By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - A more confident LeBron James heads into his fourth NBA Finals on Thursday against a familiar San Antonio Spurs team that eased by his former Cleveland squad in his first title series in 2007.
The core of the San Antonio team that swept that best-of-seven championship, and celebrated on James's former home court, remains intact but it will be a much-improved James who is now a much more complete player with the Miami Heat.
"LeBron is a different player than he was in '07. That is like ancient history," Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said on Wednesday.
"He was basically a neophyte at the time, wondering how all this stuff worked and how it's put together. We were very fortunate at that time to get him so early ... he'll be a lot more of a problem than he was in '07, that's for sure."
James, the reigning league most valuable player (MVP), has arguably improved in every area of his game over the past six years and his assessment is that the main upgrade has been in terms of his basketball intelligence.
"A lot smarter and more experienced, older and more mature on and off the floor. And I think that's the most important thing," said James.
"I've matured as a basketball player. I've matured as a man. And it has allowed my game to sprout."
James and the Cavaliers were simply outclassed by the Spurs in 2007 and James concedes that San Antonio worked him out pretty well.
The four-time MVP is also confident that he has a more diverse range of skills this time around and, crucially, he has an increased belief in his shooting ability.
"They funneled me to the sideline and dared me to shoot it, and didn't allow me to get to the paint where I did most of my damage back then," said James.
"If you go into my pick‑and‑roll now, I'm going to shoot and I'm confident I'm going to make every last one of them. I'm just more confident in my ability to shoot the ball.
"At the same time, I also have a lot more weapons this time around going against this team, where in '07 they loaded three guys to me a lot on the strong side of the floor.
The Spurs certainly don't expect to be able to deal with James, who won his first NBA title in 2012, with the same ease they showed six years ago.
"It was a young LeBron. He was still unbelievable, because he was just coming off an unbelievable series against Detroit, playing great basketball. I think in that particular series we played great defense on him," said Spurs point guard Tony Parker.
"It was just the beginning for him. Right now he's a four‑time MVP, so it's going to be a different story. He's playing unbelievable basketball and he's a little bit older.
"We'll try to do the best we can to try to slow him down. You can't stop him. That's for sure."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)