The Miami Heat trail the San Antonio Spurs 2-1 in the NBA Finals. LeBron James has opened the series with scoring totals of 18, 17, and 15 points. The only other time since his rookie season (a span of 832 games) that James has scored less than 20 points in three consecutive outings? The 2011 Finals against Dallas.
That LeBron’s worst bouts of offensive futility have happened in the Finals has to be of grave concern to his devoted fans, many of whom are obsessed with the idea of him going down as one of the top two or three players in NBA history—if not the best player of all time. His all-important “legacy”, already stained by the top-seeded Cavs’ early exits in 2009 and 2010, the Decision, and the 2011 Finals, will not be able to sustain another major hit if their dreams are to retain even the remotest chances of coming true.
A quick, dramatic turnaround in Game 4 versus the Spurs is essential then for James. He must stop playing into San Antonio’s hands. Yes, they are a sound and smart defensive unit with a clear-headed game plan—sag off of LeBron, protect the paint, and do not allow him any easy paths to the rim. Yes, Kawhi Leonard has long arms, quick feet, and great hands. But James is the most physically gifted athlete in the history of the league. He also has a high (though perhaps highly overrated) basketball IQ. Passiveness will not get it done. He should know this.
Taking just two shots in the first quarter, with his teammates struggling to find their groove, is not good enough. But it’s also the quality of the shots LeBron is taking that is appalling. Witness him sizing up Tiago Splitter off the dribble, grinding the Heat offense to a halt, and deciding to settle for a lazy, hare-brained step-back three:
Even on markedly better shots—such as this midrange J over Kawhi Leonard—he is neglecting to make quick-hitting moves and appears indecisive: I don’t really want to take this shot, but I don’t trust myself to get past you for a better shot, so I better just chuck it up.
This is not good enough. Averaging two foul shots per game for the series is not good enough. Settling for another ill-advised three and then compounding the error by allowing Kawhi Leonard to streak out for a dunk is not good enough. Moping around with stressed and depressed body language at the time of the season when his teammates need his positive leadership more than ever, as Cavs fans will attest to, will not get it done. He should know ALL of this.
He needs to attack. He needs to be decisive. He needs to get on the move, he needs to get involved. He needs to get in the post. He needs to force the issue, he needs to draw contact and draw fouls. He needs to put pressure on the Spurs. He needs to be selfish.
No team, no matter how advanced their defense, is capable of reducing a dominant offensive player to a bystander without that player playing into their hands. Danny Green agrees: “He’s kind of stopping himself out there,” he said of James after Game 3.
For those who believe LeBron has the same level of basketball intelligence, leadership skills, and mental makeup of Magic Johnson, it must have been a blow to hear Earvin call him out after Game 3: “I don’t want to hear any excuses anymore. The man has got to be aggressive… You’re the best player in the world! You have got to be aggressive and score points.”
For all his passing gifts, Magic’s most iconic moment is the Baby Hook over Parish and McHale. Magic knew as a player when it was time to seize the moment and become a scorer. Fans believe LeBron is part Magic, part Jordan. But Magic had that Jordan killer instinct; genuine doubts are now resurfacing over whether LeBron possesses the same trait.
The good news for LeBron fans: Game 4 is tonight. The last time their hero faced this much pressure was prior to Game 6 of the Conference Finals last season. We all know what happened next. There’s a reasonable chance he does something similar tonight. If he does, though, it will only reinforce the point: he should have done so sooner. The passiveness is indefensible.
It is curious and unprecedented that an all-time great in the prime of his career once again seems so unprepared to properly take advantage of his gifts at the most crucial point in the season. LeBron can turn this series and story line around, but not without drastically changing his approach. It is disappointing that he is at this point again.