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Thursday, June 9, 2011
Will LeBron James figure out fourth?

By Michael Wilbon
ESPN.com

DALLAS -- If losing Game 4 didn't make LeBron James absolutely miserable the aftermath will … or should. His performance in Miami's loss Tuesday night gave plenty of ammunition to the folks who believe less in the concept of a bad game than in the notion that LeBron shrinks from the competition, that he's actually afraid of the pressure moments a player of his talents and stature should relish.

LeBron's Game 4 made it more difficult to argue with the group I'll call the shrinkers. He took only 11 shots in 45 minutes, or three more than Mike Miller took in 15 minutes. He passed up shots he always takes, didn't look to take his man off the dribble, looked at times to be downright disinterested in scoring. Surely the Dallas defense deserves credit, but no defense should make LeBron look as disengaged and as passive as he was. And it's not just one bad game we're talking about anymore, it's disappearing from multiple fourth quarters of a championship series.

Lebron James
LeBron James didn't always look interested in the outcome of Game 4.

DeShawn Stevenson, a player with zero pedigree and no filter, actually said yesterday that he thought LeBron "checked out" in the fourth quarter. Seriously, if Stevenson said that about Michael Jordan 15 years ago Jordan would put 50 on him and do it in such a way that embarrassed everybody ever named Stevenson, back to Adlai.

Pretty much everything with and about LeBron James is over the top, the praise and the criticism, the adoration and this yearlong hatred. I've been of the opinion that LeBron is a great player but hardly a finished project, and that what he has occasionally is a stinker, which every player from Russell to Jordan and everybody between has had as well. But sometimes the numbers make you re-examine. Great players perform in the fourth quarter of playoff games, particularly in the NBA Finals. That doesn't mean score every point or make last-second shots, though that's part of it. But four games into this series LeBron has been nonexistent in the fourth quarter.

While Dirk Nowitzki has hit 12 of 24 fourth-quarter shots in this series, hit all 18 of his foul shots, grabbed 14 rebounds and scored 44 points, LeBron has scored a grand total of nine points, grabbed just seven rebounds, made only three foul shots and missed nine of his 12 field goal attempts. LeBron scored zero points, none, in the fourth quarter of Game 4. Usually, LeBron is asked about Chris Bosh's off-game or bad nights. This time, it was Bosh's turn to weigh in on LeBron's dreadful performance. Very charitably, Bosh said, "He struggled. Point blank, period. He struggled out there … "

That was to the point, but fairly kind. A struggle suggests a fight and it didn't look like LeBron was fighting through anything, which if true would be the real basketball sin. Going 3-for-20 would have been struggling; 3-for-11 was closer to giving up. The best sign for Miami on Wednesday as every person who considers himself a basketball fan weighed in on the issue of Where's LeBron, is that LeBron himself didn't, ah, shrink from the responsibility. "Eight points is definitely inexcusable," he said. "I hold myself to a higher standard than that."

LeBron James and DeShawn Stevenson
DeShawn Stevenson wasn't complimentary of LeBron James' play in Game 4.

My theory always has been that LeBron doesn't yet know how to finish these games, that much like the great high school players before him, LeBron missed out on a critical part of the apprenticeship served by great players who learned how to deal with huge moments in the crucible that is March Madness. Players from Russell to Alcindor to Magic and Bird to Isiah to Olajuwon to Jordan to Wade all learned how to play in June by first playing with great success at the end of March. It took Garnett, Kobe and now LeBron longer to conquer that part of the game, and you can look it up. It took Garnett seemingly a dozen years to get out of the first round of the playoffs. I've always believed LeBron thought too much in these situations, and it was interesting to hear him say, "You're at a point where you're just not in rhythm … You start aiming shots, you start thinking about plays too much. You start thinking about the game too much and instead of going out and reading and reacting … you start to try to impact the game some other way than offensively. I tried to rebound the ball, tried to defend." LeBron found himself thinking, "'If I can give it up to someone so someone else can make the play … ' You just try to focus your play somewhere else."

Asked if Game 5 will be a situation where he has to force himself, if necessary, to aggressively involve himself in the game, LeBron said, "I think it's that time. When I say 'more aggressive' it doesn't mean just shoot the ball … "

LeBron answered every question the way you would want to see a star player respond the day after a dismal performance cost his team a game in the championship series … well, every question except one. Since July 8, when he announced he was taking his talents to South Beach, LeBron has said he wanted to play with teammates who didn't "die" in the critical moments of the game, indicting his old teammates in Cleveland. So, he went to Miami to get new and improved teammates. But yesterday, LeBron said the presence of other great players, specifically Wade and Bosh, made him "feel like you have other options, like you don't have to take over games. … You don't have to take as many shots."

You can't have it both ways, of course. And LeBron's problem is that in either circumstance, with great teammates or without, he's had disappearing acts late in the playoffs. Just last May against the Celtics, LeBron had an enormous Game 3 (38 points) in a Cavaliers victory, only to go 7-for-18 in Game 4, 3-for-14 in Game 5 and 8-for-21 in Game 6 (though he did record a triple-double) as Cleveland was eliminated.

Dirk & LeBron
Dirk Nowitzki has done everything LeBron James has not in the fourth quarters of this series.

LeBron just sort of disappeared after that series and reemerged to tell us he was done with Cleveland, which is of course where all this drama started. The entire season, watched more intensely than any NBA season in 15 years, has been about LeBron and whether he will finally win a championship, whether he's worthy of being a champion. Rarely has a player of his talent in any sport -- the only one I can think of is John Elway -- been looked at more critically from the day he stepped into the league than LeBron James. And his latest failure, though it's just one game, brought about yet another spectacular national reaction, most of it ridicule. The question asked of every great athlete after a terrible night on the job, especially in a championship series, is whether the criticism from outside is harsher than the criticism from within. After all, if LeBron has a repeat performance Thursday night in Game 5, Dallas is more than capable of taking the opportunity and the Finals.

"I was hard on myself all last night," LeBron said, wisely stopping short of making any silly declarations of what will happen in Game 5.

His coach, Erik Spoelstra, was restrained but forceful when he said, "One, he will be more aggressive and have more of an attack mentality tomorrow night. He doesn't need to over-think it … I'm sure a lot of people will have opinions about this or that or what he needs to do differently. He's a great player, a two-time MVP. He knows how to impact the game. And sometimes this happens. It doesn't always go your way. What I like about it is seeing how individuals respond … "

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.

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