Greg Cote: Miami Heat’s LeBron James is missing in action

06/12/2013 12:01 AM

09/23/2013 6:52 PM

Where have you gone, LeBron James, and when are you coming back? Where is the offensive dominance that makes defenders and rims quake?

Where is the greatest player in the NBA and one of its most prolific scorers when the Heat needs him the most, which is right now? When will the league’s Most Valuable Player start being that on his own team again?

Forget “remember the Alamo.”

Heat fans today are trying to remember the LeBron James who makes the highlight reels not for a pass or a rebound or a block – but for a dunk-festooned game of 35 or 40 points.

Only James could accomplish something last done in the NBA Finals by Celtics goateed great Bill Russell in flower-power 1969 and still leave the impression that he is underperforming, that he has somehow been a disappointment.

Welcome to LeBron’s world.

For him, sometimes even great isn’t good enough, so you know THIS isn’t.

For him, sometimes when the brain tries to tell you he is doing enough, the gut knows better: He must do more.

That feels like where the Heat is at right now, down 2 games to 1 in these Finals after Tuesday night’s 113-77 loss – the worst playoff defeat in Miami’s 25-year franchise history – in the first of three straight games here in the beating heart of Texas.

LeBron managed only 15 points on 7-for-21 shooting.

“I’ve got to be better. It’s that simple,” James said afterward. “I’m putting everything on my shoulders. My teammates are doing a great job, and I’m not doing my part.”

Shoddy Heat defense saw the Spurs set an NBA Finals record with 16 3-point shots to deal Miami its worst defeat of the Big 3 era. Somehow, Miami got routed with two guys named Danny Green and Gary Neal leading the opposition.

“A terrible performance by the Miami Heat,” Dwyane Wade called it.

Don’t pin all that on what LeBron did, or didn’t do.

But Miami clearly is missing James the offensive force, James the dominator capable of scoring 30-plus points with seeming ease and 40 or more when needed.

That’s “missing” as in not seeing, and missing as in longing to see again.

“He’ll figure it out. He always figures it out,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of James. “I’m not concerned about that.”

Don’t get this wrong. James’ all-round game in these Finals has been otherwise solid. He entered Game 3 as the first player since Russell almost 45 years ago to collect as many as 26 rebounds and 17 assists in the first two games of a Finals. He had 11 more rebounds Tuesday. James has been admirably selfless, making a clear effort to get other, struggling teammates involved.

He also has been nothing special putting the ball in the basket, which continues as the fundamental bottom line by which games are decided, and championships won.

Time to get selfish, LeBron.

You say there’s no “I” in “team”? Maybe Miami needs some of that if the “I” happens to be the greatest current player in the NBA, the four-time league MVP, a player capable of such prolific scoring that his nickname, King, can sometimes seems a case of modesty.

LeBron, though, doesn’t need to take more shots as much as he needs to MAKE more shots. He is allowing himself to be erased by defender Kawhi Leonard. Tuesday LeBron had zero free-throw attempts – which hadn’t happened all season. Not once.

“I’ve never seen LeBron as passive,” observed TV analyst Charles Barkley.

LeBron has averaged as much as 35.3 points in a single postseason; one year ago he averaged 30.3 to lead Miami’s championship – almost single-handedly swamping Boston with an offensive barrage in the conference finals, remember.

Now?

James has scored 18, 17 and now 15 points in the three Finals games.

Tuesday was his eighth straight playoff game not shooting over 50 percent from the field. He is 21-for-54, less than 40 percent, in the Finals.

“LeBron is missing shots that LeBron makes,” said Wade.

These are small sample sizes, but it seems fair to say the James we have seen lately – at least offensively – is more eerily reminiscent of the man we saw sputter through the 2011 Finals loss to Dallas than the player who has been all but unstoppable since.

Miami lost Game 1 in this series despite LeBron’s selfless triple-double.

Miami won Game 2 almost despite LeBron – a rarity.

Miami lost Game 3 in part because LeBron was invisible offensively until finally awakening late in the third period. TOO late.

Spoelstra has spent much of this postseason saying it was on him to find a way to get a struggling Wade and Chris Bosh going – to put them in positions where they can be comfortable and be aggressive.

Time to turn that emphasis toward unlocking his best player offensively.

Free LeBron!

The balance of the Heat’s Big 3 contributed some – but only to a point.

Wade had a very active 12-point first half on 5-for-7 shooting but for a third straight game faded in the second half, adding only four more points.

Bosh had 12 points and 10 rebounds, but enthusiasm must be tempered by noting that’s below his season scoring average, too.

Together the triumvirate of James, Wade and Bosh combined for a mere 43 points – inviting a connotation of the phrase “Big 3” that is less complimentary than mocking.

What’s ahead now for Miami seems daunting.

The Spurs have the best home record in the league since moving into this building in 2002, and Miami sure has contributed, falling Tuesday to 3-23 all-time at San Antonio.

Now, the Heat must find a way to win one of the next two games here – Thursday or Sunday – to stretch the Finals back to Miami. And the Heat must win both of these next two games here to prevent having to win both Games 6 and 7.

All of this against the historical weight of 92 percent of all Finals being won by the Game 3 winner of a series that was 1-1.

Can the Heat slay that trend and fight those fresh new odds to still repeat as champs?

Yes.

But not if the Heat’s Big 3 – individually and collectively – continue to perform well below their season averages.

And especially not if LeBron James continues to fall so short of the offensive brilliance and dominance it has been so easy to take for granted.

About Greg Cote

Greg Cote

@gregcote

Greg Cote has been a Miami Herald sports columnist since 1995 and also writes the Random Evidence blog and NFL predictions along with his notorious sidekick the Upset Bird. He has covered Hurricanes football (1984-88), the Dolphins (1990-91) and major events including Super Bowls, NBA Finals, World Series, Stanley Cup, Olympics and World Cup.

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