Friday, June 10, 2011
LeBron comes up short in fourth quarter
By John Krolik
AP Photo/Lucy Nicholson
This charge against Tyson Chandler was one of many of LeBron James' miscues in the fourth quarter.
After an abysmal Game 4 performance that included a complete disappearing act in the fourth quarter, all eyes were on LeBron James coming into Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
How did he respond? In his own way, of course.
He got the Miami Heat back into the game with a virtuoso all-around performance whose fourth period doubled as one of the best passing quarters of James' distinguished career.
He then allowed it to slip away by failing when he needed to do things himself as the team's primary scorer.
The Heat came into the fourth quarter of Game 5 facing a five-point deficit. James hadn't been looking for his own shot for most of the game, but the difference between James' Game 4 and Game 5 performances was night and day. He put pressure on the Mavericks' defense by driving to the rim, working hard without the ball to get deep catches, and forcing double-teams with dribble-drives, attacks in transition and post-ups, which he almost invariably passed out of.
Fortunately for the Heat, James' passing was on target for the first half of the final frame. He recorded four assists in the first six minutes of the quarter, and each assist led to a shot at the rim.
He found Chris Bosh with a laser-beam pass out of a pick-and-roll situation. He pushed the ball in transition, drew the defense, and set Dwyane Wade up with two easy layups. When the defense collapsed on him in the paint, James made a beautiful little dump-off pass to Udonis Haslem for a layup.
Before James came into the league and was simply the most-hyped rookie prospect of all time, he repeatedly asserted that the greatest misconception was that he was a scorer, when in reality he drew more joy from setting up his teammates than he did from racking up points.
Eight years later, in what he called the most important game of his career, James stayed true to his word and got his team back into the game with the kind of passes we haven't seen from a man LeBron's size since the days of Magic Johnson. In the span of six minutes, Miami put up 15 points to cut the lead to one, and eight of them came from layups set up by James' passing.
That wasn't where the story of LeBron's fourth quarter ended, however. As gifted as he is as a passer, and as good as his teammates are, there will always come a point in a big game when James needs to take matters into his own hands and prove why so many people consider him the best player in the world. He did it against Boston, and again against Chicago.
After a quick run from Dallas that tied the game with 3:23 remaining, the time came for James to prove his mettle on the biggest stage. Things could have gone better.
The Miami vintage of LeBron doesn't attack the basket as frequently as the Cleveland model did, but he's made up for it in these playoffs by showing improvement in three key areas: his post game, his ability to move without the ball and his outside shot.
Down the stretch of Game 5, all three of those skills failed LeBron.
With the score tied after a Jason Terry 3-pointer, Miami went to LeBron in the post, which had been creating great looks for them all game long. With DeShawn Stevenson on him, LeBron went to a move he added since taking his talents to South Beach: a simple turnaround 17-footer. It found iron, and Dallas regained its lead on the ensuing possession.
Then, with a chance to tie the game or take the lead, Miami actually ran a beautiful set. Wade got into the teeth of the defense before dropping off a pass to LeBron at the rim. It's the kind of set that X's-and-O's geeks have been hoping to see from Miami for the past nine months. LeBron caught the ball a few feet away from the basket, went straight into the body of Tyson Chandler, drew the contact, and put the ball through the hoop.
A whistle blew.
Perfect, right? Miami had tied the game, and would have a chance to take a one-point lead.
Chandler was in the restricted area, but since LeBron caught the ball below the hash-mark, the restricted area wasn't a factor. The only thing that mattered was who initiated the contact, which LeBron clearly did. It was great offense negated by great defense and the correct call by the much-maligned Joey Crawford. Hey, at least one of the media's favorite targets came up big in crunch-time on Thursday.
After a Mavericks turnover, the Heat had another chance to tie the game or take the lead, and LeBron decided to take matters into his own hands and fire up a 3-pointer from the top of the arc that would have given Miami a one-point lead.
Over the course of the season, LeBron quietly turned himself into one of the best midrange shooters in the league, making 45 percent of his midrange jump shots. Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, LeBron's improved jump shot was one of his most reliable weapons, especially in crunch time.
But the jumper is a fickle mistress. Just ask J.J. Barea, who destroyed the Heat with pull-up 3s in Game 5 after doing his best Eric Snow impression from outside for the first four games of the series.
And LeBron's jumper hasn't been returning his calls in these Finals. In the Heat's three losses, James has shot 3-of-21 from outside of 15 feet (data courtesy of Hoopdata.com), and that has clearly infected his game.
From the moment that 3-point attempt left James' hand, it had no chance -- the ball looked like it was filled with helium, and veered toward the rim like it hadn't been given a set of directions. It clanged harmlessly off the rim, Jason Kidd made a 3 to put Dallas up two possessions, and it was all downhill from there.
With the score tied, LeBron was given three possessions to give the Heat a 3-2 series lead. By the time they were over, it was all but assured that Miami would have to play two elimination games.
If the Heat had taken care of business in Games 2 or 4, LeBron's fourth-quarter performance could be forgiven. After all, he did have a triple-double, and it was his passing, along with that of Wade's, that got the Heat a late lead.
But after LeBron disastrously hijacked the offense to trigger the Game 2 collapse and disappeared in Game 4, he no longer has the benefit of the doubt. It's not his job to do enough to give the Heat a good chance to win anymore. After he cost them two easily winnable games, it's now his job to make sure they don't lose the NBA Finals.
On Thursday, he failed to do that job. If he fails one more time, his career will reach a new nadir, which didn't seem possible after his inglorious exit from the playoffs last year and the fiasco of a "Decision" that followed it.