By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
VIDEO: Heat vs. Nets: Game 4
NEW YORK — Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals was the game LeBron James went off for 49 points. It was the game when the Miami Heat took control of the series with a 102-96 victory. And it was the game when it became even more clear that these Miami Heat are not those Miami Heat.
Given the state of the Eastern Conference, the champs might get to The Finals with only one or two losses. But given the state of the Western Conference, they shouldn’t necessarily be the favorites when they get there.
James played Game 4 like he wanted no part of a 2-2 series tie. The Heat have now won their last 10 games following a playoff loss, and he’s obviously the biggest reason why. He knows when his team needs him at his highest level and he knows how to get there.
On Monday, he attacked. After attempting just four shots in the restricted area in Game 3 (just one after the first quarter), he had 12 in Game 4. He made 11 of them, giving him more points at the basket (22) than anyone else in the game had total. And his 19 free throws were the most he’s attempted since the 2012 conference finals.
The Nets zoned up him whenever he touched the ball. They knew they had to keep him from getting away from the basket. But they simply couldn’t do it.
“We tried to keep him out of the paint,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said afterward. “It’s a little bit harder when you talk about it, because he’s not going to settle. Tonight, he didn’t settle. He put pressure on our defense.”
Chris Bosh (12 points on 5-for-9 shooting) and Dwyane Wade (15 points on 7-for-13) both shot better than 50 percent. But this was a James-heavy offense all night. According to SportVU, James had 105 touches, 43 more than any of his teammates and 35 more than he had in any of the first three games.
Bosh did hit the game-deciding basket, a corner 3-pointer with 57 seconds left. But it was, of course, the product of the attention that James drew from the Brooklyn defense.
It was a great play call and terrific execution out of a timeout. James set a screen for Wade, rolled to the basket and drew the attention of Kevin Garnett. And at that point, he knew where the open shot would be.
“I went to attack KG, who came off of [Chris Bosh],” James said, “and I already knew exactly what was about to happen.”
Once Paul Pierce recovered to double-team James, he kicked the ball out to Mario Chalmers, who found Bosh alone in the corner.
It was an example of James’ brilliance, belief in his teammates, and willingness to always make the right play. Bosh had missed 3s on the previous two possessions, but never lost the trust of the guy who had been dominating the game himself.
“The biggest play of the game, after scoring all those points, was getting off the ball” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s a basketball play that he just feels. He got off it without thinking about the consequences, and that’s what makes him unique.”
James wasn’t hogging the ball. There was some dribbling around on the perimeter when he sized up a matchup that he liked, but he was a willing passer whenever the situation called for it. It’s just that nobody else stepped up to take control of the offense.
Though James was willing to give up the ball on any given possession, he wasn’t willing to come out of the game in the second half. When Spoelstra halfheartedly suggested it, “What I told him,” James said, “I cannot say again.”
“Whatever I needed to do for us to win this game, it needed to be done.”
But how much will need to be done when the Heat are in The Finals? Will it be enough?
Though James played more than 43 minutes at a level that no one else in the world can reach, his team barely won on Monday. The Nets are one of the teams in this league that matches up best with the Heat, but those West teams have more weapons, and the Spurs and Clippers have the requisite ball movement and shooting to beat the Miami defense.
The Spurs, of course, were seconds away from beating the Heat last year. And several members of the Miami rotation have regressed since then.
That defense hasn’t been inconsistent all year. In the last two games, Brooklyn has scored 120 points per 100 possessions. And if the offense has to be so James-heavy more often than not, his third championship will be much harder to get than either of the first two.
It has become abundantly clear that James will need a new supporting cast this summer. The question is whether the current one can do enough to win nine more games.