented teams yearning for a title. But in Miami, albeit in just one game, LeBron James was a different player, a different person. And if that holds true none of those other things may matter. You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.
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