Unless LeBron plays a transcendent, all-time-great game from opening tip to final whistle, Miami can't compete with San Antonio.
The Heat needed LeBron to look for his own shot earlier in Game 4 to have a chance. His flat first half helped the Spurs win another lopsided affair in South Beach.
To be clear, LeBron is obviously not the only reason why the Heat lost. Dwyane Wade -- that is to say, the Weekend at Bernie's-style, semi-animated corpse that wore number 3 for the Heat and kept bricking layups -- played a prominent role in the first half debacle.
On top of that, Miami didn't close out on shooters with any urgency and gave San Antonio way too many uncontested looks. (The Spurs flew back to San Antonio Thursday night, but sources say Patty Mills is still all alone in the corner at American Airlines Arena, knocking down shots in an empty gym -- just like in Game 4 [basketball burn!]). Despite Spoelstra's claims to the contrary, Jeff Van Gundy, Bill Simmons and Doug Collins all agreed that Miami players looked tired which might explain some of the team's horrible defense.
As much as Miami's sliced-up D and Wade's impotent offensive flailing helped to sink the Heat's chances, LeBron -- even with his third quarter performance -- should also shoulder a large portion of the blame for the loss.
Early on, James appeared tentative and hesitant. As the best player on the floor, he needed to dominate and set the tone from the start.
During the second quarter onslaught, Van Gundy noted that most of the Heat players had a "blank, defeatist look" about them and seemed as if they were waiting for something to happen. That something they were waiting for? LeBron James to take over and bail them out. They know that's what it would take to beat the Spurs -- a G.O.A.T. performance from the KANG.
Van Gundy later spoke about James's "substandard" start to Game 4, saying, "I think he needs to get in the paint --post like he did, drive like he did in Game 2 -- just be relentless with [his] attack of the basket."
James posted-up in the first half, but he didn't look to score out of the low block. Instead, he attempted to draw the defense toward him down low and then pass it to open teammates. James manufactured a few good looks for his teammates, but they missed the majority of the shots he created for them.
Right before halftime, LeBron finally started to look for his own shot when he got the ball down low. He posted up Kawhi near the left block with 3:24 left in the second quarter, spun baseline and met Ginobili under the rim.
Manu had completely abandoned Chalmers in the opposite corner in order to help on Lebron. Usually James would have whipped a pass out of the double team to Mario which is exactly what San Antonio wanted him to do. They wanted to bait LeBron -- use his unselfish instincts against him -- into passing it to Mario since he's made only 1 of his 7 three-point attempts in the Finals. Instead, James finally, selfishly looked for his own shot, went up strong and got fouled.
The correct team play would have been to pass it to Mario, but relative to what the Heat needed (read: James to dominate) and the team's personnel (read: Mario sucks), LeBron -- as the greatest offensive basketball player in the world -- made the right decision by looking off the open man and trying to score it himself.
At the half, the Heat were down 36 to 55 and Lebron had only scored 9 points on 3 of 7 shooting, grabbed 3 rebounds along with 2 assists and 2 turnovers in ostensibly a must-win game since no team has ever come back to win a Finals down 3 games to 1. James' first half wasn't good enough and since the Spurs are impossible to come back against once you spot them 20 points, the game was already over.
James came out of the locker room and turned it on in the third quarter, scoring 19 of Miami's 21 points on 7 for 8 shooting. If he is capable of scoring in such a flurry, why didn't he take that aggressive approach before the game slipped away?
Perhaps James wanted to play within the Heat system -- be a cog in the machine and not play hero-ball; he didn't want to throw away the team-play mentality that had helped the Heat get to the Finals in the first place. Maybe he wanted to get his teammates involved early, so that they would get into a rhythm and would be able to rely on them later in the game.
Whatever the reason, he sacrificed too much of his considerable offensive talents and allowed the Spurs to amass an insurmountable lead. If LeBron were just a really good player like Paul George or James Harden, his Game 4 performance -- even with the slow start -- would have been great; but by his own historic playoff standards, he played about average. More importantly, his first half performance fell way short of what the Heat needed him to do in order to be competitive in the game.
The Heat know what they're up against -- the Spurs are the lovechild of Ivan Drago, T-1000 and the entire roster of Team Iceland from D2 -- but their equalizer, the only way they can avoid getting laughed off the court in Game 5, is LeBron dominating individually like he did in Game 2. He didn't put his imprint on Game 4 early enough to dictate the outcome of the game. Worse yet, he seemed anxious, hot-potatoing the ball to teammates in the first half as if it were the 2011 Finals all over again.
LeBron played indecisively and hesitantly: when he faced up, he usually stood there, jab-stepping as Kawhi swatted at the ball; if he backed Leonard down, he pounded the rock with his back to the basket, but ultimately, no matter the circumstance, he ended most of these post-ups and drives in the first half by deferring to teammates. He didn't seem ready for the moment and that appeared to make his teammates anxious. They knew if LeBron played small, the team would lose the game and that meant the series was over.
Per Inpredictable's "Kitchen Sink" Win Probability Added, LeBron has been (unsurprisingly) the MVP of these playoffs -- doing more to help his team win than any other player has done for their team. Second on that list, right behind James, is Russell Westbrook.
Seeing James's name just above Westbrook's, I couldn't help but think about what Westbrook would have done in the same situation as Lebron. Down 2 games to 1, knowing that a 3 - 1 hole against the Spurs is certain death, how would Westbrook have performed? Would he have deferred to teammates (of course not) or would he have gone down swinging?
Well, we actually know what Westbrook did in that exact instance: in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals at home against the Spurs down 2 games to 1, Westbrook offered up a Jordan-esque performance: scoring 40 points and adding 10 assists (with only 3 turnovers), 5 rebounds, and a blocked shot as well.
He attacked the rim viciously throughout the game and played, as he always does, like a force of nature -- refusing to allow his team to lose. He started the game attacking too: he attempted 12 shots in the first half as compared to James, who only attempted 7.
Yes, Westbrook tallied up the assists in that game, but he looked for his shot first and second and then he looked to make a play for others after the defense started to shift his way and focused on stopping him. LeBron needed to make the defense respect his offensive attack, needed to make San Antonio stop him before he gave the ball up to lesser-talented teammates. Instead, he played passively early and only started to put up a fight when it was too late.
28 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists -- that's a good line for Lebron, but he needed to be great for the Heat to even have a chance. He knew it too -- he knew he needed to be a difference-maker offensively with his scoring; and if he didn't know it, then someone should have told him because any half-interested basketball fan knows that this series comes down to LeBron vs. San Antonio. Maybe he doesn't have a shot of winning and the Spurs are just too good, but he didn't put up the effort necessary in the first half of Game 4 for us to be able to know that for sure.
Maybe that's too much to ask of him -- to need him to score in the forties just to have a speck of a chance -- but that's what great players do in order to win. And he's the one who told the Associated Press in 2012: "I want to be the best of all time. It's that simple."
To be the "best of all time," LeBron needs to dominate from the jump; he can't wait until the game is out of reach to get his numbers.
LeBron is the only guy who can drag the Heat out of this hole. If he keeps playing like this, the season should be over on Sunday.