DALLAS -- The question raised to LeBron James on the morning of Game 5 was whether the evening's performance would define him. Hours later comes the answer, following a 112-103 loss in which James contributed two points in the fourth quarter. The answer is no -- not yet.
This series has gone to form, after all. Miami continues to hold home-court advantage and, if it protects its home floor in Games 6 and 7 -- as the Lakers did in this same situation one year ago -- then the Heat will prevail. And what will be the final word on LeBron then?
To win the next game and then the game after that, James is going to have to do what he couldn't do this time. The Lakers did it last year in Game 7, when Kobe Bryant overcame a horrible shooting night with 15 rebounds and Pau Gasol -- derided as soft -- came up with 18, including nine on the offensive end to create the second-chance opportunities that enabled the champions to defend their title. The Lakers outfought the Celtics and that fight defined them in an entirely new way.
But the Heat weren't open to that kind of whatever-it-takes thinking here Thursday.
Dwyane Wade suffered a left hip contusion that sent him to the locker room briefly in the first quarter, and further treatment at halftime kept him in the locker room until 4:33 remained in the third. Wade had been leading Miami, averaging 29.8 points through the first four games, and so his diminished 23 points in 34 minutes wasn't going to be enough. But his teammates weren't able to invent a new way to win.
"It's nothing that you really can change,'' said James. "It's our habits we've been working through all season. With him being out, we just try to do the same thing as if he was in.''
I don't expect James to be taking that same by-the-book approach into Game 6 in Miami. Is the system going to define him, or is he going to define the system?
James may be the only player in history who can be criticized after producing a triple-double of 17 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds. But he was 8-of-19 from the field overall and 1-of-4 in the fourth, when he was outscored 8-2 in his matchup with Jason Terry. "Ever since I've been a Maverick, I've been the guy in the fourth quarter they depended on to either make plays or make shots,'' said Terry. "Regardless of what's going on throughout three quarters of the game, in the fourth quarter I know I'm depended on to come through. Thank God I was able to do that again tonight.'' There has been no man-to-man shootout between James and Dirk Nowitzki (who had a game-high 29 points) and it isn't because they haven't guarded each other -- it's because James hasn't been able to take over offensively, as he did in previous rounds against the Bulls and Celtics.
For 92 inspired seconds, the Heat looked like they'd put together their own winning formula by pairing Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem with the Big Three, who spread the floor to release Haslem for a couple of layups during a 9-2 run. Wade drained a three-pointer to give Miami a 99-95 advantage with 4:37 left, but by then Dallas coach Rick Carlisle had reinserted penetrating 6-foot guard Jose Barea, and the Mavs went onto score 13 of the next 15 points.
Wade wasn't his usually explosive self, his team was gasping for points to keep up and James was unable to adapt. Afterward, James pointed out Miami had allowed the Mavs to convert 56.5 percent overall and 68.4 percent (13-of-19) of their threes. "Offensively had nothing to do with why we lost this game,'' he said. "We just couldn't get enough stops down the stretch.''
It's a fair enough view, and it's completely irrelevant to this time of year. Of course they were outscoring Miami, which had given away Games 2 and 4 while providing the Mavs with enough opportunities to solve the Heat defense. They move the ball around the three-point line, they upfake as the Miami defender closes out hard and runs out of the play, and then they either recirculate the ball, shoot the three, or step inside to attack the defense five-on-four with a pull-up jumper or a drive to the basket.
The Heat screwed up this series by failing to protect a pair of big fourth-quarter leads, so now they have to live with the new realities. Maybe their defense will prevail at home, but what if the Mavs keep making shots? Then Miami is going to have to figure out some way of winning a couple of shootouts.
It's hard to believe that a team of James, Wade, Chris Bosh (19 points and 10 rebounds) and a variety of shooters have been unable to crack 100 points more than once in this series. The simplest reason is because the Mavs have alternated Shawn Marion or DeShawn Stevenson at the point of a team defense that has held James to 40.5 percent shooting, 18.3 points and an assist-turnover ratio of 6.6-4. Those are his numbers over seven games against the Mavs, including two in November and December, so it's a yearlong trend.
It means he's going to have to find another way. This is the most talented player in the world, after all. Quite a few NBA people believe James to be the most talented player in the history of basketball, based on his unprecedented variety of skills, athleticism and size.
"Nothing that we've achieved this year has been easy,'' said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra as he looked forward to defending his court in Miami. "So we're certainly not going to start now.''
If James wasn't committed to winning, then he wouldn't have joined with teammates whose talents essentially reduced his individual numbers and cost him a third straight MVP. He wouldn't have signed with a team that prioritizes defense, a team that forced him to move without the ball and learn to play to a new style. All season long he and his teammates have been humbled, and each time they've responded positively.
So which trend will define James over the next couple of games? Will it be the recent two-game losing streak, Miami's first since March? Or will it be the trend of how he and his teammates have responded to bad times?
No one knows how James will be defined over the next week. Maybe he doesn't know himself. No player who ever led a team to the championship for the first time can know for sure until the job is done. What they talk about afterward -- and of which they're most proud -- is how they found some way to do whatever needed to be done.
LeBron James may not win a championship this season, but I don't expect to hear him defaulting to the team's offensive playbook over the next game or two. It wasn't going to be easy for him to grab the championship ring over the last few days, but I also don't believe he will make it easy for the Mavs to grab it away from him. Maybe it will mean posting up and bulling his way to the foul line. Maybe it will mean diving to the floor and trying to recover every rebound and block every shot around the basket. That's how championships are won -- the prettiness recedes, and the talent gives way to something else. His teammate is injured, and now it's his time to fight for who he really is.