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NBA Finals: Mavs win Game 4, but all eyes are on LeBron

Jun 8, 2011, 3:18 AM EDT


The Miami Heat lost Game 4, 83-86, in part because of LeBron James. That’s okay. Players are allowed to have off nights. They’re allowed to struggle. They’re allowed to be passive once in awhile, and frankly, it’s human nature to ease off the gas from time to time. But in doing so, they strengthen the possibility of their team losing, and open themselves up to a very specific criticism. Having a bad game isn’t some great evil to be met with moralistic damnation, but it is worthy of an accurate appraisal, and the reasonable exploratory questions that will inevitably follow.

So, I’ll bite. I’ll ask the question we’ve all asked ourselves, with an acknowledgment upfront that neither I nor any other basketball scribe hold all the answers: What the hell happened to LeBron James?

It makes little sense to discuss LeBron’s struggles without making note of the incredible defense played by the Dallas Mavericks. They didn’t pit Shawn Marion or Jason Kidd or DeShawn Stevenson against James and leave that poor, solo defender to their own devices; every Maverick on the floor was tuned to James’ frequency. They had his pick-and-rolls swarmed. They had his jump passes covered. They had five defenders functioning in harmony in an attempt to limit the best player in the NBA, and they succeeded. The pressure is still on James to find his way out from under the constant zone coverage geared to thwart him (and he’ll have to do better than the brand of idle facilitation he tried to fly with in Game 4) but Dallas did a hell of a job in executing their game plan.

That said, most dimensions of James’ struggles were of his own doing. It’s difficult to mount a defense of a star player who refuses to go to his strengths, even as he faces a talented defense geared to stop him. After all, accessing those strengths regardless of circumstance is James’ job. He’s paid and revered for his ability to do what no one else can, and when that ability fails him, his very identity as a player comes under fire by whisper. Playing poorly for a single game doesn’t make LeBron James anything less than he was a day ago, but it introduces the idea — however fleeting and faint —  that the greatest basketball player on the planet can be contained. It’s a hushed message that will neither be confirmed nor denied on this night or even in these NBA Finals, but one that observers of the game everywhere must grapple with.

There’s no problem with James initiating the offense or playing the roll of a creator for others, but his Game 4 struggles didn’t stem from merely assuming point guard duties in the face of an aggressive defense. James didn’t pass; he passed poorly. He turned the ball over four times to hedge the impact of his seven assists, and committed a handful of near-turnovers that didn’t quite blemish his stat line but nonetheless halted the Heat offense.

James may be the closest thing this game has to perfection, but even he has his limits, his moments of hesitancy, his in-game vices. In a way, Game 4 didn’t tell us anything about James that we didn’t already know; James is a man of immortal talent guided by mortal sensibilities. That isn’t an indictment so much as a reality, and it’s no more true of James than it was of Jordan, Bird, Magic, or Wilt. The game’s greats are safe in their critique-proof pantheon, but those players had poor games, too. Accounts of those games don’t often show up in mythologized magazine sidebars or rosy retrospectives, but they’re there — the nights of maddening turnovers, a quick trigger, disinterested defense, or just horrible matchups — buried beneath lore upon lore.

James struggled to even get into the flow of the game, much less produce within it. But he’ll be back. He’ll be back, and we’ll all feel rather silly for wondering where he’d gone off to, as if a failure to engage in fully actualized basketball had somehow shifted James into another dimension. LeBron didn’t disappear. He didn’t cower. He didn’t back down from a challenge, or engage in any other sin of purely rhetorical relevance. He had a bad game at a horrible time, and we’re right to wonder why. We’re right to try to understand, just as I’m sure LeBron himself will try his damnedest to wrap his head around the events of the last few hours. It’s all very confusing, and jarring, and odd. But it’s nothing new. Individual failure is inherent to the game, and as much as we’d like to pretend that LeBron’s Game 4 shortcomings were further evidence of some inescapable character flaw unique to him and other miscreants alone, the product of James’ sin wasn’t so different from that which occasionally tarnished all of those who came before him and all who will come after him.

Basketball — even on the NBA’s biggest stage and for its biggest star — can be a struggle.

  1. mrnovacaine - Jun 8, 2011 at 4:14 AM

    His own fault? Mavs just shut him down.If the heat had won then it would have been said ” lebron’s a great facilitator ” get out if hea!!!!

  2. collegeref - Jun 8, 2011 at 7:30 AM

    Jordan never had 8 points in the playoffs.

    • pl4tinum514 - Jun 8, 2011 at 7:50 AM

      Jordan also doesn’t have a v-gina.

    • nfl25 - Jun 8, 2011 at 12:02 PM

      jordan played 179 playoff/championship games. his worst game? 15 points. not saying lebron sux, just that you cant compare the two yet. i think lebron has some mental things he needs to sort out, it feels like he is still a kid

      • ohkhan - Jun 8, 2011 at 12:58 PM

        not to mention, jordan’s worst finals game, 22 points

      • purdueman - Jun 8, 2011 at 12:59 PM

        Le Choke completely disappeared in the 4th quarter of last nights game, while Nowitski manned up, playing with a reported 102 temperature prior to the game. Some are born champions; others not so much.

  3. scapistron - Jun 8, 2011 at 8:04 AM

    He should probably dive and flop around the court more so he can get to the line.

    • bceltics1010 - Jun 8, 2011 at 11:12 AM

      Kind of like what Wade did after he missed the jump shot in game 2 at the end of the game..and as soon as he missed the shot, he looked at the ref, fell to the ground, and grabbed for his eye..LIKE A CRY BABY!

      • purdueman - Jun 8, 2011 at 1:23 PM

        Good observation. I think that Miami should consider renaming the team from the Heat to the Floppers!

  4. lucky5934 - Jun 8, 2011 at 8:29 AM

    Lowest Jordan ever had in a playoff game was 15 points. And that includes the 1995 season where Jordan came back after a near 2 year layoff to finish up the season and shake off the rust. Cue Scottie Pippen’s comments about LBJ and Jordan comparison again.

  5. stevefromyellowstone - Jun 8, 2011 at 9:00 AM

    Lebron lacks heart. He won’t go full tilt and put himself all on the line because he’s afraid to fail. He quit on one team already. If Miami wins, it will be in spite of him.

  6. bbrown2523 - Jun 8, 2011 at 9:01 AM

    Although I am a Mavs fan, I have to respect Dwyane Wade. He showed so much heart and desire to win that game by doing everything he could on both sides of the ball. It was the exact opposite of LeBron. The comparisons of LeBron to Jordan need to stop, and have needed to. LeBron simply doesn’t have the killer instinct that Jordan, Bird, Magic, Kobe, or even Wade have. Maybe one day it will develop much like it has for Dirk.

  7. purdueman - Jun 8, 2011 at 9:32 AM

    Where are all the Miami Heat Honks who were running their pie holes prior to the start of this series proclaiming: “Heat in 4”?????

  8. lucky5934 - Jun 8, 2011 at 9:40 AM

    I agree BBrown. Wade has been and will continue to be amazing and a clutch player. He is all over the court offensively AND defensively. He is playing better in the playoffs than I have see from a player in a while.

  9. upyurs - Jun 8, 2011 at 10:01 AM

    The dude in the pic flipping off LJ is priceless! LMAO!

  10. savocabol1 - Jun 8, 2011 at 10:02 AM

    Don’t be suprised if we hear today that there is some sort of lingering injury that Lebron will reveal for the first time……maybe his elbow is still hurting him. Got to love his “excuses”

  11. diablito0402 - Jun 8, 2011 at 10:19 AM

    I heavily agree with everyone here,,, good stuff people, see things for what they really are…give lebum a break though, he did sign with the heat so wade could win him a ring, and wade is close to doing that for him!!!!!!

    • philtration - Jun 8, 2011 at 1:30 PM

      And that is why LeBron would have never been compared to Jordan if he had signed here in Chicago.
      All we would have expected of him was to be as good as Scottie Pippen but he was scared to death of playing in Jordan’s house so he became Wade’s 2nd banana.
      That does not sound like the best player in the NBA or even the finals MVP to me.
      Derrick Rose is not afraid of the pressure and expectations put on him.
      Until James steps up under the big spot light then he will be nothing more than an attention-seeking clown good for a few ESPN highlights.

      The next Michael Jordan?
      More like the next Shaun Kemp right now.

      • purdueman - Jun 8, 2011 at 1:38 PM

        phil…. I think that your assessment is a little harsh and unfair about Le Bum, but I agree with you about him likely not wanting any part of following in Jordan’s big shoes in Chicago.

        The reason why I think that your criticism is a bit harsh is because I find it hard to fault a guy who simply just doesn’t have being a closer in his DNA. He’s certainly no Shaun Kemp; what I’d equate him to is being a more athletic Kevin Mc Hale. To reach his potential, he needs to be a second banana, and that requires having a top closer on the same roster.

        Good thing he didn’t sign with the Knicks too; the New York media would by now have ripped him to shreds; the Miami media though has a lovefest going on so he’ll always get a hall pass down there.

      • philtration - Jun 8, 2011 at 9:50 PM

        When I say Shaun Kemp I mean lots of physical talent, loves being the center of attention and not a whole lot going on upstairs.

        Sounds a lot like LeBron to me.
        More talent than Kemp but more publicity and hype to go along with it.
        The Alpha Kemp.

      • purdueman - Jun 8, 2011 at 10:09 PM

        philt…. actually everything I’ve read and heard from his NBA peers and coaches give Le Bum credit for having a high basketball IQ, although I’ll admit that at times his lights are on but nobody’s home too.

        I think Le Bum’s bigger problem is that everyone expects him to be a closer, when that’s just not in his DNA. That in turn leaves him seeking the second banana role, but from night to night you just never know what he thinks that role is.

        One night he thinks he’s a point guard, the next a rebounder, the shutdown defender etc.. Until he settles into a defined role other than closer, he’s going to continue to ebb and flow like the tide. When he’s good he’s very good, but when he’s bad, he’s very bad.

  12. berbes - Jun 8, 2011 at 10:43 AM

    maybe lebron’s mom could get out on bail and help the defense?

  13. mattyc - Jun 8, 2011 at 10:56 AM

    Didn’t LBJ flop last season for the Cavs in the Playoffs, & flop fiercely may I add vs the Celtics. That specifically makes me think that LBJ felt he needed the likes of Bosh & DWade to win, that he couldn’t do it with a solid supporting cast, thus moving on to the Heat.

    What is pretty funny to me now, though, is that the Cavs have picks #1 & 4 a season later & high 2nd round picks as well that would have given them the ability to build a better supporting cast for LeBron.

  14. blueintown - Jun 8, 2011 at 11:06 AM

    Obviously, Chris Bosh slept with lebron’s mother..

    • silencegooddoer - Jun 8, 2011 at 1:17 PM

      Delonte was sitting courtside with his arm around Gloria James.

  15. jeffnmac - Jun 8, 2011 at 11:23 AM

    Here is a heat fan!!! Lebron played like crap last night and there is not one person who is a heat fan or a basketball fanatic who would tell you that. Yet with all that aside a bad gam is a bad game and the rest of the heat team members made up for him all that they could… The only critique i can really give Lebron is the fact that he did not only shoot poor from the field but he rarely looked for an opportunity to score if he didnt have a break away or the shot clock wasnt low. This was hard to watch when WE ALL saw how dominantly he can get to the basket. All in all a bad game is a bad game Lebron is only getting chastised for the moment but will glorified in the end. GO HEAT AND SHUT THESE HATERS UP!! (because anti-heat/LBJ fans are going to die out after the mavs go home ringless)

    • purdueman - Jun 8, 2011 at 1:21 PM

      Funny how no Heat fans ever bring up Le Bum quitting on the Cavs and taking their last playoff game off as they were being eliminated a year ago.

      Le Bum has always been known for taking games off; that’s the biggest difference between him and Kobe or Michael. You can’t compare these guys because Michael would have decked any teammate who even took practice off (as he did once to Steve Kerr), much less in an NBA Finals game.

      I don’t think that that makes James a “bad guy” though; it’s just not in his DNA makeup. That’s exactly why James was smart to recognize that he’s not a natural born closer and seek out a team that had one. As Clint Eastwood once said: “A mans got to know his limitations”.

  16. lucky5934 - Jun 8, 2011 at 11:34 AM

    Winner of Game 5 wins the series. So the Mavs better bring their A game, because Lebron is going to try to overcompensate. And I think JeffnMac is confused. It’s not hating if we are spouting the truth.

  17. diablito0402 - Jun 8, 2011 at 11:46 AM

    Jeffmac can be added to lebricks jockstrap. A bad game is a bad game, how about a bad finals is a bad finals. If the heat win its because wade is a true hero.

  18. jeffnmac - Jun 8, 2011 at 11:49 AM

    A bad is a bad game i have admitted that but harping on lebron after a terrible game is lame especially after all he did to put the heat in this position. Just wait and see the article after the game Thursday. There will be plenty of heat haters with a mouthful of BS about LBJ.

    • cjkrew32 - Jun 8, 2011 at 12:49 PM

      I am a Laker fan so i have the Mavs more than the Heat, so I would say that Lebron needs to step up his game and be assertive for all 4 quarters not just the first 3. Just think about when Kobe was 26, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

  19. ccslick - Jun 8, 2011 at 12:05 PM

    Tinman took his talents to South Beach, shoulda taken them to OZ. Maybe he canfind a heart there

    • purdueman - Jun 8, 2011 at 8:59 PM

      LOL! Didn’t I read somewhere that Le Bum’s little dog is named “Toto”?

      The more I read and see of Le Bum, the more that I think his biggest problem is simply a lack of maturity. All of the following things point to an insecure young guy who hasn’t taken on the full responsibility that men do when they outgrow being over grown teenagers (in my lifetime experience, that typically around 25 years old):

      * Having to always travel with a very visible “posse”;
      * Not stepping up to be a “closer” in games (and that goes double for playoff games);
      * Constantly clowning for the cameras with his buddy Wade;
      * Excluding his teammates other than Wade in press conferences and celebrations (there’s no “I” in “team”);
      * Merely agreeing to doing “the Decision”; and
      * Taking games off, as he did the last game.

      None of the above traits endear you to, or earn the respect of, the public, peers or neighbors, regardless of what sport or field you may be in.

  20. spytdi - Jun 8, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    Mavs fan here; NBA finals are fixed. No way James just lays down. Kidd was old and slow, Dirk was sick, and no Haywood beef in the middle to spell Tyson. Heat should have walked away with this. Stern rigged a little poetic justice for fans around the league that despise what the Heat did.

    • almzor - Jun 8, 2011 at 1:40 PM

      Everything on the internet is true. Especially the parts that contradict themselves.

    • purdueman - Jun 8, 2011 at 9:10 PM

      I call Stern “The Puppetmaster” because he lives to control everyone that he can on short strings. There have been too many coincidences during his tenure to be just that (coincidences), and I agree that Stern the Puppetmaster has indeed pulled strings and a rabbit out of his hat at times.

      I don’t have an opinion though with respect to the current playoff series other than obviously Stern didn’t want only a four or five game Finals. Stern’s main priority has always been to cater and kowtow to the networks that feed the NBA beast.

      The one thing Stern has done that I will go to my grave believing that he clearly orchestrated (as he pulled the strings behind the curtain), was the Pao Gasol giveaway to the Lakers. You see, at the time that “trade” (such as it was if you even want to give ANY credibility to calling it one by saying it was a “trade”), Stern’s four most important TV markets all were in trouble.

      The Knicks, Bulls, Nets and Heat were all in rebuilding mode or in a down cycle and Kobe was mewling and whining day in and day out demanding a trade (which would have left Stern and the networks no marque key market teams), and then wallah! Out come the Gasol trade out of the Puppetmasters hat! Coincidence? Ha!

      Simply put, Stern is not someone who can be taken at his word or trusted IMO.

  21. cjkrew32 - Jun 8, 2011 at 12:46 PM

    I know Lebron is in tough situation, but he needs to be more than just another player on the floor with all of his talents. He came to Miami to win multiple championships and so he needs to get to the work. I know they were running the offense through Wade, but there were times in the fourth quarter where he hand the ball and just simply pass it instead of use that all world ability to get to the basket and force the refs to make calls. But as I think maybe we are expecting to much from a player that has an incomplete game. Lebron pull up jumper is non-existent and for a guy his size and strength he virtually has no post-up game. So let just understand he is very limited offensively in the half court set and thus can’t make the plays we are expecting him to make.

  22. mrnovacaine - Jun 8, 2011 at 12:59 PM

    Lmao @ fixed finals

  23. decimusprime - Jun 8, 2011 at 1:42 PM

    This is what i saw last night, and i have been “witness” to many a great game and the greatest players who not only played in those games but who made those games great.

    These comparisons of lebron to mj is a perfect point… i cant count how many times in game 4 i watched what should have been 2 points or at least a trip to the line for lebron if he had the aggressive “im the best player on earth, you cant stop me!” fire in his gut that mj had and still does. A fire i see in wade and kobe. Instead i again for the who knows how many times, watched the moment when great players make great plays, the moments lebron needs, to be mentioned in the same breath as the champions he is drawing these comparisons… instead i see a scared, “if we lose it wont be on me” passive lebron who is more concerned about the ring than the game at hand.

    For the love of god DRIVE, SHOOT, GET FOULED!! Become the Juggernaut your physique is built for and light that fire!! Because if you dont your going home.

  24. livingsacrifice86 - Jun 8, 2011 at 3:06 PM

    I’m not necessarily a heat fan, but I do enjoy watching Lebron and dwade play. Am I the only one that was extremely disappointed to see Lebron James not take advantage of the matchups he has in this series. Jkidd? Really? Marion is a legit defender but should not be limiting Lebron to under 20 ppg. All he is doing is waiting and passing. Clearly, it seems he is not ready for this moment

  25. diablito0402 - Jun 8, 2011 at 4:02 PM

    Dude i know he had a bad game but he went out like a punk 3-11 shooting. At least go down swinging like 3-25 or something jr.

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