MIAMI — Something happened to LeBron James on the way to his first NBA championship.
It’s not clear what exactly, but the LeBron James that we saw in the previous two rounds of the playoffs was not the same as the LeBron James that we saw in the 2011 NBA Finals.
“Sometimes, you got it,” James said afterward. “Sometimes, you don’t.”
Indeed, this is a make-or-miss league. James’ shooting numbers from the last two series, especially in the clutch, were probably not sustainable. But this was much more than that. James’ performance in The Finals was clearly not about shots just not going in.
The James that destroyed the Celtics and Bulls was aggressive, dominant and unforgiving. In The Finals, at least in Games 2-5, James was nothing but passive.
He turned himself into a point guard in this series, always looking to pass first. Yes, the Mavs blocked off the paint and were always ready with a second defender. Yes, “the right play” is to take what the defense gives you and find the open man.
But James isn’t a point guard. He’s 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds. And the best basketball talent in the world.
James took 15 shots per game in The Finals, but got to the free throw line just 20 times total in six games. That’s just over three attempts per game for a guy who averaged more than nine per game through the first three rounds.
When James attacks the basket, he’s a human locomotive, and opponents often have no choice but to hack him. But six players, including Mario Chalmers, attempted more free throws than James did in the series.
With their season on the line Sunday, Chalmers was more aggressive attacking the basket than James was. Dwyane Wade was clearly more aggressive, too. For the Mavs, Dirk Nowitzki was more aggressive, even though his shot wasn’t falling. J.J. Barea, the smallest guy on the floor was more aggressive. Heck, even Brian Cardinal, he of the three points-per-game average, seemed more confident with the ball on this night.
There were moments when the Heat got James into the paint. His post-ups were largely successful, and on the Heat’s third possession of Game 6, he and Chalmers ran a perfect pick-and-roll that resulted in a lay-up. But those plays were few and far between.
The plays we’ll remember most from this series were the ones where James gave the ball up at the first opportunity, deciding that Udonis Haslem or Chris Bosh were better suited to shoot the ball. Give credit to the Dallas defense, yes. But great players rise above obstacles like that. Tyson Chandler is a great defender, but he ain’t Dwight Howard.
Nowitzki more than earned his MVP trophy and deserves the top story in every non-Miami media outlet on Monday morning. But there’s no doubt that James’ failure to lead the Heat to a title is as big a story.
James took his talents to South Beach in order to win championships. And yes, there will be more opportunities to do just that. But the Heat took a lot of momentum into The Finals, had home-court advantage, and had what it takes to win a championship. Every step of the way, they were quick to tell us how hard their road had been. Now they’ve got to start it all over next fall.
The Heat may get back here, and James may play great to help them do it. But until he’s holding that Larry O’Brien trophy, the questions will continue to surround James.
What was missing in this series was James’ killer instinct. And at this point in his career, you have to start to wonder if he has some sort of mental block that’s keeping him from seizing the moment on the biggest stage.
“I work hard to try to put myself in position to play at a high level,” James said. “When you go out on the court, does the ball always go in? Absolutely not. But the one thing I know, I never hold my head low in saying, ‘I didn’t do it the right way’ or ‘I wish I would have did this.’ It’s not about that.”
In the Heat locker room, reserve guard Eddie House was asked what went wrong for his team in the series.
“[Expletive],” House replied. “I don’t know.”
The person who needs to answer that question is LeBron James. And it’s not clear that he knows the answer either.