DALLAS – The biggest game of LeBron James(notes)' career awaits him Thursday. It's the highest stakes (Game 5 of a deadlocked NBA Finals), the biggest stage (a global audience of surging ratings) and the most pressure (magnified by his listless, eight-point debacle in a Game 4 loss) he's dealt with since bursting into the national consciousness as an Akron high schooler.
At some point in his life LeBron James tattooed "Chosen 1" across his body, so it's not like a night like this, a moment like this and the demands of a game like this come as a surprise. This is what he has supposedly built his life toward.
Twenty-six years old, as talented of a basketball player as anyone has ever seen, and this is when the check comes due on all those millions, all those endorsements, all that fame and adulation he's received.
This is no longer about promise or potential. This is the time to stand and deliver.
Two MVPs are nice. An Olympic gold is cool. Global icon is fun. Basketball legends are built through championships, however, and a player of James' immense ability can't continue to fade into the background during the lonely moments when the biggest games are determined.
He took just one shot in the fourth quarter of Game 4. One. He was a decoy, window dressing, watching as his team managed just 14 points. Meanwhile, he couldn't contain Jason Terry(notes) on the other end of the court.
It's no longer a debate about whether LeBron James has shrunk during these Finals, no longer a question of whether the media is being too hard on him. As bad as it is to have DeShawn Stevenson(notes) call you out, no one was tougher on LeBron on Wednesday than LeBron.
"Eight points is definitely inexcusable for myself," James acknowledged. "I hold myself up to a higher standard than that."
And that's where we come to Thursday's Game 5 against the Dallas Mavericks, back here in rowdy Texas, where all eyes will be focused on him. His "inexcusable" play has been the major story of this series. His late offensive performances in Games 2 and 4 are arguably the reason these Finals are tied rather than a Miami Heat sweep. He's scored just nine fourth-quarter points in this series.
James has no more excuses. This isn't last year, when he was panned for similar disappearing acts in the playoffs against the Boston Celtics. Then, he and his apologists could point to a team that wasn't good enough, to a supporting cast in Cleveland that didn't properly complement him.
Rather than face that challenge and build the Cavaliers up, he left. It didn't sit well with many, who are reveling in his stumbles and hoping for a Dallas upset. James was free to choose the new style way to a title, however, and he teamed up with Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) to form an instant contender. Eleven months later here they are.
With that right to choose, however, comes the responsibility to deliver.
This isn't about weak links in Miami. If anything, he has been the weak link. Wade is playing with the ferocity you expect from the Finals – 32 points Tuesday and bold defensive play such as blocking 7-foot Tyson Chandler(notes) at the rim. Bosh has come up big in important moments. The rest of the Heat have been as good as they need to be.
It's LeBron who has puzzled everyone. At age 22, as a Cavalier, he scored his team's final 25 points to beat a veteran, championship Pistons club in a playoff game. That was the attack James. Earlier in these playoffs, in willful efforts against Boston and Chicago, he shook his rep as a star that couldn't close by dominating crunch time at both ends of the court. That was the verge of a championship James.
And then came this, the Finals where he too often stands around the perimeter, lost. How does the same guy who smothered Derrick Rose(notes) let Terry roam free? How does a career 27.7 point a game scorer go the final 13-plus minutes without a basket, without a free throw?
"You're at a point where you're just not in a good rhythm," he said. "You start aiming shots. You start thinking about plays too much. You start thinking about the game too much and instead of going out and reading and react and playing the game. …
"When you're out of rhythm, it's tough to get back into the flow in that particular game. I guess the best thing about it is you try to watch that film, see the things you can do better the next game and then go after it."
Thursday is his time to go after it. There's no more time for head games or fading confidence. LeBron talked about the beauty of being in a series of games, not a one-off like the Super Bowl. His teammates, most notably Wade, have been pleading with him to step up. His coach continues to search for ways to facilitate his game.
He needs to post up more. He needs to drive to the rim. He needs to be aggressive. Mostly he needs to be something that resembles the player everyone knows he can be. We've never seen a superstar of his caliber getting shouted at by his teammates.
As much scorn as LeBron James received last year for "The Decision," the ill-conceived prime-time free-agent announcement, he'll get it ten-fold if he and the Heat blow this series and go out with a whimper.
LeBron is the one who wanted to put this crew together in Miami. He's the one who said they'd win multiple championships. He's the one who saw this as the clearest route to a title. If he had wanted to be the guy with a built-in excuse, he could've stayed in Cleveland.
He asked for this: big stage, big spotlight, big pressure.
Everyone knows he's capable of dropping 50 on the Mavericks in Game 5. Everyone knows he's capable of taking over a fourth quarter at either end of the court. There's a reason every member of the Mavs, except Stevenson, offered up kid glove comments about LeBron on Wednesday.
Everyone knows he can be the X-factor in this critical game. No one knows which way it'll be.
"I think it's that time that I try to get myself going individually," James said.
"Sounds good to me," Wade echoed.
Welcome to the chosen moment for the Chosen 1.
- LeBron James
- Dwyane Wade