The 2011 Finals, which started as a coronation for James, are ending as a crucible. The scoring surges that came so easily for him against Chicago and Boston -- the two best defenses in the NBA outside of Miami -- have dried up in Dallas. When James made only one field goal in the fourth quarter of Game 3, it wasn't an insurmountable problem for the Heat, because his playmaking allowed Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to act as closers. This was why James joined the Heat last July, so he could become a modern Magic Johnson, so he could win even without filling the final line on the box score.
Game 4 was an extension of Game 3, Wade scoring 32 points, Bosh adding 24, James reduced again to facilitator. He pitched in nine rebounds and seven assists, but the Heat did not sign James to be another Jason Kidd. They need his rugged drives, his furious breakaways, or they will let a championship that looked to be theirs slip away.
James scored eight points on 3-of-11 shooting in Game 4, often marooned on the perimeter, an afterthought on the final play. He was held to single digits for the first time in 90 career playoff games. This was a flashback to the first month of the season, when James and Wade took turns with the ball, while the other stood and watched. For most of Tuesday night, it was Wade's turn, James looking on from afar.
"If I had eight points and we won, I wouldn't really care about that," James said. "The fact that I could have done more offensively to help the team, that's the anger."
The James/Wade dynamic has completely flipped from the Eastern Conference finals, when Wade sputtered, and James saved him. There are reasons for the shift. Wade is enjoying a more favorable matchup this series against Kidd than James against Shawn Marion. Also, with the way Dallas packs its defense inside, a slithery driver like Wade can slip through cracks, while a steamroller like James rushes headlong into defenders. Because of all the attention on James, the narrative around him tends to swing wildly: One week, he's the best player since Michael Jordan; the next, he's a fourth-quarter wallflower. As reckless as it may be to compare James to Jordan, it's even more so to suggest that he won't respond, as he has in every other round of these playoffs.
"He struggled," Bosh said. "Point blank, period, he struggled out there. ... He has to bounce back. The great player he is, we know he'll bounce back."
Bosh said James can be more aggressive, but the Mavericks are making it difficult to attack. They are clogging the paint, the same way they did against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, and double-teaming James in the post. He is passing out of those doubles instead of trying to split them. James could obviously force more three-pointers, but his shot is admittedly off kilter. James even acknowledged that he may head to the gym for some extra shooting Wednesday.
"Obviously, we would like to get him involved," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "He's a very important piece to what we do. So we'll work to help make it easier for him next game."
The summer was defined by James and his decision. The season was defined by James and his acclimation. It is only fitting that the Finals, now a best two-out-of-three, be defined by James as well. When the Heat have James and Wade rolling at once, they are nearly impossible for the Mavericks to beat, or any other team for that matter. The way Wade is currently cruising, if James can simply play the way he normally does, the Heat are almost assured the title. Should he continue to stagger, advantage shifts to Dallas.
James signed with the Heat to alleviate some of his burden, but for all the help he has received from Wade and Bosh, it still rests heavier than ever on his massive shoulders. Less than a week remains in The Year of LeBron James, an endless public referendum on a free agent's choice. Less than a week and nothing has been decided yet.