In the wake of Tuesday night's 86-83 win for the Mavericks in Game 4, the key story didn't revolve around Dirk Nowitzki's ability to battle through illness, or Dallas's general resilience in the face of a 2-1 deficit, or even Dwyane Wade's last-minute failures after being the best player on the court for most of the game. Instead, everyone wanted to talk about LeBron James, who had one of the worst games of his postseason career with just eight points on 3-of-11 shooting with nine rebounds and seven assists. It was the first time he'd scored in single digits in any game since 2007 and his worst playoff game since his curiously lackadaisical showing in Game 5 of last season's Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Celtics.
LeBron's Game 4 was bad enough that the much-maligned Chris Bosh noted his teammate's poor showing in his post-game press conference. From Shaun Powell for NBA.com:
"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."
To his credit, LeBron also realized his own shortcomings. Also from Powell:
"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."
CBSSports.com columnist Gregg Doyel caused a hubbub when he suggested LeBron was shrinking from the moment after Game 3, but this Game 4 performance was very different in that LeBron looked passive instead of just acting in deference to his teammates. James hasn't been particularly good as a scorer in the Finals, which stands in sharp contrast to his performances against the Bulls in the last round. But not scoring is fine if a player is still involved at the offensive end, and LeBron only touched the ball on 12 of his team's 20 fourth quarter possessions (via Zach Lowe).
Still, it's important to remember that Game 4 represents a trend only if you look at LeBron's point totals and shot attempts, because he was engaged and involved in the Heat offense for the first three games of the series. It's not yet time to assume that he has a hurt elbow or that Eddie House said Gloria James is a MILF. LeBron's a great player who carried the Heat (including a severely diminished Wade) to the Finals with a five-game dispatching of the top-seeded Bulls. He had a bad game and could very well rebound with a dominant performance in Game 5. He's the best player in the NBA for good reason.
Yet his performances don't always elicit logical responses from reporters and fans. It's the peculiar fate of a man forced to carry more expectations than any other player in league history. All he can hope to do is follow up a bad game with a great one and end the series by reminding everyone why they expect so much from him in the first place.