SAN ANTONIO—The GQ cover model didn't feel as if he was dressed for success Thursday, not from the start. LeBron James didn't care for what covered his face or his arms, annoyances that he hardly needed in light of the strength of his adversaries.
And during the Heat's 111-87 loss to the surging San Antonio Spurs, it was apparent that the unwanted accessories got in his head.
Start with the mask, which he removed for good in the first quarter, just over an hour after he told the media that he'd probably wear it for another week. His coach, Erik Spoelstra, didn't ask and didn't care.
"I just wanted us to play better, play harder," Spoelstra said. "It's not medically that he can't. It was his decision to throw it off. We didn't throw it back at him."
That act of defiance did prompt James's wife Savannah to send him a halftime message, however, ordering him (unsuccessfully) to put it back on.
"I don't like it," James said, after making just 6-of-18 shots for 19 points. "It's that simple. Just got frustrated with it early on so I took it off. It didn't help, obviously, taking it off. It's probably a game-to-game thing."
This was the third game in which he's worn one of the NBA's mandated marketing gimmicks, the sleeved soccer-style jerseys that he has consistently characterized as "not for basketball."
He missed six of seven jumpers on Christmas in Los Angeles against the Lakers, and all seven of his three-point attempts in the All-Star game. Thursday, he missed 10 of his 11 shots from outside the paint, including a pull-up 3-point attempt in transition late in the third quarter, that could have cut the Spurs lead to two. And he spent stoppages pulling down on the sleeves and shaking his head.
"I'm not making any excuses, but I'm not a big fan of the jerseys," James said. "Not a big fan of them. So I have to figure out the next time I have to wear the short-sleeved jerseys. Every time I shoot, it feels like it's just pulling right up underneath my arm. I already don't have much room for error on my jump shot anyways, so it's definitely not a good thing."
And so, the best thing James heard all night was when he learned, shortly after that interview, that the Heat wouldn't be wearing them again this season.
They could be seeing the Spurs again, however, in June.
And, with due respect to James' distractions, let's consider their considerable contribution to Miami's misery Thursday.
After all, James was wearing a mask while he was scoring a career-high 61 points against Charlotte. And while the shirts should be scrapped next season, James could have worn a larger size—as Chris Bosh noted. Plus, the Spurs had to suffer with them too.
As one style maven, Dwyane Wade, put it, "They are not the reason we lost. Let's not make it about a jersey, we got our butts kicked."
They did from the tip, in a manner similar to what happened against another of the West's best (Houston) two nights earlier. San Antonio, as it tends to do when everyone is available and in tune, moved the ball with perfect pace and rhythm.
Tony Parker schooled Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, penetrating at will, and either finishing or finding a friend. Miami trailed 37-22 after one quarter, with only Bosh starting fast.
James was 1-for-6 in the first, and it never got much better.
Part of that was because of something else the Heat star was wearing—Kawhi Leonard. Leonard wasn't available when James had a relatively easy run against the Spurs in late January. That night, Boris Diaw was the primary defender. With Leonard available, Diaw stayed in as a starter, but as a secondary impediment, switching on some pick-and-rolls.
Leonard, who had a strong NBA Finals last June, has the physical tools to fluster James some.
"Just making sure he feels me, when he is going over a screen," Leonard said. "Not making it easy for him. Just trying to get in his dribble a little bit."
He did this halfway through the fourth quarter, hassling James close to halfcourt until the latter lost the ball, chased it, and then fumbled it over the sideline in the backcourt.
"He was a pest," Tim Duncan said of Leonard.
And Gregg Popovich was, well, Gregg Popovich. Few players and coaches in this sport admire each other as James and Popovich do. And yet, the Spurs coach continues to stick to a strategy that, at this point, James should find somewhat insulting.
"They played me the same way they did in the Finals," James said.
Not just the most recent Finals, which he won.
The Finals in 2007, too. Which he lost.
"They went under all of my pick-and-rolls and dared me to shoot," James said. "And they just didn't go."
They didn't and, again, perhaps that awful adidas outfit played a part. But his hesitation didn't help either.
It took him five games of the 2013 NBA Finals before he finally started to trust his improved touch and form, the sort of touch and form that has allowed him to increase his percentages each season, not to mention allowing him to have the sort of night he had Monday, when he scored 61 without a single dunk.
You'd think, with that masterpiece in mind, he would have been itching to make Popovich pay for his presumption of inaccuracy.
Yet he paused. Wardrobe malfunction? Perhaps. The sleeves will go. At some point soon, over his wife's pleas, the mask will too. But if he sees the Spurs again, 12 weeks down the line, he'll need to dump the doubt too.