SAN ANTONIO -- After the carnage, they left the arena, the men who helped LeBron James get here. Pat Riley carried a man-purse. Chris Bosh whistled and wore a leather backpack. James' pal and adviser, Maverick Carter, hugged James' pal and running mate, Dwyane Wade.
Not one of them can save LeBron James now. Sure, Wade and Bosh can help. But LeBron's place in history is at stake. He can lose these Finals to a terrific San Antonio Spurs team. But he can't lose them like that.
Seriously, what the heck happened in Tuesday's Game 3? What happened to the unstoppable force? Why was James shooting 18-footers hesitantly, failing to get to the free-throw line even once and complaining to the refs instead of taking it to the Spurs? Why did he score 15 points -- the third straight game he scored fewer than 20? Why was he so powerless in Miami's 113-77 (113-77!) loss?
This wasn't just bad basketball. It was ridiculous, passive and awkward, unbecoming of a man with his gifts. James looked like he kept checking his pockets for tools and didn't realize he was sitting on a toolbox.
"Honestly," he said, "I just have to play better."
Honestly, my cat could have told me that. James owned his performance in the locker room afterward, which is admirable. But he should have owned the game, or at least stretches of it. This was bizarre. This was Meryl Streep forgetting how to act, Sidney Crosby forgetting how to skate, Justin Bieber forgetting how to act like a pampered pop star.
But he grabbed 11 rebounds and had five assists, and the Spurs focused on him and had a good game plan, and ...
Stop it. Just stop it. This is not Zach Randolph struggling against the Spurs. We are talking about LeBron James! He is the best player in the world.
The Spurs went under pick and rolls for LeBron, essentially daring him to step back and shoot from long range. He can do that, but he doesn't want to do it. He convinced himself last year that he needs to get to the rim. But he didn't do that, either. His solution was to dribble around aimlessly, or step inside the three-point line and throw up a long two, which is one of the worst shots in basketball. It's even worse when you aren't in rhythm when you shoot. James earned this 7-for-21.
San Antonio's Gregg Popovich is a great coach. He is not a witch. James should be able to do more. A lot more. He should be able to create offense out of the post, or use a second screen when the first isn't sufficient ... or here is an idea: Just drive to the basket and score. It's not that simple, except when it is. Like the time Tim Duncan was guarding him on the perimeter, and James was the only person in the arena who didn't realize he can take Duncan off the dribble.
"I'm not making no excuses," he said. "I have to be better and it's just that simple. ... I'm putting everything on my chest and on my shoulders and I have to be better. My teammates are doing a great job and I'm not doing my part."
Actually, his teammates looked a little drunk. But hey, bad nights happen, especially against a great team. Erik Spoelstra kept calling timeouts, the way I do when my 4-year-old is having a meltdown, but you can't reason with a meltdown like this.
There is no shame in losing to this Spurs team. The shame is in not fighting. The Spurs have filled out their roster with guys who desperately want a title; the Heat have finesse players, guys whose names are bigger than their skill sets right now, and it shows.
Miami needs an enforcer or two. The closest thing to that is Udonis Haslem, who said the Heat's effort was awful. But when he was asked why LeBron was not the same player in this series that we saw all season, Haslem's eyes darted around the room and he said it's not just on one player. That was admirable, too. But this particular one player can change the series, must change the series, and Haslem knows it.
Spoelstra said "we got what we deserved," and when somebody asked about Miami's missing offense, he said, "I don't even want our guys bringing up that side of the floor. If that's what we're going to pinpoint this to, we're kidding ourselves. We really are." It was smart postgame coaching. You can fix defense with effort, but offense is largely about belief. Spoelstra can't add doubt. That's why he said of LeBron: "He'll figure it out. He always figures it out." Spoelstra knows so many in the media are ready to pounce on his star, and he won't help us.
And besides, the defense really did stink.
This looks more and more like a bad matchup for Miami. The Heat don't have anybody to guard Duncan, and when they compensate, they are a step slow on rotations, leaving Danny Green and Gary Neal wide open from three-point range. Once those two got in a rhythm, this game was over.
And yet ... LeBron James is a little better at this basketball thing than Danny Green and Gary Neal. The rebounds and assists are nice, but he should be scoring 25 points per game and opening up shots for his teammates. This is his job. He is great at it. Or he was, until the last week.
It is too early to say Miami is finished. The Spurs lead only 2-1. One more Miami win changes everything. It would force San Antonio to clinch a championship on the Heat's home court, in front of thousands of moderately interested Heat fans.
And yet ... well, something is on the line here for James, and it's not just a championship, as big as that is. He famously folded in the Finals against Dallas two years ago, but anybody can have a lousy playoff series. He redeemed himself with one of the great playoff performances of all time in Boston last year, and with the ensuing title.
If James keeps playing like this, it will haunt him into retirement. It will be the "but" on his résumé: One of the great players of all time, but in the Finals ...
I hate to say that. I have mostly praised him since he was a rookie, and occasionally defended him against the narcissism-worshippers who complain about his perfect passes. On most nights, he is a basketball artist. Game 4 had better be one of those nights.