- Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
SAN ANTONIO -- His children are bigger, his bank account is larger, and he has less hair. Yet here is LeBron James struggling in Texas in the NBA Finals in much the same way he did in those miserable, muggy Lone Star Junes of 2007 and 2011.
He's put in months of offseason work on the details, devoted hours to unpleasant introspection and built a new wing on his trophy case, but the past still feels like it's repeating itself for James in this series with the San Antonio Spurs.
For the first two games, he could generally be described as average, which is to say he nearly put up back-to-back triple-doubles while giving off the impression he was just idling. This deep into his career -- with so many experiences to draw on -- the time had come for James to step on it. Rather plainly, he has not, and it's hard for him to swallow that he's back at this point again.
The Spurs are disrespecting his game, his improvement and his recent history by playing him roughly the same way they did six years ago. They are following up on what the Dallas Mavericks did two years back, going to a scouting report and game plan that James thought he'd sent to the incinerator. They are playing the numbers and the psyche, and it's working better than they could have imagined.
Before, James didn't have the experience to grasp it. Now he does, and it leaves him with nothing to display but candor.
"I can't have a performance like that and expect to win the game," James said after enduring a 113-77 Game 3 loss, which easily became one of the most bitter and most embarrassing of his career. "I've got to shoot the ball better, and I've got to make better decisions. I'm not putting the blame on anybody; I'm owning everything I did."
James isn't just failing to meet the expectations of others; he's failing himself. From Game 1 on, the Spurs have been straightforward in their approach: They are going to give James space when he's on the outside, and they're going to crowd the daylights out of him when he's on the inside.
He is averaging 16.7 points, 12.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists in the series. The back-end numbers are nice, but the Spurs are over the moon with that first one. Earlier this season, James went through a streak in which he scored at least 20 points in 33 straight games. Now, he's gone three straight games without doing it, which hasn't happened since … the 2011 Finals and those three nightmare-inducing games deep in the heart of Texas.
He shot 56 percent in the regular season, 51 percent in the conference finals and 39 percent in the past three games.
Kawhi Leonard has done a strong job as the primary defender with his quickness, long arms and big hands, plus his devil-may-care attitude legitimately challenging James. The Spurs' secondary defense has been excellent. They move into proper position in the paint quickly and defend well without fouling, something they have been good at for years.
I've got to be better. It's that simple. If I'm better, we're better. I'm putting everything on my chest and my shoulders, and I've got to be better.
"-- LeBron James, after his team was routed in Game 3
But James is staring at what is happening in front of him like he isn't a good shooter, doesn't have the ability to force contact or won't get foul calls if he's not aggressive. It's easy to look at James' stark free throw numbers in the series -- just six in total after a goose egg Tuesday night, the first time that's happened to him in four seasons -- and make declarations.
It's more telling to watch how he waits for the Spurs to bring their double-teams, almost as if to congratulate them on their plot. When he refuses to take shots that he's knocked down with consistency for years or dribbles and stares at the players in front of him like he doesn't know he has the ability to physically dominate them, it seems as if he's developed some sort of Stockholm syndrome.
Even the Spurs are having trouble explaining it. They are following their game plan, but they can't believe it's working as well as it is. James not shooting well for stretches is not unheard of; Tim Duncan is having a bad shooting series too. But James acting like he doesn't know what to do -- that is causing them some pause.
"It's not just us stopping him," Spurs shooting guard Danny Green said. "He's kind of stopping himself out there, and we're getting a little lucky."
The Spurs are thrilled they're ahead 2-1, and they're whispering in dark corners as they hope James' bout of amnesia continues.
"He'll figure it out; he always figures it out," Heat coach Erik Spolestra said. "I'm not concerned about that."
Well, he ought to be. It would be much easier if Dwyane Wade were himself. That's another story: Wade's ability to buttress James in this series, as he did in the Finals against the Mavericks, has vanished. His sore knee is one thing. His halfhearted defense is another. But that's not a new issue: James entered this series knowing he was going to have to carry Wade.
In 2007, James was wide-eyed and underequipped for such a task. In 2011, James was locked into some sort of bizarro world in which he looked at J.J. Barea and thought he was seeing Bill Russell. But now, James' eyes are wide open.
"I've got to be better. It's that simple," James said. "If I'm better, we're better. I'm putting everything on my chest and my shoulders, and I've got to be better. My teammates were doing a good job. I'm not doing my part."
James said this while he was still in his uniform and with his knees and ankles still numb from a postgame ice down. His instant reaction was as lucid and responsible as could be expected from someone in his demanding position. Yet just minutes earlier, he seemed not to have any interest in the countermeasures that seemed so obvious.
There was barely a hint of playing in the post, which would undercut so many of the Spurs' options. There was the absence of his usual aggression, not from meaningless games in March but from games that were just days ago when he was facing the No. 1 defensive team in the league and a defender that is just as talented with the Indiana Pacers and Paul George.
And James knows all of it, which just makes it harder to understand.
"I've got to do more. It's that simple. I've got to do more," James said. "I'm not making any excuses. I've got to be better."
In his team's Game 3 rout, LeBron James looked like he never learned the lessons of former Finals losses, Brian Windhorst writes.