LeBron James left the court in haste on Wednesday night—angry, frustrated and confused that his Miami Heat had just blown an opportunity to oust the Indiana Pacers, with he himself having been relegated to bystander duty late in the game due to foul trouble.
By the time postgame pressers rolled around, his anger had subsided. Frustration and confusion still lingered, but there was no hostility in his voice, no trace of panic in his tone.
There was, however, a pinch of acceptance—even peace—in his comments and general demeanor, almost as if he understands there's no mystery involved with what happens next.
Because he knows what will happen next: Game 6 domination.
King James will be the first to downplay the idea of "extra motivation," maintaining that he has more than enough to play for; he's already done it.
"I'm motivated enough to try to get back the Finals," James said following Game 4, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "That's motivating enough, and being one of the leaders of this team, I have to do my job."
At times like these, however, James' job description changes.
Earning a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance is incentive enough, but the Pacers, referees and critics—everyone, really—of his last-second decision-making on Wednesday has put him in a situation where he has to admit that Game 6 is alive with opportunities for redemption.
Most of Game 5 was a nightmare for James. Foul trouble limited him to a shade over 24 minutes of action, a career playoff low. Not only that, but it was the first time James has ever logged fewer than 30 minutes during a postseason contest. Through 152 playoff games, he's never dipped below the 31-minute mark.
Think James won't remember every single one of the five fouls he was called for? He's one of the most cerebral players in the game. He won't soon forget all the whistles, all the fouls—all the sitting.
The ill effects of riding pine are ingrained in his mind. On Wednesday, they messed with his rhythm and impaired his performance.
Seven points are a career playoff low for him, and he's not going to score the bare minimum again.
Michael Jordan scored at least 15 points in every playoff game in which he played. LeBron James was held to 7 points in Game 5— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 29, 2014
Burying only 20 percent of his field-goal attempts made Game 5 the second-worst postseason shooting performance of his career. He's not going to shoot like that again; it just won't happen.
On top of everything else, James is now subject to the wrath of couch-sitting coaches and players begrudgingly anatomizing his decision to pass up the final shot. CBS Sports' Gregg Doyel penned one of the firmer takes on James' late-game choice:
Sounds good, but enough with the right basketball play. Enough. Sometimes, the right basketball play is the best player in the world trying to finish at the rim. LeBron is a 6-foot-9, 275-pound monster. From a running start, his vertical has to be in the 40-inch range. Hibbert is 5 inches taller but plays well below the heights that LeBron can reach. This was LeBron's moment to ignore the right play and get selfish and get nasty, but LeBron doesn't have that particular gene. Jordan did, as you know, but LeBron does not -- and that's one of the most unique, even beautiful things about his game. As good as he is, he's happy to share the ball, even to a fault.
And that finish, that was his fault.
However you look at it, James deferring to Chris Bosh is an issue. Either it was the right play at the right time, or it was a sign of timidness or fear.
Think James isn't listening to this? He's probably not. He shuts down almost all lines of communication during the playoffs.
Time to work! Playoffs mode activated #StriveForGreatness— LeBron James (@KingJames) April 18, 2014
But he knows we're talking about it and thinking about it.
And for what it's worth, James did make the right basketball play. Any play he makes is usually the correct one. That's how good he is, and it's a testament to how smart he plays. Game 6 is his opportunity to remind everyone that his way is the right way.
That's one shot he's not going to pass up.
Been There, Dominated That
This is the closest Miami has come to having its back up against the wall during these playoffs, so we should all know what happens next: James will go off.
Against the Pacers in 2012, with the Heat trailing Indiana 2-1 in the second round, James exploded for 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists.
Facing the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals that same year, his team down 3-2, he went for 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in Game 6. Then he penciled himself in for 31 points and 12 rebounds in the series-clinching Game 7.
Tied with Indy at 3-3 last season in the Eastern Conference Finals, he went for 32, eight and four, respectively, in Game 7.
Staring down the barrel of a 3-2 deficit in the 2013 NBA Finals, he torched the San Antonio Spurs for a triple-double in Game 6, registering 32 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists. With a second straight championship still on the line in Game 7, he pumped in 37 points, 12 rebounds and four assists.
Similar challenges haven't presented themselves this year. Game 6 against the Pacers, with Miami currently up 3-2 in the series, might not even qualify as being painted into a corner. But it's the closest that he and the Heat have come to being challenged so far—especially after what transpired in Game 5—and James is going to use it as motivation.
Ask me I'll play. Ask me I'll shoot. Ask me I'll pass. It's not what you ask. It's what I ask of myself. -LeBron James— Sports Quotes (@Sports_Greats) May 29, 2014
Since the 2012 playoffs, James has played in seven Game 6s and Game 7s combined. Through those seven total games, he's averaging 33.4 points, 10 rebounds and 5.6 assists.
These are the moments he plays for, the challenges he longs to tackle and conquer. Each time the Heat have needed him to save their season over the last few years, he's almost always come through.
Friday's Game 6, different though it seems, is going to feature more of the same: James rising to the occasion, crushing defenses, scoring points, dishing assists and winning the only way he's come to know how.
There was never any hope of the Pacers erasing this 3-1 deficit.
Winning Game 5 is enough to spark some tiny bit of optimism, but it is in no way a sign of absolute hope.
Despite James playing just 24 minutes and shooting poorly from the field, despite the Heat playing Michael Beasley and Toney Douglas and despite the return of the inefficient, not-so-big-shot Chris Bosh, the Pacers almost lost. They know this, and the Heat know this.
That's why, after Game 5, the Pacers weren't left lamenting whistles or displacing blame for their transgressions, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick:
They're not—not yet—but James and the Heat still held their heads high after this loss. They didn't complain publicly about the whistles like the Pacers did after Game 4—James, who has at times chafed about officiating, took the highest of roads, stating that "the game is reffed by the refs. They ref how they see it. We play it, and you live with the results." But Heat players, on the side, spoke somewhat proudly about hanging close, in spite of the obvious adversity.
Then they headed to Miami, for Game 6.
On the road, down 3-2, with James being James, the Pacers are unlikely to win Game 6. And they most definitely aren't going to win this series. James won't let them.
Will LeBron James play much better in Game 6?
This is his time. These are the games that demand greatness. These are the circumstances under which he has come to thrive.
"I picked up some early fouls," James calmly said after Game 5, via Skolnick. "It's definitely something I'm not accustomed to."
Untimely marginalization certainly isn't something he's used to. This moment, this scrutiny, this pressure and these stakes are nothing new, though, and James is going to respond accordingly—dominating in every way with the towel-waiving and cheerleading in his rear view and the NBA Finals in his foresight.