By John Schmeelk
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LeBron James has been unfairly targeted for criticism during the majority of this series. With Dwyane Wade playing out of his mind, it was perfectly fine for King James to play a supporting role.
But the time was bound to come when LeBron would have to step back into the spotlight to help the Heat win. It came last night when Dwyane Wade injured his hip.
It was his moment, and he didn’t seize it.
Don’t expect to read some of the hyperbole you’ve heard from other people the past couple of days. LeBron is not a choke artist. The spotlight doesn’t scare him. He has had way too many superhuman performances in the playoffs for that to be even close to the truth. Don’t forget his all-time performance in Detroit during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2007. Just three weeks ago he put the Heat on his back and closed out nearly every game of the Bulls’ series — with big, big shots.
But that doesn’t mean something else is at play. There’s clearly something wrong. In Game 4 he looked disengaged, very similar to how he appeared with the Cavaliers last year as their season ended in the playoffs against the Celtics. Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley over at TNT have referred to the Miami Heat as front runners. They play well when things are going well, but when the chips are down — and they face adversity — it can get ugly.
It appears to be the same for LeBron.
It’s fairly obvious James has lost all confidence in his shot. He had two great looks at the end of the Game 5, a wide open pull up from 19 feet on the left wing, and a wide open three pointer that he caught in rhythm from straight away. He missed both. For him, they were fairly easy shots. He took only two other shots in the fourth quarter, a three pointer early on that he missed, and a driving layup the Mavericks conceded to him. LeBron took only four shots. He doesn’t think he can score right now, whether shooting the jumper or taking it to the basket.
It’s unfathomable to some fans that a player as great as James can lose his confidence, but that’s exactly what’s happenened. If it were a choke job he wouldn’t be making the right play so often. James made some great passes to his teammates in the fourth quarter that turned into layups. He looked cool, calm, collected and in control. If LeBron was fazed by the moment, he wouldn’t be making those types of plays. He finished with a triple-double (17-10-10), a stat line most players would be envious of, but one that’s not good enough for the best player in the NBA.
It all comes down to his offense. His jumper isn’t falling, making him hesitant to shoot it. When he does, it doesn’t go in. Even more startling has been LeBron’s inability to get into the lane and draw fouls, something no one in the league is better at. Give some credit to the Mavericks’ defense, but a good deal of it is on LeBron. He has shot only sixteen free throws in five games, an unacceptably low number. Late in the game last night the one time he tried to take it to the rim, Tyson Chandler stepped in front of him and drew the charge (A good call, by the way, since it was on the baseline).
Nothing is going right.
Lebron’s offensive funk has even extended to his defensive play. The two three pointers by Jason Terry and Jason Kidd at the end of the game can be traced to bad defense by James. Kidd’s wide open three pointer came because Jason Terry caught James flat footed and took him off the dribble. With his speed, quickness, size and strength advantage over Terry that should never happen. The double team had to come leaving Kidd wide open. It is hard to fault anyone when Terry hits a 27-foot bomb of a three, but with the shot clock ticking down, there’s absolutely no reason for James to give Terry all that room to shoot. The smart thing would be to crowd him, force him to put the ball down and force a shot on the move. LeBron separated from Terry, didn’t get his hand up, and let him take a shot he can make.
This is an important time for James and his legacy. He was already getting terse with the media before last night. If he thought the critics were tough after Game 4, it will be nothing compared to the questions he’ll face during the two days off before Sunday’s Game 6.
Fair or not, this series is now about him. We all know LeBron is a great player, but does he have the mental toughness of Michael Jordan, or even Kobe Bryant? Can he take a series that is slipping away, grab it and take control of it? Can he overcome the critics, criticism and the outside noise and play the way we know he can?
Finally, can he overcome his own demons of doubt? Can he get his swagger and confidence back? Will he be able convince himself that he is the best player in basketball and impose his will on this series? Or are we going to see a replay of last year’s divisional playoffs when his own owner and half the world thought he quit against the Celtics.
Will he be the goat or the hero? LeBron James, it’s up to you.
– The world has been waiting for the Mavericks’ shooting to turn around in this series and it finally did all at once in Game 5. Jason Terry had his best shooting game of the series and went 8-12. Tyson Chandler put in thirteen points. Jason Kidd got hot from behind the arc, hitting three on his way to thirteen points. Most important, JJ Barea finally had his breakout game. He had been missing easy shots all series, and ironically enough, they started falling in the game when the shots got tougher. His seventeen points were a difference maker and put Dallas over the top. Oh yeah, and Dirk put in his usual 29 points on 50% shooting.
– And Dallas wound up needing every single point because their defense was as bad as I’ve seen it all series. They allowed lay-up after dunk in the fourth quarter to the point that they will have to seriously examine making serious fundamental changes to their pick and roll defense. Despite the loss, the Miami fourth quarter offense was as good as I’ve seen it in this series. Until the final few minutes, they moved the ball beautifully and got point blank shots at the rim. Dallas is very fortunate they were able to win a game in which Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller and Juwan Howard combined for 40 points. That sort of total usually means an automatic win for the Heat. The Mavs defense must improve in Game 6 if they want to close the series out.
– Heat haters everywhere would like to send an open letter to Rick Carlisle: Stop playing Ian Mahinmi. He was the primary culprit in many of the Mavs defensive breakdowns. He doesn’t defend the pick and roll, commits stupid fouls, and can’t hold Chris Bosh. He is a minus in every way. He cannot be on the floor anymore. The Mavericks would be better off playing small with Marion at the four, and Dirk at the five. Give fans more of The Custodian! Anyone but Ian Mahinmi.
– Dwyane Wade is fortunate he has an extra off-day to rest that hip. It could make the difference between a 60% Wade and an 80% Wade. That 20% could be the difference between a win and a loss.
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