Commentary

Here we go again, LeBron James

Updated: June 12, 2013, 5:09 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- A night like that. A series like this. A relentless focus on his struggles that overshadows everything else happening in the NBA Finals.

All of the above was supposed to be out of LeBron James' life forever.

Instead?

Forever, for LeBron, didn't even last a full 12 months.

The unchallenged greatest player in the game, fresh off the sort of storybook calendar year in 2012 that only Michael Jordan could touch, is suddenly and unquestionably mired in a crisis of confidence on the biggest stage in his sport.

Three games into the 2013 Finals, James has yet to post a 20-point game.

In each of the past two games, James has started 2-for-12 from the field against Kawhi Leonard and a posse of help defenders sagging into the paint, baiting him into hoisting long jumpers and crowding him whenever he tries to go inside.

Entering Thursday night's Game 4, No. 6 has attempted a whopping six free throws, lowlighted by the failure to earn a single trip to the line in Game 3.

"He's kind of stopped himself out there," San Antonio's Danny Green observed late Tuesday night, "and we're getting a little lucky."

There you go.

Even after hitting those seven triples -- even after he became the Cinderella leading scorer of these NBA Finals -- Green had one more dagger to plunge into the Heat.

What Green said at the postgame podium and surely intended as a humble assessment of the Spurs' defensive success against his former Cleveland teammate summed up the curious state of LeBron as well as anyone has.

Stopping himself?

LeBron James?

In those first two games at home, James' determination to counter San Antonio's swarms by making the right basketball play and trusting his teammates to cash in on their much cleaner looks could be defended as sensible and justified. On the road, with a chance to put the Spurs in a series deficit for the first time in their five trips to the Finals, James was inexcusably passive.

Especially when you factor in the increasingly punchless state of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

So it's not enough for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to declare, as he did after Tuesday's 36-point pounding, that LeBron will "figure it out" because "he always figures it out."

It's incumbent upon Spoelstra and James to make it a first-quarter priority in Thursday night's Game 4 to get Miami's go-to guy going right away, presumably by posting up LeBron more and urging him to have faith that attacking the rim can get him to the line -- and sticking to that plan.

Which is exactly what the Spurs did in Game 3. Gregg Popovich announced to the world in the wake of Miami's Game 2 rout that he had to have more from face of the franchise Tim Duncan. San Antonio's answer: Duncan was featured inside early and often in Game 3, which made him an immediate factor and opened things up for the 3-point barrage from Gary Neal and Green that followed.

Now it's Miami's turn. The same script we've seen three times -- LeBron deferring early and then, under duress, trying to shoot his way from deep out of setup man mode -- has to be scrapped.

The first quarter of Game 4, for Miami, has to be a LeBron-a-thon if the Heat hope to avoid a 3-1 deficit that, in the history of the Finals, has never been overturned.

"We'll work to make sure that he's getting to places he can be comfortable and confident," Spoelstra said.

The solace for the Heat, after the third-widest margin of defeat in Finals history, is that things change fast in the NBA universe.

As this series has already proved repeatedly.

As recently as Tuesday morning, San Antonio was pensive, knowing Game 3 was a virtual must-win to stop the Heat from rolling up the sort of momentum that famously propelled them to 27 wins in a row in the spring.

Bosh saw it that way at the morning shootaround, telling ESPN Radio's Mike Tirico that Game 3 was a real opportunity for the visitors to "punch them in the gut" and "take the air out of them" after San Antonio stole Game 1 in South Florida.

Now?

LeBron James and the Miami Heat have no choice.

They can't afford to merely presume that Green and Neal are destined to cool off or bank on the uncertainty surrounding Tony Parker's right hamstring to restore the momentum Miami seemingly brought to South Texas.

Until he rediscovers his self-belief as a jump-shooter, given the funk San Antonio has amazingly and unexpectedly ushered him into, LeBron is headed for a third defeat in four trips to the Finals.

The same LeBron whose jumper had sharpened to the point during the regular season that he made you think 60 percent shooting from the field was not an impossibility.

"Obviously, we know what kind of a player LeBron is," Green said. "We know he's not at his best right now."

That's not the sort of thing we ever expected to hear -- from any Spur -- after a year-plus of seeing what LeBron's best looks like. Over and over and over.

A 7-for-21 night with no free throws? Three straight muted games with ring No. 2 on the line?

This wasn't supposed to happen anymore.

No less an authority than King James himself has reached the same conclusion.

"I'm not making no excuses," LeBron conceded at his locker after Spurs 113, Heat 77.

"I have to be better, and it's just that simple. ... I'm putting everything on my chest and on my shoulders, and I have to be better. My teammates are doing a great job, and I'm not doing my part."

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics