Posted Jun 8 2011 2:33AM - Updated Jun 8 2011 7:07AM
DALLAS -- The lone superstar of the Mavericks bravely chugged through Game 4 with a cherry red nose, fighting a 101-degree temperature, doing plenty of sniffling and wheezing and gasping.
But not coughing. Dirk Nowitzki left that to others.
He left that to the Heat, who had a collective late-game meltdown, with LeBron James holding the torch. Mental errors, blown shots and zippo from James will haunt Miami at least for another day, if not the series. If not the off-season. With Nowitzki hurt and a game dangling for the taking, Miami blew a chance to assume a commanding lead in the NBA Finals and their closer, in particular, turned to vapor.
It was stunning to watch. It was a peculiar if not disastrous performance by LeBron. The Mavericks did offer an amped-up defense against him, but that's giving them a bit too much credit. That doesn't begin to tell the whole story. This was less about Dallas' "D" and more about James running on "E".
LeBron had no fire, no ferocity, no visible determination all night. He rarely attacked the basket, even with Jason Kidd guarding him, and settled for far too many jumpers. He was never a factor offensively, and was particularly damaging to the Heat when they needed someone other than Dwyane Wade to rescue them from a late Dallas comeback.
Eight points, his career playoff low, in 45 minutes. One shot and no points and two turnovers in the fourth quarter. Hmmm. Surely some of you snickered, had a Cavaliers-Celtics flashback and wondered: Was his elbow hurting again?
"He was physically fine," reported coach Erik Spoelstra.
Understand, this was not a career-defining moment for LeBron. Not when the series is 2-2 and with enough time left for a personal turnaround. It would be too easy and perhaps premature to suggest James isn't cut out for this, although this morning, that will be the narrative anyway. One poor game doesn't create a reputation. But string together a few more like this, and that changes everything.
Or rather, that means everything stays the same for LeBron, who came into this season and this championship series looking to convince the basketball world that he's a winner.
Instead, he's deferring offensively and therefore letting the Mavericks off the hook. He's giving Wade the opportunity to win games, which is fine, since Wade had another sterling performance, with 32 slashing points. But James needs to strike a balance between facilitator and offensive beast. That balance was missing in Game 4 and, for the most part, all series.
"I think they haven't changed their coverage on me," he said. "Me just being more assertive, that's what it's all about. I can't let that stop my aggression when they bring two (men) on the ball. I've still got to make (passes) but also make plays for myself to keep me in the rhythm of the game."
LeBron missed eight of his 11 shots. At one point, the Heat offense didn't even run through him anymore. It seemed his mind was already made up: He was done taking shots. He has a total of nine points in the fourth quarters of this series, a complete reversal from the Eastern Conference finals, when James was the Heat's primary source of offense in the fourth quarter.
An interesting scene took place Tuesday night. With Miami down two points and desperate for a basket, Wade heaved a cross-court pass to Mike Miller, rather than to LeBron at the key. (Miller lost the ball out of bounds. And the Heat were dead after that.) By ignoring his equally-talented teammate in a time of need, it was clear that Wade had completely lost confidence in LeBron, because LeBron, by then, had lost confidence in himself.
"The fact that I could have (done) more offensively to help our team, that's the part (that angers me)," he said.
It was the first time in his last 434 games, regular-season and playoffs, when he scored less than 10 points. And only the ninth time that happened in his 717-game career.
It wasn't all about LeBron in the fourth quarter, although it seemed that way. Miller missed 3 of 4 shots. Mario Chalmers, unlike Game 3, didn't make a shot. It was mostly Wade and little else.
So what happens from here for LeBron? For a player who endured a season under the hot lights, when everything was magnified for him, he's about to walk on those hot coals once again. His teammates and his coach will expect much more than what he gave in Game 4. He will expect it from himself. We get to see how he responds and get another peek into his basketball soul.
"I want to see him aggressive again," said Chris Bosh. "I think he can turn up his aggression a notch. He just has to bounce back and be himself. We need him."
Game 4 was a lot like Game 2. Which means: What the Heat and LeBron must do is learn how to grab a potential victory, not themselves, by the throat.
"It's the Finals," said Wade. "You want to make sure every night you left it all out there. It's not always going to be a positive result, but at the end of the day, if you feel you left it all out there, you can be satisfied with the result."
Question for LeBron: Feel satisfied?
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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