LeBron James picked an odd time to become passive, falling back on perimeter shots instead of attacking the lane and, at times, appearing completely unengaged.
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich went to a simple defensive design, keeping his players underneath the perimeter and daring James to shoot.
James took the bait, and it didn’t turn out well for him.
The league’s Most Valuable Player shot just 7-of-21 from the field and was 1-of-5 from three-point range for 15 points in the Heat's 113-77 blowout loss in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday.
Popovich is a master of taking star scorers out of their rhythm, and his scheme to sag off James and drop deep under screens paid off.
According to Chris Tomasson of Fox Sports, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had this to say after Game 3: “They're packing the paint, playing off him. We’ll make those adjustments. ... We let ourselves down tonight.”
The biggest question is: Did James simply settle for perimeter shots because he lacked fire in a blowout, or was his inefficiency a product of Popovich's design?
Both could be true, but it’s still hard to grasp why James was so easily shut down. His first basket of the game came on an early post in which he made a quick move for an easy bucket. James was 5-of-7 on shots taken inside the paint, proving he was plenty capable of scoring inside.
But he went away from it.
Further proof that James wasn't attacking was his failure to reach the free-throw line, which ESPN's Tom Haberstroh noted was a first in his Heat career.
If James is not driving to the tin, then he’s not going to pick up freebies. More than that, though, it’s a sign that he is not engaged in doing what's best for the Heat.
The result was one of James’ worst performances.
He needs to wake up for more than just 10- to 12-minute stretches during the NBA Finals, or else such uncharacteristically poor outings will continue.
James must become more assertive, particularly on the road, where role players tend to struggle from the field. He needs to stop worrying about getting his teammates involved early and instead lead the charge himself.
For evidence of that lack of aggressiveness, consider that the Spurs’ Danny Green is outscoring James 56-50 through three games. Green did just shoot the lights out in Game 3 (27 points, 7-of-9 from deep), but LeBron averaged 26.2 points per game coming into this series, so he should be on the favorable end of this comparison.
Popovich stayed consistently tight-lipped (for obvious reasons) when asked about his team's ability to slow James, saying after the game, "We haven't stopped anybody. We are trying to play good team defense on everybody."
Questions for LeBron haven't just come on the offensive end either, as he captained a Heat defense that didn’t showcase nearly the same passion it did in Game 2.
James lacked fire, appearing less committed on the defensive glass. At times, he was simply ball-watching.
That’s not LeBron at his best.
The Heat's best player didn’t speak at the usual postgame news conference podium, instead opting to speak to reporters in the locker room. He didn’t have any excuses:
“I gotta be better. I'm putting this on my shoulders…I'm not doing my part," he told Turner Sports' Rachel Nichols.
The game’s grandest stage is the place where legends shine, but in Game 3, James looked more average than great.
With a legacy at stake, you would expect more urgency from James. But right now, due in part to Popovich's clever scheming from the sidelines, he’s removing himself from the game.