Dropping Game 6 against the Indiana Pacers spurred the usual amount of panic. Every Heat loss is probed like it's a win-or-go-home situation when it's not. Miami held a 3-2 series edge. The season wouldn't end with a loss.
But it wasn't so much the actual loss as it was what transpired during and after. James attempted to do everything on his own while Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade combined to go 4-of-19 from the field, logging just over six minutes between the two of them in a pivotal fourth quarter.
Suddenly, the Heat's dynamic seemed shaken and their collective morale fractured.
"We've got guys individually who want to play better," Wade said afterward, via Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com. "But we've got to try to help each other out in this locker room and not leave it up to the individual to self-will it."
Hopefully, James was sporting his bulletproof vest, because Wade was gunning for him.
Rifts have been manufactured between Miami's triumvirate before. When the Big Three began their inaugural campaign just 9-8, they were a failure. When they fell to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, James' "Heatles" were never going to be a winner. And when the Boston Celtics pushed them to the brink of elimination in 2012, they were destined to fall short as long as they were together.
Such conversation comes as no surprise this time. Doubters flock to the surface when the going gets tough. For the Heat, potentially missing out on a Finals appearance is as difficult as it gets. That this doubt came from Wade himself is unnerving.
Game 7 poses an actual threat to their campaign. A loss ends the Heat's season earlier than anticipated, shattering any possibility they have of repeating as NBA champions.
Now more than ever, the hype is to be expected and the criticism deserved. Miami wasn't supposed to be here. This series wasn't supposed to go to seven games. As good as the Pacers were, the Heat were better.
Facing a series-deciding Game 7, those are no longer the prevailing sentiments; following a self-destructive Game 6, the Heat are the ones with their backs up against the wall. The Pacers don't have anything to lose—the Heat do. They have everything to lose. And if they play like they did in Game 6, they will lose. Badly.
Avoiding such an outcome isn't going to be easy or even possible if these Heat aren't on the same page. For the first time all season, they aren't.
"We can state the obvious: They're both struggling," James said of Bosh and Wade, via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.
James is operating under the assumption that he has to do too much. Meanwhile, Wade has implied that there is a balance issue and that James needs to trust his teammates more.
If there's a problem with that balance now, then the Heat are in trouble.
This far into the playoffs—and this far into their tenure together—the Big Three's ability to essentially coexist shouldn't be a question. It shouldn't even be a topic of discussion. Yet it is. And it has the potential to doom them.
But it won't. James won't let it and we need to accept that. Miami—Wade included—needs to embrace it.
There's no doubt that James is attempting to do too much. His intention was never to exhaust himself the way he has in the Eastern Conference Finals. Not when he was playing alongside two perennial All-Stars.
Factors beyond his control have forced him too, though. Bosh is averaging 11.3 points and 3.7 rebounds on 41.1-percent shooting against the Pacers. That's not on James. Wade is putting up just 14.5 points and 4.8 assists on 44.2-percent shooting. That's not on James, either, but it's on him to clean it up.
For James to stray away from his solo act, he needs help. Bosh and Wade haven't given him any. Nor has Ray Allen. Or Shane Battier. Chris "Birdman" Andersen's reckless showing in Game 5 only made things worse. James' greatest confidants have been Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole or Udonis Haslem on any given night. That can't happen.
Wade would have James blindly believe in him. He's never played this badly for this long during the playoffs. Trust him. Something has to give eventually.
One loss away from elimination, James can't put stock in "eventually." He has to do what his team needs him to do. Thus far, that's been everything and anything.
Coach Erik Spoelstra knows it. Again, Bosh and Wade totaled just over six minutes in the fourth quarter of Game 6. And Bosh knows it, too. He's admitted it.
"I didn't show up for my teammates tonight, and I'm not going to let it happen again," Bosh conceded after Game 6, via Windhorst. "I'm really disappointed in myself."
Deep down, Wade has to be disappointed in himself as well. Not because his knee is bothering him or even because he's playing poorly, but because he's failed James. It's not the other way around.
James isn't failing his teammates by going for 29 points, seven rebounds and six assists like he did in Game 6. He's keeping them alive. The Heat are here because of him, not in spite of him. Not once has he abandoned a game plan that was working. He's always done what he's had to, and never at the expense of his team.
And so, we believe in him, much like the way Wade is imploring James to believe in his supporting cast, much like the way James already believes in his on-court brethren.
Acting as if James doesn't understand how important his teammates are is beyond insane. He no longer calls the Cleveland Cavaliers his own because he believes just the opposite.
In Cleveland, James was 0-2 when facing Game 7s. The Cavs lost to the Detroit Pistons in the second round of the playoffs in 2006, behind a 27-point, eight-rebound performance from James because the rest of the team combined to shoot just 22 percent from the field.
They lost to the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals, too. James went off to the tune of 45 points, five rebounds and six assists. Only one other Cav was in double figures (Delonte West), so they fell.
Last year, James emerged victorious from a Game 7 for the first time in his career, against the Celtics. He put forth another monster effort, 31 points and 12 rebounds in 48 minutes. But he had help.
That same Game 7, Wade went for 23 points, six rebounds and six assists on 8-of-17 shooting. Bosh came off the bench and pitched in 19 points and eight rebounds on 8-of-10 shooting. They were there for him.
Both of them.
If they're there for him again, he'll lean on them. Just like he did last year and just like he's always wanted to do, including now.
If they're not, then he'll continue to will the Heat as far as he can, which could be the Finals. Should they lose, it won't be because of his solo act or a lack of chemistry. It will be because James didn't get the assistance he needed and would have welcomed.
Because he didn't receive the help he deserved.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, NBA.com and ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.
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