Even the best players in NBA history have had off nights from time to time. Such is the nature of a game in which success is so often measured by the efficiency with and the degree to which one throws a leather ball through a hoop that is slightly larger than the ball.
Doing so against other giants certainly doesn't make things any easier regardless of one's own physical and/or mental superiority.
LeBron James should know. He's far and away the best basketball player on planet Earth right now. He's a 6'8", 250-pound freight train with the mind of a hoops-loving cyborg. He's also taken home four of the last five league MVPs, including the oh-so-rare MVP/Finals MVP/Olympic gold trifecta with the Miami Heat and Team USA just last year.
And even he struggles on occasion. James started off Game 2 of the 2013 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs by missing 10 of 12 attempts from the field. That lack of accuracy left him with just six points through the first 33.5 minutes.
Yet the Heat were down by a single point at the time, 62-61, in part because LeBron refused to let a poor shooting night—largely induced by San Antonio's helping, collapsing, lane-clogging defense—to dictate terms and keep him down.
So, like the great players before him and any player of his versatile talents, James found other ways to affect the outcome. He set up his sweet-shooting teammates with his signature laser-like passes on the way to amassing seven assists in all. He crashed the boards to the tune of eight rebounds. He made plays on the defensive end, picking off three passes and sending back three others, including one from Tim Duncan in the first quarter:
And an emphatic stuff of Tiago Splitter's dunk attempt in the fourth:
That activity allowed LeBron to remain engaged, even when his jumper wasn't. It allowed him to stay in the flow of the game, even when the Spurs did their darndest to take him out of it.
The Heat had LeBron minding Danny Green for much of the game, and vice versa. Strangely enough, that worked to San Antonio's advantage at times. Green's screened shooting (6-of-6 from the floor, 5-of-5 from three) forced James to give chase on defense, while his more-than-adequate athleticism bothered LeBron on occasion on the other end.
But that was hardly cause for Erik Spoelstra to pull his MVP, to worry that LeBron was tuckered out, though James may well have been at times.
Because, as Spo knows—and so does anyone else who's seen LeBron in these or most any playoffs—James can kick his game into another gear, one that very few in the sport have ever known.
LeBron found that gear once again—late in the third, no less. Between the 3:49 mark of the third and the 7:13 mark of the fourth, James scored 11 points on 5-of-5 from the field, dropped three dimes and added a steal and a block to his defensive tally. He switched between screener and facilitator in partnership with Mario Chalmers, drove the lane with greater authority and kicked out to the likes of Ray Allen and Mike Miller for wide-open threes.
By the end of that stretch, the Heat had flipped a one-point deficit into a 27-point lead on the way to what would become a 103-84 flattening of the mighty Spurs in Game 2.
Of course, a well-rounded box score isn't always the best indicator of James' ultimate success on any given night, particularly in the NBA Finals. Game 1 of this series saw LeBron put together his third Finals triple-double, and a powerful one at that (18 points, 18 rebounds, 10 assists).
But James' Heat had dropped two of those three stat-sheet-stuffing affairs—Game 5 against the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 and Game 1 against these Spurs. He'd shot a combined 44.4 percent (24-of-54) from the field and had often faltered as a playmaker down the stretch (2.5 turnovers) in those three contests.
Not this time, though. Not with Miami badly needing a win to even up the series and three games in the Alamo City looming. Not with a deep, experienced Spurs squad waiting to parlay its performances at AmericanAirlines Arena into another series victory at LeBron's expense and extend its own record to a perfect 5-for-5 in Finals trips since Tim Duncan fell into San Antonio's lap.
This was a game the Heat had to win, one to which LeBron James would have to lead them, even with the floor seemingly shifting to frustrate his every move. Unlike 2011, LeBron now sports a much deeper arsenal of moves, skills and strengths from which to draw at any given moment. But he didn't necessarily dig into it in time to save Game 1 for Miami.
He dished from the low post when he could find room and diced up the Spurs defense from the perimeter when he couldn't. He used that massive frame and beautiful mind of his to impact the game every which way, from setting up his teammates for clean looks to making those that San Antonio got that much more difficult to convert.
Not to mention fewer and further between. In fact, LeBron totaled more stocks (steals and blocks, six) in Game 2 than he had during all of his Finals triple-double efforts combined (four).
Indeed, LeBron made the best of a bad night, or better yet, didn't let the beginnings of a bad night prevent him from ending on a high note. He made himself a factor when doing so in the "normal" ways and within the "normal" flow of the game wouldn't suffice.
Because that's what the greatest players do. They create ways to win. When the shots aren't falling or the looks aren't to their liking, superstars remember that there's much more to a basketball court than just the round, red rim and the white netting that hangs from it.
And, more importantly, that games are truly decided within those other spaces, as was the case for LeBron James and the Heat on a crucial Sunday night in south Florida.