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Will LeBron James Be a Hero or a Choke Artist with the Heat Facing Elimination?

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Will LeBron James Be a Hero or a Choke Artist with the Heat Facing Elimination?
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

LeBron James can still be a hero.

Inconsistencies have plagued him throughout the NBA Finals, leaving the Miami Heat down 3-2 and at the mercy of the San Antonio Spurs. But it's not over.

Facing elimination, the Heat can still win. LeBron can still be the savior he was supposed to be in Games 3 and 5 but wasn't. Two consecutive championships are not completely out of reach. One win, and the Heat will have forced a Game 7. A win there and they'll have procured a second straight title.

Before the Heat can even begin planning for that Game 7, they must prepare for and subsequently win Game 6.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Will LeBron choke in Game 6?

"The most important game is Game 6," LeBron pointed out after Game 5. "We can't worry about Game 7." 

Nothing rings truer than LeBron's astute observation.

Looking at the big picture is no longer a viable course of action for the Heat. Tunnel vision must be employed. For them, there is only Game 6, one last opportunity to keep their dynasty ambitions alive.

Winning Game 6 and extending the opportunity to make good on those lofty goals established three years prior begins and ends with LeBron. There will be no celebration, no Game 7 without an ennobling performance from the King. 

Even decent displays from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh won't be enough. They haven't been enough. Wade went for 25 points and 10 assists in Game 5 and Bosh pitched in 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting (63.6 percent), and the Heat still lost. And they lost badly.

Game 5 recap

Miami gave up 22-7 and 19-1 runs and inevitably trailed by 20 points early in the fourth quarter. Cutting it to eight inside two minutes to play meant next to nothing. The Heat weren't going to win with the most important piece of their puzzle not playing like himself.

LeBron scored 25 points, topping the 20-point plateau for the second straight game, something he failed to do through the first three. Each of those 25 points felt hollow, as did every one of his six rebounds, eight assists and four steals.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport
James can't afford to have another Game 3 or even Game 5 in Game 6.

Forget that he joined Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as the only four NBA players since 1986 to post at least 25 points, six rebounds, eight assists and four steals in a Finals game. Had he not shot 8-of-22 from the floor, that would have been impressive. Had he not disappeared during San Antonio's two monstrous runs, this would have been something to discuss.

Had the Heat won, LeBron would have been paid credence. But the Heat lost, so there are no gratuitous offerings forthcoming. There are only questions.

LeBron is averaging 21.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 2.2 steals on 43.6-percent shooting during the Finals. Game 5 was then a befitting showcase by the NBA's best player—unbalanced.

Despite averaging over 20 points a night, he's surpassed the 20-point plateau only twice. And he's only converted on at least 43 percent of his field-goal attempts twice as well. His equilibrium is off, and all one needs to do is look at his stat lines through the first five games to see it.

Game FGM FGA FG% 3P% PTS REBS ASTS STLS BLKS Plus/Minus Result
1 7 16 43.8 20 18 18 10 0 0 -3 L
2 7 17 41.2 33.3 17 8 7 3 3 +29 W
3 7 21 33.3 20 15 11 5 2 0 -32 L
4 15 25 60 50 33 11 4 2 2  +8 W
5 8 22 36.4 50 25 6 8 4 0  -9 L

The Heatles haven't lost back-to-back games since early January. At the heart of such a movement is LeBron. They also haven't won back-to-back contests since beating the Chicago Bulls in Game 5 of Round 2 and Indiana Pacers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, a span that stretches nearly a month. LeBron is at the forefront of that harrowing reality as well.

Consistency simply hasn't been LeBron's strong suit in the Finals (or over the last month), and the Heat's efforts have been turbulent—to put it kindly—as a result.

Miami was always going to go as far as LeBron could carry it. Drawing any other conclusion was impossible after watching how his supporting cast—namely Bosh and Wade—aimlessly glided their way through most of the postseason. He brought them to the Finals and to Game 5, and the Heat's ability to force a Game 7 and ultimately win another title hinges on his competence in Game 6.

Game 6 preview.

Back up against the wall yet again, the Heat need LeBron to step up, even more than he did in Game 7 versus the Pacers.

Slashing his way toward 32 points on 17 shots and 15 made free throws could be enough. That could spark a blowout or a win in general. Or it could not.

To ensure the Heat can prolong their season and dynasty hopes, LeBron needs to be great. Kind of like his most recent Game 7, only more so. Like Game-6-against-the-Boston-Celtics-in-2012 dominant.

One year ago, LeBron was almost in this exact same position. Trailing 3-2 to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat needed a win to stay alive, and LeBron willed them to that win.

"We've been here before," LeBron said, according to Michael Wallace of ESPN.com. "We've been on both sides of the fences. It doesn't matter if you're up [3-2] and you need one more win, or you need one more win [otherwise] you're out."

On the brink is on the brink, and the Heat are on the brink.

LeBron's Game 6 against the Celtics.

A loss would have ended their season back in 2012, and LeBron would have remained ring-less. Speculation would have run frat-boy wild, and the media would have had the Heat pegged for a dismantling before the offseason was out.

Something happened in Game 6, though. LeBron happened.

Behind 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists on 19-of-26 shooting, LeBron led the Heat to victory. Playing all but three minutes of what was never really a close game, he put the Heat on his back and sprinted, never slowing.

The result spoke for itself.

Miami went on to win Game 7 and eventually beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games to secure the first title of the Big Three era. That's the LeBron the Heat need, the one who made all that possible.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

San Antonio can't shoot 60 percent in Game 6. Defensive rotations have to be better, quicker. And LeBron can't have an off shooting night like he did in Game 5.

The Heat themselves have to find a way to get in the paint and then score in the paint. They were just 15-of-29 in the restricted area in Game 5. Point-blank opportunities can't roll off the rim the way they did. 

“I think that’s where it starts for us, honestly," LeBron said afterward, according to Kurt Helin of NBC Sports' ProBasketballTalk. “Getting into the paint."

Really, it begins with LeBron. It begins with him taking shots—a lot of shots. It begins with him making those shots, with him taking over. It ends with him never succumbing to fatigue, to the defense, to his natural instinct to defer to a fault.

Will LeBron be a choke artist or hero in Game 6?

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"I have to come up big, for sure in Game 6," LeBron said, per Roderick Boone of Newsday. "But I believe we all have to play at a high level in order to keep the series going. So me being one of the leaders of this team, I do put a lot of pressure on myself to force a Game 7, and I look forward to the challenge."

LeBron said something to that effect before Game 4. He came up huge and the Heat won. Now it's time for an encore, a response to a loss that he is perfectly capable of giving.

Then, we can talk about Game 7, about the potential for another ring. For now, it's all about Game 6, and all about what LeBron is going to do to win it.

 

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