LeBron James has faced countless questions over the last few days. Questions about shrinking from The Moment, playing too passively down the stretch, whether one game or another is the most important of his career, potentially fake coughs, actually fake extra toes and just about everything else imaginable. Even given James' skyscraping celebrity, the high-profile stage of the NBA Finals and the narrative of the proud being humbled that's had so, so many columnists licking their chops, the level of scrutiny has been amazing.
And while much of the off-court stuff has been ridiculously overblown, a function of fans' and media members' residual anger at the way James has conducted himself for much of the past year, the on-court bits have generally had merit. In Games 4 and 5, James often looked tentative on the offensive end, floating through bread-and-butter plays and failing to use his prodigious talents to take control of — or even really influence — the proceedings at times when the Miami Heat needed him most.
When James checked in at the 9:30 mark of the fourth quarter of Game 6 of the NBA Finals, the Heat trailed the Dallas Mavericks 85-77. He'd started the game red-hot, knocking down his first four shots before cooling down to take a 6-for-10 mark into the final frame. Down three games to two in the series and facing elimination on his home court, James had an opportunity to provide some new answers to those questions, to force a change to the same old story that had been written over and over as the Finals wore on.
James did play better on Sunday night; his fourth-quarter performance was far from the main reason why the Mavericks took Game 6 by a score of 105-95 and won the first NBA title in franchise history. Still, he often looked uncomfortable. Even when willing to shoot or making a concerted effort to engage, he seemed tight and awkward, like a hollowed-out clone of the spirit of vengeance who sent the Celtics home and utterly dismantled the regular-season MVP.
Those things happened, for real, within the last month; somehow, the guy who crossed this season's finish line bore little resemblance to the one who'd dominated those two series. With a chance to extend this one, LeBron James didn't play well enough to keep the screams about how he'd become a whisper from returning all over again.
First thing's first: Credit the victors. The list of reasons why Dallas won and Miami didn't should start with Jason Terry's sparkling 27-point turn off the Dallas bench, series MVP Dirk Nowitzki's stellar second half and the Mavs' sizzling 3-point shooting (11 for 26, 42.3 percent, coming off an insane 68.4 percent from deep in Game 5).
On the other side of the ledger, Miami's 13 missed free throws (of which, to be fair, James missed three) kick things off. An uncharacteristically shaky outing from Dwyane Wade (17 points on 16 shots, 0 for 4 from 3-point land, five turnovers somewhat mitigating his six assists and eight rebounds) isn't too far behind. Largely abysmal coverage of the Dallas backcourt from the likes of first-time Finals starter Mario Chalmers and an exhumed Eddie House, both of whom routinely allowed J.J. Barea to carve up the Heat defense with his penetration, also ranks higher in the Blame Game than LeBron's late-game work.
Here are James' fourth-quarter contributions, from the play-by-play:
• 8:22: Missed an 8-foot jumper;
• 7:07 and 7:03: Grabbed an offensive rebound of a Chris Bosh miss and put it back up with his left hand in traffic, bringing the Heat to within 91-82;
• 6:33: Knocked down a 15-footer to make it 92-84;
• 5:00: Stepped out of bounds with the Heat down 95-87, turning the ball over and squandering a chance to get the lead down to two possessions;
• 1:51: After Terry hit a big jumper to push the Mavs' lead to 12, knocked down a 3-pointer to cut it back to single digits at 101-92;
• 1:22: Followed a Bosh steal on the ensuing Dallas possession by missing a three that would have cut it to a two-possession game;
• 0:16: With the game out of reach, assisted on a Mario Chalmers 3-pointer to cut the margin to 10, where it would stay.
James' fourth-quarter tally: seven points, 3 for 5 from the field, one rebound, one assist, one turnover. Those aren't terrible numbers — he was his team's second-leading scorer in the fourth behind Chalmers (who had eight points on 2-for-4 shooting from the field, 3 for 3 from the foul line, with two rebounds, two assists and one turnover), and he chipped in more than Wade (four points, 2 for 4) and Bosh (three points, 1 for 2).
And they're certainly better than the late showings he turned in earlier in the series, where he'd notched 11 points over the course of five games, including just six in Games 2 through 5 combined. (In the interest of fairness, it should be noted, as our man Dwyer did, that LeBron's defense was dominant late in Game 3 and, as ESPN.com's John Krolik did, that LeBron's passing was brilliant in the first half of Game 5's last stanza.)
But they weren't good enough to put the Heat over the top, or to keep Nowitzki — who overcame a miserable 1-for-12 first-half shooting performance with 18 second-half points, including 10 in the fourth — from the emotional, career-defining achivement of winning both the league championship and Finals MVP.
Throughout the Finals, Nowitzki's repeated fourth-quarter heroics made James himself seem all the smaller and his struggles all the more titanic. But at least Dirk's also an all-timer. The story became staggering when Terry — long known as a capable scorer and late-game performer, but never considered a superstar and certainly viewed as James' inferior in terms of talent and all-around play — began comfortably outpacing LeBron. No one doubts LeBron's gifts, but it's inarguable that in the series' final three games, he was routinely dusted by a sixth man, especially late. How do you square that?
All told, James finished Game 6 with a team-leading 21 points, four rebounds, six assists, six turnovers ... and some difficult questions to answer in the postgame press conference that he shared, as usual, with Wade.
On his ability to play well under pressure:
I mean, sometimes you got it, sometimes you don't. And that was this case in this series. I was able to do things in the last two series to help us win ballgames. Wasn't able to do that in this series. Once you get to the playoffs, every game is pressure. You want to win. You have to win. And I mean, we've seen some of that in the [Chicago Bulls] series, we seen some of that in the [Boston Celtics] series. Even though we lost Game 4, we lost Game 4 in Philly [against the Philadelphia 76ers]; there's pressure in that series as well. So it doesn't matter which round it is. Once you get to the postseason, every possession counts.
On whether criticism of his on-court performance bothers him:
No, that doesn't bother me. I understand this is a huge stage, and you want to perform well for nobody else besides your teammates. That's ultimately what it's about for me. If I can play well for my teammates, help my teammates win basketball games, then I'm always satisfied with that. It hurts me, and I get on myself when I'm not able to play well and help my teammates win.
On whether it bothers him "that so many people are happy to see [him] fail":
Absolutely not. Because at the end of the day, all the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that.
They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal, but they have to get back to the real world at some point.
On what it's going to take for him to win a championship:
I can only prepare myself each year. In the summertime I'll put a lot of hard work into my individual game, try to bring my individual game to a team, and I work hard every day as an individual to go out there and perform at a high level for my teammates and for myself. I got close. Won two more games than I did in '07 [with the Cleveland Cavaliers], and hopefully next time I get here I'll win two more games than I did in '11.
On whether anything, on-court or off, distracted him from his purpose during the Finals:
I've been in this league eight years. There's no distractions that can stop me from trying to chase an NBA championship. Not you guys, not anything that goes on that's not focused on my team and my teammates and what we're out there — what we're out set to do. Like I said before, I work hard to try to put myself in position to play at a high level. When you go out on the court, does the ball always go in? Absolutely not. But the one thing I know, I never hold my head low in saying, I didn't do it the right way or I wish I would have did this. It's not about that.
I put a lot of hard work into this season individually. We all did. So we have nothing to hang our heads low. Just use this as an extra motivation to help myself become a better player for next year.
Another season in the books, another "Wait 'til next year" for LeBron James. The players and coaches of 29 other teams are in the same boat; he's not alone. Except, of course, that he totally and completely is.
Postgame quotes courtesy of ASAP Sports Transcripts.