SAN ANTONIO -- There were times in Game 3 when LeBron James looked as if he was facing the 2011 Mavericks' defense all over again. There were times when he looked as if it was the 2007 NBA Finals, as if he had no answers for the Spurs' smothering tactics now just as he had none back then.
Mostly, however, James looked exhausted. Not in the sense that he was unable to run or defend or shoot from the perimeter. More so as if he was suddenly unable to find deep within himself the ability to fight, as if the years were catching up to him in ways that can't be measured athletically or statistically. For that one night, he was all played out. He was spent.
"I take full responsibility for our team's performance," James said Wednesday, one day after his Heat had scored fewer points in the second half than they'd surrendered in the fourth quarter of their 113-77 loss. "Me as a leader, I can't afford to perform like I did and expect us to win on the road. It's that simple. So I'm putting all the pressure on my chest, on my shoulders to come through for our team. That's the way it is."
The pressure that James was promising to embrace here Thursday in Game 4 of the NBA Finals -- needing a win to tie the series, knowing a loss would position the Spurs to close it out in Game 5 at home -- is pressure that he wants. He is paid to take on that pressure. That doesn't mean he's invulnerable to it.
Michael Jordan was 30, about a year older than James is now, when he "retired" after three straight years in the NBA Finals. He had experienced a traumatic year -- his father had been murdered, and he was being criticized for his gambling habits -- and he needed to miss most of the next two NBA seasons in order to feel recharged before earning another three-peat with the Bulls.
James has been under more severe public pressure than any player in the game since 2010, when he made his life endlessly more difficult by turning free agency into reality television and then bragging about the championships he was going to win. It's only natural that the burdens of the last three years have worn on him emotionally.
He goes out of his way to remind himself and his audience that there are more important things than basketball. For him, it is an exercise in perspective, designed to relieve himself of the pressure to fulfill the incessant expectations. His own perspective implies that no one should be feeling sorry for him. He wants to become the greatest player of all time. If the Heat fail to win the championship this month, then fatigue should not be used as an excuse -- even though it will surely have been a drain on James.
In both the Olympics last summer and in Miami for the last three years, James' teams have been built around his unusual skill set. They've been counting on him to create mismatches and more than offset the absence of a traditional big man. Last year the Heat were trailing in each of their last three series before coming back each time to win the championship. In the Olympics, Team USA's last five games were all contested in the second half, creating enormous pressure on a defending champion that was expected to win going away. Guess who would have taken the blame for an American loss?
Winning the NBA Finals last year didn't liberate James in the way that a championship relieved the burden on stars such as Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. For them, the championship fulfilled their missions. All the championship last year did for James was to trend him in the right direction. If he were to finish his career with a single NBA title, then he would be one of the most disappointing stars in league history. He needs to win more. He knows that and he isn't running away from it.
"I have to do whatever it takes," he said before referring to his disappointing line from Game 3. "I mean, 7-for-21 isn't going to cut it. Zero free throws. I had 11 rebounds, I had five assists, but 7‑for‑21 and zero free throws ain't going to cut it. So I will be better."
It was stunning to see how passive he was in the Game 3 loss. When jump shots aren't falling, he knows the antidote is to earn free throws. But he looked as if he couldn't summon the inspiration to attack, and no doubt part of it is because neither Dwyane Wade (14.2 points in the Finals) nor Chris Bosh (12.3) has provided the kind of A-list support that James is accustomed to receiving from them.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra refers constantly to James's ability to play extended stretches without slacking at either end of the floor. He is averaging 41.1 minutes in this series at the end of this three-year run of three NBA Finals, an Olympics and the negative scrutiny that he earned as a national pariah. Now he needs to win three of the next four games without certainty that his teammates will come up big for him.
"We're guarding him with five guys," said 37-year-old Tim Duncan, who is two wins away from winning his fifth championship. "He's the best player in the world, so we're respecting him as that. We're trying to make his life as difficult as possible every time he touches the ball."
When Duncan was at his peak, his Spurs were never able to reach the NBA Finals in back-to-back years. They won in 1999, and then in 2003, '05 and '07. It was as if they inhaled one year to win, exhaled the next year to recover, which in turn enabled them to climb back on top. And in all that time they never faced the endless controversies that have defined James over the last three years.
There is the physical pressure, which is showing on Tony Parker as he tries to overcome a strained hamstring to lead San Antonio to two more wins. Then there is the psychic pressure. Mental fatigue, burnout, whatever you might call it -- it is for real, it exists, and it is among the obstacles James must overcome now to pull Miami even Thursday.
"We've been able to bounce back throughout adverse times throughout the season -- throughout the years that we've been together, these three years," he said. "I'm just confident in my ability. My teammates are going to put me in positions to succeed, and the coaching staff will put us in positions to succeed.
"I'm a positive guy. I love the game. I have fun with the game. As dark as it was [in Game 3], can't get no darker than that, especially for me. So I guarantee I'll be better [in Game 4], for sure."
A guarantee? That's exactly what James needs -- more pressure to squeeze out three more wins.