When he joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, LeBron James never could have expected he would need to lift the two slumping stars on his shoulders for several games in late May and early June.
He never could have expected to witness Wade and Bosh combining for four field goals in an Eastern Conference finals game, as they did Saturday night.
He never could have expected to play the first eight-plus minutes of a fourth quarter of a playoff game without either star alongside, because of a coaching decision.
And he never could have expected to sit at the podium, as he did late Saturday night, and concede that Wade and Bosh “are struggling right now, obviously.”
Now that it’s playing out that way — at least during the past week — the pundits are letting loose.
“LeBron’s thinking: Damn, I miss those Cleveland days,” Charles Barkley cracked on TNT’s postgame show Saturday night.
“We’re watching the Miami Cavaliers in this series,” Reggie Miller said during the TNT game broadcast.
Or, as TNT’s Kenny Smith said, Wade and Bosh “are physically outmatched, athletically outmatched. It’s interesting to see.”
Speaking after Game 6 late Saturday night, James indicated he will do all he can to help them both before Game 7 at 8:30 p.m. Monday.
Asked how much their combined 4-for-19 shooting can be attributed to the Pacers’ defense — as opposed to their own issues — James said, “It’s a little bit of both. They’re two great players.
“When they don’t shoot or play well, it’s more on them. It’s not taking credit away from Indiana’s defense. They were amazing. … But I think Dwyane and Chris have seen every defense ever applied to them in their 10-year career, and they’ve been able to figure it out. This one just took a little longer.”
James has been sensitive to Wade’s knee injury throughout the playoffs, remarking several times that Wade is not 100 percent but still giving everything he has.
James responded delicately when asked about Wade’s postgame comment that he needs to have more opportunities.
“I may have to look over the film,” James said. “I know he missed a couple chippies that he wished he could get back. He had a layup or two layups in the third, pretty good looks, some looks he hadn’t had all series. He went around Roy Hibbert and he missed one at the rim. He had another one that rimmed out as well.
“Those are rhythm plays for anyone. When you’re struggling, the best thing to get is a layup or a dunk. He missed a couple of them.”
But James said he intends to study the film “and see ways that we can try to help him get on track.”
As for Bosh, James said: “Chris is struggling with his shot, and hurting his ankle didn’t help him. I think he will find it. It’s my job as a leader to keep him motivated, to let him know how important he is to our movement, to our chances of returning to the Finals.”
Besides winning Game 1 with a layup at the overtime buzzer, James has led the Heat in scoring (28.5), rebounding (7.2) and assists (5.5) in this series, while also averaging 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals. Not only is he shooting 51.6 percent in the series, but he’s making 43.8 percent of his threes.
James is 1-2 in his career in seventh games — with a 34.3-point average — but 1-0 as a member of the Heat, having beaten Boston in Game 7 of last year’s Eastern Conference finals.
“I probably won’t be able to relax [leading up to Monday’s game] just because of the excitement of having Game 7 in our building, the opportunity to go to the NBA Finals,” he said. “I probably will not be able to relax until the game starts.
“To have one game to advance to the NBA Finals — you can’t substitute this feeling. We should all cherish this moment.”