MIAMI -- Yes, it's true: LeBron James went on a tear after he lost his headband late in Game 6. That is amusing, and easy material for cartoon interpretations of the NBA Finals, but ultimately it is irrelevant. The real story is not what James did without his headband. It is what he did without Dwyane Wade.
By the time Wade returned, with 3:47 left in the fourth, the Heat led, 87-84.
In the nine minutes that Wade was on the bench, James scored 13 points.
This has been a pattern all series: When Wade is out, James plays better. Heat forward Shane Battier dismissed it as "a small sample size," which is a fair point. But this is the sample that matters right now. It shows us what Miami has done against the Spurs. The Heat doesn't get to face a different team in Game 7.
For the Heat, there is considerable irony here. When Pat Riley put together his potential super team in the summer of 2010, the thing that made it so tantalizing was Wade and James playing together. Adding Chris Bosh was nice, but Bosh is not the same caliber player, and he had never come close to winning anything in the NBA.
The allure was Wade and James together. And now the Heat's best shot at a championship may be to keep them apart.
But why? Why has James played better without Wade? And what, if anything, does this tell us about their relationship?
I asked San Antonio's Boris Diaw, who has guarded James a lot in the last few games, if James is more aggressive without Wade. "Yeah, maybe," Diaw said. "Maybe he takes more responsibilities." Bosh said of James: "Sometimes he has to defer to save his energy, just a little bit. You've got to be assertive at all times, but he can't do that for the whole game. At this level, playing like this is very, very difficult." With Wade out, James knows he must break down the defense.
And James himself said his fourth-quarter surge was partly due to "the lineup with myself, Bird, Ray, Rio and Mike. It creates a lot of space." That would be Chris Andersen, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller. No Wade (and no Bosh). Interestingly, James was not even asked about playing without Wade. He volunteered it.
This has been a strange dance for James and Wade since they started playing together. They each dominate the ball, and they took a while to figure out how to play together. At times this season, they looked like they had mastered it. But in the playoffs, their overall shooting percentage is actually higher when they don't play together than when they do.
This dynamic could easily decide Game 7. The Spurs have consistently gotten better shots than the Heat, partly because Tony Parker is so good at breaking down a defense, but also because Miami does not have anybody to protect the rim. The Heat can offset that because James and Wade are so good at creating shots for themselves and others. But if one clogs the floor for the other, Miami is in trouble.
Wade and James are an evolving story, a source of fascination and speculation for anybody who cares about basketball: They are best friends. No, they just act like they are. They are an unbeatable combination. No, they don't fit together. There is a rift between them. No, they are just teammates.
The truth is in there somewhere, and I think it goes something like this: The friendship is absolutely, 100 percent legitimate. They are very close. They talk all the time. They text constantly. They were close friends before they played together and will probably still be good friends in 20 years.
And yet ... well, it doesn't always translate on the court. And if they are honest with each other, and honest with themselves, they would repeat the mantra that successful people have used forever: Friendship is great, but business is business.
"One thing about the new NBA," Battier said last week, "basketball really doesn't spill into the locker room. Maybe it used to. Maybe that is the perception of how it used to be in the old days ... You can't really draw a correlation (now)."
There are days when Wade and James don't agree with each other at the office. They leave and remain friends.
There have been more of those days lately, because Wade has been hurt and James has been frustrated. James seems to know that if Wade and Chris Bosh cost Miami the championship, the blame will go to James. This is silly, and partly due to our revisionist nonsense that Michael Jordan never had a bad game, and the implication that James can only be compared to Jordan.
It is nonsense on multiple levels. In Game 6 of the 1992 Eastern Conference semis, when Jordan was at his playing peak, he shot 9 for 25 for 21 points and had seven turnovers in Madison Square Garden. John Starks clearly outplayed him and the Knicks forced Game 7. Jordan dominated the next game, of course. But the point is, he wasn't perfect. So let's not ask LeBron to be perfect, either.
Now, about James' frustration: After scoring 30 of his team's 90 points in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, James said he "went back to my Cleveland days" -- implying that he had to carry the Heat like he carried the undermanned Cavaliers all those years. As a general rule, future Hall of Famers do not like being compared to losers from Cleveland, not to be redundant, and Wade shot back. He said the Heat had to get him the ball more instead of one guy trying to do it all. Well, you know who the one guy is.
Rift? Nope. That was just a basketball disagreement. Their friendship was never at risk. That speaks well of them as people, but it does not bode well for the Heat keeping James next summer. James loves Wade, but he will not stay in Miami simply because he loves Wade. He will need to see that the Heat can keep contending.
Wade has played better since that "Cleveland days" comment, for whatever medical or psychological reason. He also admired what James did without him Tuesday night.
"He just put his head down, man, and just attacked," Wade said. "And when he does that, there's not many people on the planet that can do anything about it. One of the best performances I've seen from him from the standpoint of playoffs, big moments, and I've seen a lot. That was a very big moment for his career, defining moment."