Do or die.
We've seen LeBron James in situations like the one he'll face on Sunday, when the Miami Heat return to the Alamo City in search of a season-saving victory. Thirteen times in his career has James faced imminent elimination.
But never before has it seemed quite like this. Not after watching his team get dismantled by the San Antonio Spurs, not once, but twice.
Never have James' Heat looked quite so vulnerable, quite so weak and quite so desperate for the best player in the NBA to take his game to another level—somehow, someway.
That's exactly how they looked in Game 4 of the 2013 Finals, much to the dismay of the hordes of Heat fans that streamed out of AmericanAirlines Arena well before the final buzzer on Miami's 107-86 defeat.
LeBron James on the Spurs: "I mean, they smashed us."— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) June 13, 2014
James wasn't the problem, by any means. He scored a game-high 28 points—19 in the third quarter alone—on just 17 shots. He was effective on the glass, grabbing eight boards. He took much better care of the ball on Thursday than he did on Tuesday, cutting his turnover total from seven down to three.
It was his supporting cast, rather, that's still withering. Chris Bosh, who was largely a non-factor in Game 3, came out much more aggressively in Game 4, scoring six points in the first seven minutes. But the native Texan managed just six points over the last 32 minutes he spent on the floor.
Dwyane Wade had been effective and fresh for most of the playoffs, up until this latest buzz saw act by the Spurs. The eye test said he looked slow and lacked explosion in his legs. The stats merely corroborated that observation: as many points as missed shots (10), as many assists as missed free throws (four).
The point guards' tandem disappearing act continued unabated, even as Mario Chalmers tried to find his shot after losing it earlier in these playoffs. Five straight double-digit scoring games by Rashard Lewis—and the energy expended therein—gave way to a two-point night for the former All-Star.
Even Ray Allen endured his worst game of this series, with just eight points in his 30 minutes.
As poorly as the Heat performed on the offensive end, both individually and as a team, they were just as bad, if not worse, on the defensive end. Once again, their rotations were slow, their contests a tad too late to impact the Spurs' shooters. San Antonio didn't scorch the nets on South Beach at the historic rate that it had in Game 3, but it wasn't all that far off. The Spurs converted a remarkable 57.1 percent of their shots and finished with nearly twice as many assists (25) as did the Heat (13).
It was Boris Diaw dishing behind his back. It was Tim Duncan slipping free on pick-and-rolls. It was Tony Parker getting to the rack, and Kawhi Leonard flying in for putback dunks, and Danny Green and Patty Mills knocking down jumpers like bowling pins on a bumperized alley.
But hey, at least James Jones made the most of garbage time, tallying 11 points in just three minutes...
Clearly, this didn't leave LeBron with much in the way of support in Game 4 and doesn't bode all that well for Erik Spoelstra in Game 5. His personnel options are limited. He's already dug deep for Udonis Haslem and would rightly be reluctant to reach further down his bench for Greg Oden's massive mitts. One reporter at Spoelstra's postgame press conference went so far as to suggest that Michael Beasley, he of 16 DNPs in 19 playoff games (and for good reason), get a shot to peddle his wares on the sport's grandest stage.
Spo can implore his guys to play harder, play smarter and play more physically, but how much can he really do to keep the Spurs from whizzing the ball around the floor like the freakin' Harlem Globetrotters?
As ESPN's Ethan Sherwood Strauss put it:
"On Thursday, with Dwyane Wade's Eurostep conjuring old men playing bocce ball, the Heat looked like a crumbling empire. With young, ubiquitous, Kawhi Leonard playing so brilliantly, the 'been there' Spurs looked like a power on the rise."
Not that the Heat are all the way up a certain creek just yet. At the very least, they have one rather reliable and supremely productive leader on whom they can lean.
By and large, LeBron James has been nothing short of remarkable when facing elimination.
Basketball Reference and NBA.com/stats
As was the case in Game 6 of last year's Finals, when James posted a triple-double (32 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists) in Miami's unforgettable overtime win. And two nights later, when James dropped 37 on the Spurs to capture his second consecutive crown.
He's battled back from the brink before, but never quite like this. Heck, nobody has. Never, in 31 previous instances, has a team won the title after going down 3-1 in the Finals.
By the looks of things, the Heat would be hard-pressed to become the first.
Can they count on Wade to come through, given his age (32) and history of postseason fatigue? Can they reasonably expect Bosh to hold his own against San Antonio's superb front line, much less be the aggressor? Can they look to their point guards to show up on the road? Can they lean on Allen and Lewis to revive their Seattle SuperSonics selves, or at least something more akin to what we'd seen from them prior to Thursday night? Can they all play with the collective focus, energy and precision on both ends of the floor that they'll need to gunk up the Spurs' silky smooth machinery?
Maybe. Just maybe.
And maybe LeBron can find even another gear into which he can kick his game.
It's a long shot, but if James and the Heat don't, they'll find themselves dead in the water on Sunday.
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