LeBron James: Will the Miami Heat Star Ever Be Able to Shake Not-Clutch Label?
Jason Terry tattooed the championship trophy on his arm prior to the start of the regular season.
He would also say that LeBron James couldn't guard him well for the entire series. He was right.
Prior to being sent from the starting lineup to the bench, DeShawn Stevenson claimed that LeBron had "checked out" during the Heat's Game 4 loss. He would also go on to say that Dwyane Wade and LeBron were actors when it came to being fouled.
The last players you wanted to motivate and get going were LeBron James and Wade. All season long, they would endure the jeering and booing from the opponent's crowd only to respond with stellar performances. Most notably was James' 38-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers in his return to the city where possibly the most raucous crowd in NBA history was seen.
The Mavericks talked and talked and talked some more, and the Heat didn't respond at all to the criticism. They won Game 3 88-86 to take a 2-1 series lead, then dropped the next two in Dallas and the final game in Miami to give the Mavericks their first championship. Dirk Nowitzki took home Finals MVP honors.
Give credit where credit is due to the Mavericks. They found out how to play the Heat on offense with their zone defense by forcing the team into jump shots and cutting off any entry to the paint. On offense, they used quality ball movement to find open shots from the perimeter. Dallas thrived off their three-point specialists in Terry, Stevenson and Jason Kidd for the entire series.
Miami never had an answer. Once Dallas was locked into its zone, no one could come up with an answer. The player most affected by this defense was James, who couldn't find any way around Shawn Marion, DeShawn Stevenson or Kidd. The Mavericks defense was too quick on Miami pick-and-rolls for James to free himself, and it forced him into a countless number of ill-advised jump shots.
He had 24 points in the Heat's Game 1 win and never topped that again, as he only finished with 18 points per game in the series. The dismal play stemmed from Miami's Game 2 loss, where James came up short in protecting a big lead in the fourth quarter. With the Heat choosing him to lead the way, LeBron was basically deemed useless on offense as he couldn't find a way inside and couldn't hit a jump shot from the spots where Dallas decided he would shoot.
Miami would get redemption in Game 3, but would then see it all fall apart from there. With a 3-1 series lead on the line, James had the worst postseason game of his career by scoring only eight points. He came through with nine rebounds and seven assists, but it was James' unbelievably low scoring total that caused the Heat to only lose by three points.
So once again he has a chance to help put the series in Miami's favor with a Game 5 victory giving the Heat a 3-2 series lead heading back to the American Airlines Arena. The Heat led by as much as nine in the final frame, but once again couldn't get the offensive contributions they needed from James as he only finished with 17 points overall and two meaningless points in the fourth.
With the series heading back to Miami and Dallas holding a 3-2 lead, James still had a chance to strengthen his legacy. All he had to do was help lead the Heat to two consecutive victories at home against a team that they had already beat twice before. He came out firing on all cylinders in the first few minutes and had nine early points on 4-of-4 shooting and helped lead the Heat to an early nine-point lead.
That lasted all of five minutes before he pulled his disappearing act one more time. James finished with 21 points on 9-of-15 shooting, but was a non-threat in the fourth quarter once again. He was as tentative as Mike Miller and as mistake-prone as Mario Chalmers. He just didn't look like the same player from those two series against the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls.
It was only a little more than two weeks ago that we were praising LeBron James and his newfound ability to hit big shots late in games.
After an entire regular season of being criticized, James was actually beginning to be shown in a positive light after an impressive semifinals series against the Boston Celtics where he led the Heat to a series victory in five games. He wasn't only just leading the team to victories, but he was also the one leading the way for the Heat to win these games in the fourth quarter. He scored over 30 in three of the five games the Heat needed to win.
It only got more convincing the next series as James was the driving force behind the Heat's five-game series victory over the Chicago Bulls. The most startling moment came when James led the charge in the Heat's Game 5 victory after he turned a 12-point deficit with three minutes left in the game into an 83-80 victory.
The Bulls and Celtics both possess defenses just as good as the Mavericks, but it was the zone that prevented James from doing what he did best: driving and drawing fouls. In five games, a player who had averaged over 10 free throws per game in a regular season finished with a grand total of 20 for the entire series. LeBron was cut off from driving and he wasn't able to draw fouls because of it.
He had become a jump shooter and not a very good one at that. He shot 2-of-12 from deep in the Heat's final three games.
It was obvious that this wasn't all a physical issue. He certainly possesses the talent to be the NBA's most dominant player, and we just saw him play that well against Boston and Chicago. He was just as good in game one of the NBA Finals as he was in the two series before. The Mavericks even egged him on by down playing his offensive and defensive abilities.
That player in white and red wearing the No. 6 jersey was not LeBron James. Not even close. That was a shell of LeBron. It was an impostor.
Where was the defensive intensity from this LeBron that we saw shutting down Derrick Rose? The same player who had just held the NBA's MVP to under 10 percent from the field in the fourth quarter was now getting beat by the likes of role players in Shawn Marion and Jason Terry. After being defended by Andre Iguodala, Paul Pierce and Luol Deng, he was now being limited by a 38-year-old guard in Jason Kidd.
The pressure was immense on every single player in this series, and it hit LeBron like a ton of bricks. He wasn't the same shooter he was earlier in the post season, and he wasn't as aggressive even when he was finally able to break through. On all too many drives, LeBron was trying to go around defenders then trying to go through them.
As athletic as LeBron was, at a time like the NBA Finals, the Heat needed to see James at his most aggressive. For the Heat to win, they need their best players to play at their best. They need their leaders to give the rest of the team confidence and they mostly need them to take the pressure off of their own games.
After two huge series wins, the Heat had nothing but confidence in their new leader in the clutch. Once he started missing against Dallas, Miami was left scrambling and looking for a new answer. Wade and Chris Bosh did all they could, but at some time they needed their athletic superstar to step up and inflict his influence over the game. They needed James to be the intimidating figure that he had become over the past eight seasons.
Mentally, James was on another planet. A planet that was far, far away from the NBA Finals.
As a streaky shooter, James is prone to going through slumps. Often times he relies too heavily on his jump shooting even when he begins to cool off from his hot streak. Against Dallas, he became too comfortable with his jump shot and put driving as a second option. By allowing the Mavericks to rest, James was only giving the Mavericks energy that he could have burned away if he drove and forced Dallas to foul.
James' greatest advantage over every other player in the league is his athleticism, and he hardly used it to his advantage in this series. Rather than playing at that breakneck speed he was playing at against Boston and Chicago, he was taking it too easy. He allowed his defenders to play at their pace and he allowed them to dictate the way he would play offense.
LeBron posted up more in these past five games than he ever did in the regular season. Each one of his defenders would not allow him to play at the pace he wanted to. James was playing scared it allowed his opponents to take advantage of his nervous tendencies. They dared him to shoot and constantly had him on the run trying to close out on defense.
He was being beaten at his own game.
We must remember that it has still only been one season since these three players have come together. For most of the season, we didn't even imagine the Heat making it past the Boston Celtics or Chicago Bulls in the conference semifinals. They have made great strides this year, and it's a disappointment to see a promising first season end with a great thud.
We know what LeBron James is capable of. We have seen it on display on so many occasions in this year's postseason. The pressure from Dallas and his critics was too much for James to handle, and it greatly affected his style of play. LeBron is a lot better than the player we saw play over the past two weeks, and he will one day prove to us that he is a championship-caliber player.
For now, he can only wait and grow hungrier for a title. Great players make adjustments and make themselves better. For the Heat, they can only hope that their investments can get the mental game to match his athleticism.
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