LeBron James paused, as if to give his words more weight, then delivered a vow that will either reverberate through the rest of this impossibly competitive NBA Finals or come back to haunt the league’s four-time most valuable player.
“I’ll be better,” James said on Wednesday, a day after the Heat suffered its largest postseason defeat in franchise history. “I’ll be much better [Thursday] night.”
Because after all, he can’t perform much worse than he did on Tuesday.
James, playing into the Spurs’ defensive gameplan to keep him out of the paint, didn’t attempt a free throw in Game 3 of the NBA Finals at the AT&T Center and instead went 7 of 21 from the field, making just two of his 14 shots from outside the paint. He finished with 15 points.
It was as if the Spurs dared James to beat them with his jump shot and he complied.
“If you can go 7-for-21, but you get to the free-throw line 10-plus times, you’re being aggressive,” James said. “You have to be able to shoot the ball at a high clip from the field if you’re not going to the free-throw line. You can’t have both.
“It’s impossible for me to go 7-for-21, shoot 33 percent from the field and not have free throws. You have to figure out ways offensively that you can make an impact.”
So now James is in a familiar place, reminiscent of Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals in Boston, with the fate of the his team’s championship hopes resting squarely atop his broad shoulders.
James has been held to under 20 points for three consecutive games for the first time since the 2011 Finals, which the Heat lost in six games to the Dallas Mavericks.
“I take full responsibility for our team’s performance [Tuesday] night,” James said. “Me as a leader, I can’t afford to perform like I did last night and expect us to win on the road. It’s that simple.
“So I’m putting all the pressure on my chest, on my shoulders to come through for our team. That’s the way it is.”
Technically, Game 4 isn’t a do-or-die scenario for James and the Heat, but it’s hard to envision Miami losing Thursday and then defeating the Spurs in three games in a row. Yes, the Heat defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in four consecutive games in the 2012 Finals, but this Spurs team is not some collection of young stars, susceptible to pressure and big moments.
This is the Heat’s third consecutive trip to The Finals, but the Spurs, winners of four championships in the Tim Duncan Era, have never trailed in a Finals series, let alone lost one.
“Something has to give [Thursday] night,” James said. “They have a championship pedigree. They have four. We have two. So something has to give. We’ll see what happens.
“We’ve been able to bounce back from adverse times throughout the season, throughout the years that we’ve been together, these three years. We’ll see.”
The Heat hasn’t lost back-to-back games since January, and responded to its Game 1 loss to the Spurs with a 19-point victory in Game 2. But even then, it was the Heat’s role players, and not James, who sparked the run in the second half that evened the series. Mario Chalmers had 19 points in Game 2. He didn’t score in Game 3.
As for Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, neither player contributed much offensively in the third and fourth quarters of Games 2 and 3. Wade and Bosh combined for six points in the second half of Game 3. In Game 2, Wade didn’t score after halftime.
Asked on Wednesday whether there was any correlation between his injured right knee and his drop in production in second halves, Wade responded tersely.
“If it is, I won’t tell you yes,” Wade said. “So that’s a pointless question.”
The lack of help from Wade and Bosh in recent games only makes James’ role all the more important in Game 4. Good thing for the Heat, James is relishing the opportunity. Ever since his collapse in the 2011 Finals, he has risen to the occasion in the playoffs time and again, solidifying himself as one of the game’s all-time greats.
James turned in one of the postseason’s most memorable individual performances in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, scoring 45 points in Boston. Most recently, James willed the Heat to these Finals with an epic performance against the Pacers.
Faced with a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals, James responded with a return to the Heat’s core philosophy of attacking the paint, getting to the free-throw line and creating open shots from the three-point line. He scored 32 points and was 15 of 16 from the free-throw line.
“I have to try to put more pressure on the defense,” James said. “Not saying the whistle is going to be blown, putting pressure on their defensive interior and for myself to kick it out for my guys to have to do that. That’s what I was brought here to do. And it can’t be anything less than that.”