LeBron James sported a Nike T-shirt some 90 minutes before Friday night’s game that was plain white but for three small words stamped big and black in block letters:
UP TO ME, read the declarative.
Except, the words were stacked, for emphasis.
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Isn’t it always?
It usually is up to LeBron for the Heat, and LeBron is usually up to that imperative no matter how great the demand. No matter how unfair that burden sometimes seems.
He wasn’t enough Friday night — not quite.
James scored a game-high 36 points on 14-for-20 shooting, but the noise drained out of the downtown bayside arena in the final seconds told the story far more than LeBron’s stat line.
Pacers 97, Heat 93.
“We’re coming for ’em,” Pacers center Roy Hibbert said.
This NBA Eastern Conference final series now is perilously tied 1-1 heading to Indiana for two games as Miami comes to grips with this unsettling notion:
What next, when even LeBron being great is not enough?
UP TO ME. Those three words had come real once more.
Two nights earlier, James came through, with 30 points and a triple-double punctuated by a game-winning basket at the buzzer in overtime — dramatic even by Kingly standards.
On Friday, James was as great or even better. “He played one of the best basketball games I’ve ever seen anyone play” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. Added the Pacers’ George Hill: “There’s only one person scarier than [LeBron]. That’s God.”
All powerful as James can be, the burden was not shared Friday. James had to be perfect. It was too much. His stellar night was spoiled by two late turnovers on deflected passes in the final minute that helped the Pacers tie the series and hush the Heat’s arena.
“I was a little careless,” James said. “Very disappointed in my judgment and my plays down the stretch, but I’ll make up for them. Just get ready for Game 3.”
TV analyst Charles Barkley at halftime had called James a “weapon of mass destruction” and said, “He’s going have to win the game by himself.”
Barkley was too right.
James was even better in the second half, but he did not get enough help.
Miami can get by with that against an under-qualified Milwaukee in the first round or against a depleted Chicago in the second.
Indiana is different.
James needs more support from his teammates against a big Pacers squad or Miami’s dream of a repeat championship will not move forward.
The Heat shot only 46.6 percent Friday, made only 7 of 22 three-point attempts, missed eight free throws, got out-rebounded, committed more fouls and had more turnovers.
Shane Battier, Ray Allen and Norris Cole are a combined 5 for 31 in this series thus far.
Those kind of numbers won’t beat Indiana even when James has 36 points.
Small indications of desperation — of this-isn’t-working — emanated from coach Erik Spoelstra’s mind in this game.
Mike Miller, who hadn’t made a basket in 16 days, was deployed because Battier slumped to 0 for 7 on three-point attempts in this series. And Joel Anthony, who hadn’t even played since May 13, was briefly inserted to help combat Indiana’s size advantage.
When the threes are falling, a lot of problems go away. When they are not, when LeBron is carrying too much even by yeoman standards, Miami has a problem.
Dwyane Wade, who had only 14 points on 6-for-14 shooting, had warned of this being a rough series — rough physically, and also rough as in a tough opponent.
“You’re going to leave the game feeling like you got hit by a Mack truck,” he said.
Wade felt that feeling Friday on a hard foul by Pacers irritant Tyler Hansbrough that earned Hansbrough a technical for raking his palm across Wade’s head. Wade stared at the perpetrator with a smoking glare that all but shot sparks.
Earlier, LeBron and the Pacers’ Sam Young had to be separated after Young drew a technical for slapping the ball from James’ hands after a whistle.
LeBron’s personal duel with Indy’s Paul George has blossomed as the story within the story of this series.
They are friendly. They were U.S. Olympic teammates who spent much time together last year in Las Vegas during that team’s training camp.
That friendship — and budding rivalry — showed late in Friday’s third quarter.
George blew past James for a one-handed dunk. A moment later LeBron sank a long three-pointer to close out the quarter, and smiled at George, the sort of smile only friends can exchange at a time like that.
They discreetly bumped fists.
In the end, though, it was George exalting on James’ home floor as LeBron walked stone-faced from it.
Miami has been here before: Knocked back and doubted. Three times in last season’s playoffs, including against Indiana, the Heat trailed in a series only to prevail.
Miami has all it can handle right now, though, to a degree that repeat championship is in the most doubt it has been in since last June’s championship parade.
I don’t say that because the series is 1-1, or even because the next two games, Sunday and Tuesday, are in Indianapolis.
I say that because the Pacers are big and balanced and strong defensively. And because Hibbert, when not in foul trouble, is a force who can give the Heat fits. And I say that because this is never a good sign for Miami:
When LeBron scores 36 points, and it isn’t enough.
When everything is UP TO HIM, because too many teammates are letting him down.