LeBron James regressing – for the moment – to dark days of Finals disaster against Mavericks

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SAN ANTONIO – On his way out of the most humiliating night since the NBA Finals debacle of 2011 against Dallas, LeBron James marched past the laughing, mocking masses left in the AT&T Center and pushed to the front of a Miami Heat procession of flushed faces and empty eyes. Here trundled team owner Micky Arison, the executive Alonzo Mourning, the coach, the flustered supporting cast trailing James out of Game 3, out of a haze.

James beat everyone down the runway, past the endless black curtains and into the dark, brooding place the best player on the planet goes when failure's flooded him this way. James moved swiftly, but there was no distancing himself from this 113-77 defeat to the Spurs, no deflecting shame.

The Spurs secured a 2-1 lead in these best-of-seven Finals, and James understood that the storyline is no longer his struggling supporting cast. The story is simple: Slowly, surely, San Antonio is gaining a grip on him, reducing him to something out of his most vulnerable playoff past. Unsure, unaggressive and ultimately unacceptable.

"I've got to play better," James insisted late Tuesday night in the losing locker room. And there was no hesitation out of him. No need to prompt him. If James couldn't play the part of the franchise star and MVP on the floor in Game 3, he did it outside his locker with the cameras and notebooks surrounding him.

"If I'm better, we're better," James declared. "I'm putting everything on my chest and my shoulders. I've got to be better. I'm not doing my part.

"I can't have a performance like that and expect to win the game. I've got to do more, it's that's simple. I've got to do more.

"I've got to be able to put the ball into the basket."

For the first time, the words tumbled out of his mouth: He needs to score. As desperately as James tried to do so in Game 3, the Spurs made it difficult for him. He missed 14 of 21 shots – ended with 15 points and five assists – and let young Kawhi Leonard manhandle him on both ends of the floor.

Truth be told, Leonard has been remarkable defending James, staying step for step, using his footwork, strength and long reach to disrupt him. Sometimes, he missed jumpers. Sometimes, he failed to finish at the rim. Sometimes, James had been unwilling to pursue his shot.

[Related: Gary Neal, Danny Green star in humiliation of LeBron James, Heat]

The Heat are desperate for him to control bigger swaths of this series. James has had his moments in these Finals, but moments won't beat the Spurs.

There's nothing novel, nor revolutionary with how they've defended James. Nevertheless, they're going under his pick-and-rolls, dampening his enthusiasm to drive the ball, daring him to shoot jump shots. They've rotated two defenders to meet him in the paint and been relentless in retreating in transition to stifle easy baskets.

"We know he's not at his best now," the Spurs' Danny Green said. "He missed a lot of shots he normally makes. It's not just us stopping him. He's kind of stopped himself out there and we're getting a little lucky."

Somehow, James has been held under 17 points a game in these Finals, and those stats won't be remembered should the Heat win a championship. After Game 2, James could declare himself a facilitator. After Game 3, he was a failure. That's how it goes, and that's how it'll be remembered.

These past 18 months have been all about James' greatness – the MVP season, the championship, the Olympic gold medal and another MVP; all about his will to be dominate on a moment's notice. When James has needed to call upon a magnificent performance, it's been there for him. Now, these Spurs are testing James in a way that no one has done since the Mavericks in '11.

The greatness of the Spurs is the way they demand everything out of an opponent, challenge them with mind and body, and that's the onus on LeBron James now: Down 2-1, two games left in San Antonio, and the weight of it all belongs to him at the moment.

"I'm owning everything that I did tonight," James said.

James had been the first filing into the losing locker room on Tuesday night, and would soon be the first out of there. His brow furrowed, his eyes hardened, LeBron James tossed on a set of headphones, turned up the sound and started marching out of the arena, out of Game 3, out of the most miserable night since those bitter losses to Dallas two years ago. Alone with his thoughts, alone with the burden, the best player on the planet has nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and no one to blame.

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