HOUSTON — After a mesmerizing Monday night that seemed like a dream, LeBron James set out on a desperate search for sleep. He hunted for it as he'd hunted for shots during a career-best, franchise-best 61-point performance against the Bobcats. He snuck in some on the flight, some more after landing and some more after the Miami Heat's morning meeting.
"I'm extremely tired right now," James said prior to Tuesday's marquee matchup against the rolling Rockets.
Physically, emotionally, mentally—after a draining night making history.
He looked it.
He sounded it.
And, after a quick start in the Toyota Center, he showed it, burning gas like a Bentley during a 106-103 defeat.
So, there wouldn't be a LeBron-core, to borrow a phrase coined by NBA TV.
Eight three-pointers, like he made on Monday? Tuesday, he didn't make one. In fact, he didn't make a single shot outside two feet.
He converted all nine shots inside that range, and missed all nine shots outside it, in scoring 22 points total, or three points fewer than he scored in Monday's third quarter. And defensively. Well, he was a step slow, especially in transition, for most of the contest.
"Second half, it just wasn't there for me," James said. "It just happens. One of those nights where your legs just kind of give, and you try to rely on everyone else."
It wasn't just that he couldn't find his energy, his rhythm, or his form, not to mention one of his superfriends, Chris Bosh, was entirely out of sorts, sinking just 1-of-5 shots and scoring five points in 27 minutes. He couldn't find his fortune either.
Late in the third quarter, after scoring 39 points in the first quarter and 14 in the second, the Rockets had stormed out to another healthy lead, with James Harden's runner putting them up 10. That's when James, turning and then falling back into the crowd, banked in a 28-footer just before the buzzer.
Or so the officials ruled.
Did he think he got it off?
"Absolutely," James said. "But once the refs went over there, it almost seems like we never win that. They go over it, and it's always like, we don't ever benefit from that."
So it was taken away.
And still, with James sitting the first six minutes and failing to contribute a point in the second six, the Heat chipped away at the Rockets in the fourth. Dwyane Wade tallied seven and Ray Allen had five. But, more surprisingly and encouragingly, Michael Beasley—until recently banished deep on the bench—posted 13, making all five of his shots, finally shedding the hesitation that has marked his play for a couple of months.
"I'm very proud of him, man," James said. "I told him after the game. Heck of a game. Use this as a springboard. Hopefully he can continue to get more trust with Spo, and Spo can play him."
And after Beasley connected from 25 feet, Harden's ill-advised, errant pass sailed over James' head as James' mask-covered face caught Dwight Howard's inadvertent elbow. James stayed down for a few seconds before shaking it off.
With 13 second left, Allen inbounded to him.
And this is where James was supposed to continue his supernatural streak, and send the game to overtime, just as he had beaten the buzzer to defeat Golden State before the All-Star break, the game that put him right back in the MVP chase. This is where he was supposed to preserve Miami's chance at another victory, a ninth in succession, and one that would allow it to end the night tied with Indiana in the loss column atop the Eastern Conference. This is where he was supposed to make up for Spoelstra's odd decision to rest Greg Oden, not strange because Oden should be playing both ends of back-to-backs, but because it made more sense to save the massive center for the Dwight Howard half.
This is where James wouldn't, couldn't be merely mortal.
He needed to be Marvel—as in the superhero that the comic book company depicted on social media after James' record-smashing Monday performance.
If he took the shot, of course.
"It's something that has quite a few layers to it," Spoelstra said of the play. "But they did a good job denying the first part so we had to catch it at halfcourt. And then at all points, all bets were off."
"I came off, and if I had a good look at it, I could take it," James said.
"The second option was D-Wade setting a flare for Ray, and they took it away," James said. "And the last option was going to Beas on the back side. And they took that away as well."
"You've got to give them a lot of credit," Spoelstra said. "They blew up the play."
Howard switched onto James, deep behind the line.
James fired with .9 seconds left.
"I knew I had to put up a heave, over a top of him," James said. "But I felt like I had a good look, just a little long."
He didn't linger long on the court afterward, not like the night before.
Rather, he looked as if he longed for a long rest.