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By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - LeBron James, one win away from a second consecutive NBA title, is refusing to let relentless critics shift him from his goal of earning a place as one of the game's greatest.
Despite a remarkable 12 months that has included a maiden NBA title with the Miami Heat, leading the U.S. to a second straight Olympic gold medal and winning a fourth league Most Valuable Player award, James still has his critics.
Two costly turnovers late in regulation of Tuesday's Game Six of the NBA Finals versus the San Antonio Spurs would surely have been grist to the mill for critics who often question if James has the necessary fortitude in the biggest moments.
Instead, James drained crucial baskets on either side of regulation as Miami rallied for an unlikely 103-100 overtime win that evened the best-of-seven NBA Finals at 3-3 with the decider set for Thursday in Miami.
Miami's All-Star forward finished the game with 32 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists.
Veteran NBA writer Steve Aschburner describes the constant scrutiny and judgment of the 28-year-old James as "relentless referenda" and it remains a perplexing element of the player's career that he generates so much doubting and even hostility.
Perhaps it is still a hangover from his decision to leave Cleveland as a free agent to join Miami rather than head to New York or another traditional market. Or maybe some still cannot forgive him for announcing his move on a live television show.
James, after trying so hard to prove his critics wrong in his first year in Miami and facing widespread mocking when the team lost to Dallas in the 2011 Finals, has long since learnt that he gains little by engaging with the critics.
"Yeah, it is what it is. That's OK. It won't stop me from loving the game, playing at a high level, doing it for my teammates, putting that uniform on," James said on Wednesday before offering an insight into how a man born in a rough part of Akron, Ohio, copes with the outside pressures.
"I mean, I'm blessed. I don't even know how I got here. I wasn't supposed to be in the NBA, if you go by statistics and things of me growing up where I grew up," said James.
"Every time I go into my locker room and see the 'James' on the back of an NBA jersey, I'm like wow. No criticism can deter me from playing this game because of that. I'm not supposed to be here. The fact that I'm doing what I'm doing and doing it for my teammates, it's all that matters."
But there is no escaping from the fact that his own legacy is inevitably linked with the Heat and a victory on Thursday would enter the team and him into the exclusive club of those to have won back-to-back championships.
"I thought about it for sure. It's human nature. I want to go down as one of the greatest. I want our team to go down as one of the greatest teams. And we have an opportunity to do that," said James.
"There haven't been many people who have won back-to-back championships. It's so hard. It's the hardest thing. I said last year it was the hardest thing I've ever done, winning my first. Last year doesn't even come close to what we've gone through in this postseason and in these Finals."
What is not going to factor in to James's thinking is whether another title will settle the debate over the rights and wrongs of him and Chris Bosh joining Dwyane Wade to form Miami's 'Big Three' which upset some who felt he should have tried to win as a lone ranger.
"I mean, I need it because I want it, and I only came here ... to win championships," said James.
"As far as validation of me being here, I don't really think so. That side doesn't really matter to me about what validates us coming together. The camaraderie and the friendship and the teammates and what we've done over the three years can never be replaced.
"So for that side, no. But I want it. And I'm going to do I'm not going to cut no corners. I'm not going to cheat the game. I'm going to work for it. We're not entitled to win it. We have to work for it. So that's what I'm here for."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)