With Practiced Sense of Calm, LeBron James Focused on Return to Normalcy

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With Practiced Sense of Calm, LeBron James Focused on Return to Normalcy
USA TODAY Sports

Just a laptop, smartphone or some other Internet-accessible device.

Click on the "Library" tab of CoachSpo.com and scroll down to 2009, signifying the year he gifted his players the best-selling title Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. Spoelstra did so because he was struck by Gladwell's concept of "applying 10,000 hours to anything you do to improve your skills" in order to achieve mastery, a concept the Miami Heat coach has made part of his mantra to players and reporters ever since.

Much of the material springs from the first of two definitions of the word "outlier" that Gladwell lists in the introduction: "Something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body."

There's a second definition of "outlier," however, and that's the one that most applies to LeBron James and the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, as they try to stop Lance Stephenson and the Pacers from breathing any more life into their season and, thus, any more hot air into their ears.

That definition:

"A statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample."

Wednesday in Indianapolis, the ultimate outlier athlete, in a positive sense, endured the ultimate outlier circumstance, in a negative one.

If normalcy returns Friday night, as it likely will, James and the Heat will return to the NBA Finals.

He's coming off the strangest of his 152 playoff games, and one of his odder outings—at any time of year—since he graduated from St. Vincent-St. Mary.

As measured by Game Score, a metric created by John Hollinger and used by Basketball-Reference.com, Game 5 in Indianapolis was the least productive game he's ever played for Miami. Further, it was tied for second-least productive game of his entire postseason or regular-season career, behind only Game 1 of the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Boston Celtics (when he shot 2-of-18 for Cleveland with 10 turnovers), and the same in a January 2006 game against Golden State, when he made only five of 22 shots and had six turnovers.

(For what it's worth, 43 of his 50 least productive games occurred while he was a Cavalier.)

His troubles this year were largely due, of course, to him getting called for five fouls in his first 14 minutes.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
LeBron James spent all but 24 minutes on the bench in Miami's Game 5 loss, largely because of foul trouble.

And that, too, was an extreme outlier.

Consider that, in his 152 playoff games, James has had the same number of zero-foul games (11) as games with five fouls (nine) and six fouls (two) combined. Even when he's experienced some foul trouble in the postseason, it's never occurred so early that he played as little as he did Wednesday night. He played at least 43 minutes in nine of the previous 10 "high foul" postseason games, playing 36 in Game 3 of the 2012 first round against the New York Knicks because the Heat were winning easily.

Wednesday, he played 24.

Prior to that, he had never played fewer than 31 in the postseason.

It was the only time in his playoff career that he'd played under 36 minutes in a game that was reasonably competitive. The other six games were blowout Heat or Cavaliers wins, by an average of 25.5 points. In those games, James was sitting by coach's choice, getting fourth quarter rest.

Also, consider that in the 10 previous times he has recorded five or six fouls in a postseason contest, he averaged 2.5 in the next game. And even that number is skewed by an outlier series, way back in 2006 against the Washington Wizards, when he had three of his five-foul playoff games.

He's been more disciplined since he's come to Miami, as evidenced by his 254-minute, seven-second foul-less streak during the 2012-13 regular season.

It's no wonder Heat players left the locker room, following a three-point loss on the road, feeling as if they were safe from another lightning strike for a while.

And, further, feeling that they'd been fortunate to be as close as they were on the road, within a single possession late, on a night the Pacers were scrambling and scrapping for survival.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
LeBron James has averaged fewer than three fouls in games after getting whistled for five fouls or more.

The Pacers will need to do the same Friday in Miami. But they'll be up against something other than James' averages, which figure to find their levels.

They'll be up against his attitude.

Many have predicted that he'll be full of fury on this Friday, after the officials kept him caged on Wednesday, something like Game 6 in Boston two years ago when he scored 45 to stave off elimination. And perhaps he will. But the steady tone he took late Wednesday night, before leaving the Hoosier State, was actually more similar to the one he took after the Heat lost Game 6 in Indiana in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals.

He rejected stress.

He projected poise. 

Last spring, with the series tied at three, and both Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade struggling much more than they are now, James spoke calmly of the situation.

"It's not promised," James said then, of getting to the championship. "Each and every year there are 30 teams that would love to be a part of this. To have one game to advance to the NBA Finals. And there are two teams that are in this position. And it's something that you can't substitute, this feeling. You can't substitute the atmosphere that we're going to be in ... for both teams. We should all cherish this moment. At the end of the day, go out and play, have fun. It's just a game of basketball. That's all it is.  It's just a game of basketball at the end of the day. Thanks."

Then he left the stage, next seen in South Florida, where he explained why he'd given that soothing speech two days before.

"It was a message to myself, first of all," James said. "I started to put that in my head after we lost the finals in Dallas: Don't put too much pressure on yourself, just go out there and play basketball, something that you know you can do. Just kind of let the game flow. If the message gets out to my teammates, and it helps relax them, so be it. But there are always bigger things in life than the game of basketball."

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Fast forward to Wednesday night, when reporters were waiting for him to rail about the officials, as Paul George had following Game 4 in Miami. He could have chided Lance Stephenson for his childish behavior. Instead, he sent another message—to himself, to his teammates, to the press. He spent some of the session, which he shared with Dwyane Wade, smiling. 

"Lance is Lance," he said. "He's going to do what he needs to do to help his team win. As to the leaders of this team, we're going to do what it takes to help our team win."

"The refs are the refs," he said. "They ref how they see it. We play it, and you have to live with the results."

"We go back home," he said. "We learn from our mistakes tonight, and tomorrow we get ready for Friday."

No panic.

No excuses.

Perfect pitch.

Mastery. 

Almost as if he'd been practicing for 10,000 hours. 

 

Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter,@EthanJSkolnick.

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