BROOKLYN — The scowl. That's the lingering memory of LeBron James' signature playoff performance as a member of the Miami Heat, a memory that all the snow and sleet and slush in Boston will never cover up or wash away. That, back on June 7, 2012, was the angriest anyone on James' team had ever seen him, a state of extreme intensity that Pat Riley later compared to a "cobra, a leopard, a tiger hunched over his kill," which manifested itself in a 45-point, 15-rebound takeover of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals to save the Heat season and maybe much more.
What happened Monday against the Brooklyn Nets wasn't quite that.
"In Boston, you knew right away, this was a special night," Shane Battier said. "Tonight, you didn't really realize he had 35 until you looked up and, oh my gosh, LeBron has 35. It was a lot more in the flow. Obviously, the game in Boston, that was the end of the Miami Heat as we knew it. So the implications of that game were far greater than up 2-1 in the second round."
That is true, even if James' final scoring total was four greater than what he produced that night, in hoisting the Heat to a 102-96 victory and a 3-1 series lead, with a closeout opportunity now coming in Miami on Wednesday. The implications were not as dramatic, and James' mood was not as dark, joking around with teammates 45 minutes to tipoff as they re-watched Game 4 of that Eastern Conference Finals against Boston on the locker room television, and he chided himself for mistakes he made down the stretch.
Oh, some scowling, too.
That came at the end, with the victory already secured, but James falling short of a milestone, clanking the second of two foul shots to finish with 49 points, tying his playoff high. James' teammates tugged at his shoulders and slapped him on the back, but he wouldn't crack a celebratory smile.
"That's the first time I've been disappointed in myself in a win," James said later. "You know, it definitely won't take away from the fact this was a huge win for us. But it's a free throw, and I hate missing free throws."
Maybe that's what he'll remember about this evening, that final meaningless failure.
Others will have far more favorable takeaways.
* His consistency.
Scoring totals of 12, 13, 15 and nine in the four quarters.
"Simply indefatigable," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, sort of. "Is that how you say it?"
* His relentlessness.
Twelve shots at the rim, 11 of which he made. Nineteen free-throw attempts, his most since Game 2 of those same 2012 conference finals against Boston.
"It's hard to lose when he's that aggressive and in the paint that much," Battier said.
"A lot of his shots were in the paint, and we tried to keep him out of the paint," Nets coach Jason Kidd said. "It's a little harder to talk about it, because he's not gonna settle. And tonight he didn't settle."
He took no prisoners, and certainly not one named Paul Pierce.
Pierce revealed Sunday that he had asked to guard James starting in Game 2.
He might want to stop before Game 5.
"He’s tough, especially with his strength, his speed," Pierce said. "When he ducks his head, tries to go to the basket. It really took away a lot of my aggressiveness in the first quarter when I picked up two fouls. So I was trying not to pick up my third foul there in the second quarter. He realized that, and he just kept going to the hole. But at the end of the day, he’s tough to guard one-on-one. You gotta try to slow him down, you gotta try to send multiple guys at him, make him kick the ball. We didn’t do that tonight."
We, he, whatever.
* His endurance.
James played 43 minutes and 28 seconds, with persistent pressure on him to produce as his teammates scuffled. That included all 24 minutes of the second half, even though he often looked as if he could benefit from a breather.
"I was going to start the (fourth) quarter with him, and go from there," Spoelstra said. "And at some point before the six-minute timeout, I asked him, I said, 'Hey, I can get you out now. It could be a foul, or it could get a 45-second break, and then get the full timeout.' He said, 'No, I'm not coming out right now.' I kind of said it. I didn't really mean it. But just to see if he needed it."
"What I told him, I cannot say again," James said. "I wanted to finish out the game. I felt like this was a must-win for us."
* His defense under duress.
He picked up his fifth foul with 2:30 left, and the game tied at 94.
Kidd isolated Joe Johnson against him twice.
"We got the ball to our best player and he got some good looks," Kidd said.
Not good enough.
"I take pride in my defense just as much as I do offensively," James said. "I believe in a one-on-one situation, I can stop anyone from scoring. It doesn't happen that way all the time. Guys make shots. He missed one. He missed two of them."
One, a 14-foot turnaround. The other, an 11-foot stepback.
"I wasn't necessarily trying to draw the foul on him, but I thought he was aggressive so I was just trying to use his aggressiveness against him," Johnson said. "He flopped that last one."
Johnson said the alleged flop threw him off.
"I should have known they wouldn't call a foul but I went into my shot anyway," Johnson said. "So I had plenty of time."
After he couldn't connect, the Nets were pressed for it.
* His intelligence, and unselfishness.
This is what stuck out most to Spoelstra, specifically on the game's biggest play—Chris Bosh sticking a three-pointer from the right corner, to break the tie with 57.3 seconds left.
It started when the coach called a 2-3 pick-and-roll.
"We were talking about it before the game," Dwyane Wade said. "We ran that in Game 4 against Boston up there."
The game they just happened to watch before this one.
"We were like, man, we haven't run that in a while," Wade said. "Coach pulled it out. So it was good to be able to go to that."
It started with the ball in Wade's hands.
"The screen with me and Bron, my first initial reaction is to see how they play it, see if they mess up, and I come off of it aggressive," Wade said. "And second is LeBron, how he's rolling. Third, I got shooters. But the way he's going, he got a lane, so I threw it back to him, and he made a heck of a pass."
"Dwyane made the right read," Spoelstra said. "[Kevin] Garnett was right there, though, as he always is. He sniffed it out."
James saw Garnett come off of Bosh.
"I already knew exactly what was about to happen," James said. "I spun in the paint, threw it to [Mario Chalmers], and already knew it was going to find CB."
"Just a great pass," Wade said.
That's after Chalmers saw Bosh "out of the corner of my eye."
"Yeah, just trying to make the extra pass," Chalmers said. "Not force it. I felt like he had a better shot than me, I gave it up."
Even if he hesitated slightly.
"He told me," Bosh said, laughing. "Mario knows better. He's gonna make the right play."
Bosh had just missed two three-pointers from the top, the second feeling better than the first.
"Shoot it," Bosh said. "I don't like to think too much."
He made it.
"The swing-swing three is his very best one," Spoelstra said of Bosh.
But the coach reserved his highest praise for James, for making the proper decision.
"The only play to make was to get off the ball," Spoelstra said. "He had overpowered in the paint a few times, in similar plays like that. I just don't think he would have gotten a good shot off, with that double-team with Garnett there. He just showed great poise and trust to be able to make the right play. It's a basketball play that he just feels. He got off without thinking about the consequences, and that's what makes him unique."
Well, that and some other, aforementioned, attributes. Plus his strength, his vision, and in this case, with Miami needing a win to seize control of the series, his timing.
"There's a lot that goes through my mind in a basketball game, and sometimes it gets me in trouble," James said. "I see a lot going on in a game that I'm not sure everyone sees, and I'm happy I'm able to give it to my teammates."
Even if he sometimes hides that happiness behind a scowl.
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