SAN ANTONIO -- This was too perfect. LeBron James stepped into his NBA Finals off-day news conference wearing a red Heat T-shirt fixed around his neck and hanging down his back — cape-style. He looked like the world’s biggest kid playing superhero dress-up, and kept the look early in Wednesday’s practice before finally shedding the cape-shirt as if it had served its purpose and recharged his secret powers.
The wardrobe touch was slapdash and meant to convey no hidden message, but it sure worked nicely as an unspoken statement, too.
Miami needs its Superman back.
Right now. Desperately.
And nobody knows it better than the man himself.
The ugliest emotions tortured LeBron’s sleep after his 15-point game on 7-for-21 shooting (with zero free-throw attempts) helped bury the Heat in Tuesday’s 113-77 loss that put San Antonio up two games to one entering Thursday night’s crucial Game 4 here.
Guilt. Embarrassment. A feeling you let your brothers down. When greatness is your DNA, to not be great is humbling, but to not be great now sickens the gut.
“It was weighing heavy on me. I didn’t particularly care for myself at that time,” he said Wednesday of the postgame feelings that chased him back to the team’s hotel.
“But dark as it was, it can’t get no darker for me. I’ll play better. I guarantee it.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra attempts to lessen the burden on LeBron, saying, “It’s not all on him. It’s on all of us. Players, coaching staff, all of us have to do a better job.”
Fine. OK. But for Miami it starts with LeBron, the four-time and reigning league MVP. And the Heat, right now, has never looked more like a team that needs its leader to lead. To show the way out of this mess and back to the promise of a second championship in a row.
Everything about the Heat is precariously balanced right now, present and future intertwined, and wobbling. Watching Miami in this Finals is like watching an elephant logrolling against a clock, and waiting for the fall, for the seismic splash.
Faith. Trust. Belief. You’d have thought this champion Heat team would have won over all of that in its fans by now.
So why does it feel like all of it has to be earned all over again starting Thursday night?
Game 4 looms as the pivot on which this series turns, maybe irreversibly. The referendum is on Miami’s title repeat dreams, but more so on the whole Big 3 blueprint. All of it feels like something very heavy balanced delicately on balsa-wood legs.
LeBron. Dwyane Wade. Chris Bosh. You’d have thought these three stars — aligned for stages and moments just like this — would have their fans’ every confidence by now.
So why does it feel like the onus is on the Big 3, individually and collectively, to prove themselves all over again and cast away encroaching doubts?
The Heat does not lose consecutive games. This is so bankable it has become tantamount to fact.
Miami last lost two games in a row on Jan. 10, more than six months ago. The team is since 11-0 following losses, including 5-0 in this postseason, and by an average margin of almost 20 points.
They bounce back. Always. They lead the league in resilience. No group more than this one is fueled by a loss, let alone a 36-point spanking such as Game 3 delivered.
All of that should make a series-tying Miami win Thursday almost foregone.
So why do hearts pound and stomachs churn among fans back home? Why are the palms clammy? Why are Miami fans praying Spurs star Tony Parker (hamstring) can’t play in Game 4? (Since when did the Heat need to catch a break?)
It is because we have not seen this before in the three seasons of Pat Riley’s Grand Experiment.
We have not before seen LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh — all of them, all at once — so below their averages offensively. It is San Antonio’s paint-denying gang defense on James. It is Wade’s right knee. It is Bosh’s right ankle. It is plain bad shooting by all of them. It is degrees of all of this, and it invites the composite picture of Superman in the glow of Kryponite, power drained, a hero turned mortal.
Miami’s stars outscored so far in this Finals by somebody named Danny Green? Is that possible? Is that even legal?
Spoelstra preached again Wednesday that the culprit isn’t all offense. That Miami must work harder and defend better and turn the energy up. All true. We have all seen the defensive urgency that swings games, and it was missing Tuesday.
For this team, though, ever since the summer of 2010, when hasn’t it all started with the Big 3?
If Wade and Bosh, or even one of them, was consistently scoring more, pressure on LeBron wouldn’t be as intense. But reality is self-evident. Each of the Big 3 has come up small offensively. The very phrase itself is threatened with forced early retirement.
Leading the charge
“Obviously it starts with us,” said Wade, who gets it. “We’ve got to do a better job of, quote unquote, being the Big 3. If all of us don’t lead the charge, we won’t be NBA champions. Our teammates are counting on us, and we have to step up.”
Everything is so different with this team.
Spurs veteran star Tim Duncan admitted Wednesday he could not stand it if San Antonio bore the same national media spotlight as the Heat, with every loss magnified, dissected and seeming to have dire consequences.
In this series alone we already have heard speculation after the Game 1 loss about Bosh being traded this offseason. Before Game 2 an ESPN.com piece tried to make a case for benching Wade. After Tuesday’s loss came a premature rehash of whether Miami failing to win it all again might see LeBron leaving after next season.
No wonder being a Heat fan right now must feel like jumping off a bridge tethered only to a bungee cord. You are terrified and exhilarated all at once and all you can hope is that the elastic holds and you spring back up again to feel that rush and joy.
All of the chaotic noise and free-fall terror goes away (for now, at least) if the Heat wins Game 4. If the Big 3 are the Big 3 again. If LeBron is Superman once more.
If not? Well, maybe the bungee cord breaks.