CBSSports.com National Columnist

LeBron James: Story of an incredibly shrinking superstar

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DALLAS -- On the one hand, it doesn't matter. The Miami Heat won Game 3 of the NBA Finals, so who cares that the Heat had to win it without LeBron James?

On the other hand, the only hand I'm willing to consider, it does matter. Because LeBron James isn't just any player, or even just any superstar. He's better than that, or to use words Scottie Pippen would have been wise to use a few weeks ago, James has the chance to be better than anyone who has ever played this game.

Given that truism -- and it's true, people -- then it does matter. It matters quite a bit, actually, that the Miami Heat had to win an emotional roller coaster of a Game 3, a game that history shows will decide who wins the entire NBA Finals, without a superstar performance from LeBron James. Or even a star performance. James wasn't a superstar Sunday night, wasn't a star, wasn't much more than ordinary given that he played 45 minutes and mustered just 17 points and three rebounds. He had nine assists, but four turnovers. All told, in 45 minutes of action, that's not a lot more than ordinary. It's damn sure not superstar production.

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Dirk Nowitzki was the biggest superstar in this game. Some people will remember Nowitzki for the missed jumper at the buzzer that allowed the Heat to escape with an 88-86 victory and a 2-1 series edge. Me, I'll remember his 34 points and his 11 rebounds and even his three blocks, including an emphatic denial of a Chris Bosh dunk. Plus I'll remember the way he took over in the fourth quarter. That's Superman time in the NBA, and Nowitzki was the guy in the blue tights and red cape. He scored 15 points in the quarter, including the Mavericks' final 12.

That came days after Nowitzki had scored the Mavs' final nine points -- the winning bucket with 3.6 seconds left -- to cap a furious rally and win Game 2. Meanwhile in Game 2, James was no superstar. Nor was he a star. He was good, but given the minutes he gets and the amount of time with the ball in his hands, he wasn't much more than ordinary in Game 2, when he had 20 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Those are nice numbers for a good player. They are subpar numbers for a great one.

And it happened again in Game 3. James had 17 points and nine assists, yes, but he had more turnovers (four) than rebounds (three). He was 6 of 14 from the field. After vowing for two days to get to the foul line in bulk -- "I'll be in attack mode," he had said earlier Sunday -- James went to the foul line four times all game. All in the first half.

To date, Game 3 has been the biggest moment of James' career. And he shrank from it.

Not Dwyane Wade. He never shrinks in the NBA Finals, not in 2006 when he put up monster numbers -- 34.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg -- and not in 2011 either. After erupting for 36 points in Game 2, Wade had 29 points and 11 rebounds in Game 3. For the 2011 Finals he's averaging 29 ppg, 8.7 rpg and 5.0 assists. Superstar numbers.

LeBron wasn't at that level. He was barely at Chris Bosh's level. Bosh had a lousy three rebounds -- just like James -- but he had 18 points, including the winning bucket. That was a 17-footer with 39.6 seconds left, and it came off an assist from James, who delivered it neatly to the corner. Those who love James, and I don't mean just the Miami Herald, although most days that's the first place I would start looking, will hail the heroism of that pass. And it was a nice pass.

Me, I'm wondering about James' disappearance in the fourth quarter. He played all 12 minutes but took just three shots, making one, a front-running dunk after he took the ball from Shawn Marion from behind. You want a metaphor? You got one.

After that play, James took two shots the rest of the quarter. He was blocked by Marion with 1:15 left and the game tied at 86, then missed a 3-pointer that would have clinched the victory with 4.9 seconds left. When someone makes a movie of the fourth quarter, they can cast Rick Moranis as LeBron James and call it Honey, I Shrunk the Superstar.

That's what I'll remember about James from Game 3. His shrinkage, and how it continued a series of shrinkages. After three games in these NBA Finals, James has scored nine points in the fourth quarter. That's total. That's three points a game in the fourth quarter, which means in crunch time LeBron James becomes Joel Anthony.

In three fourth quarters, LeBron James has scored a total of nine points. (Getty Images)  
In three fourth quarters, LeBron James has scored a total of nine points. (Getty Images)  
I asked him about that after Game 3. I asked him, pretty much word-for-word, how come he hasn't been playing like a superstar in the fourth quarter? What's going on with that? James played the defensive-stopper card. That's why he's out there, you know. For his defense. He's not a latter-day Michael Jordan. He's a latter-day Dudley Bradley.

"I think you're concentrating on one side of the floor," James told me. "I'm a two-way player. All you're looking at is the stat sheet."

Ah, yes. The whole stats-are-for-losers argument. Point taken. But you know what else is for losers? Whining about the officiating, which James has gotten (too) good at doing. He has started to get a bitter-beer face every time he wants a foul called. By my count it happened Sunday night eight times, seeing how James missed eight shots from the field.

James has always complained about not getting calls -- all players do, superstar or not -- but as the pressure of this postseason mounts, his complaints have escalated. He's nearly at the level of Dwight Howard, and that's a level no self-respecting superstar should ever reach.

But that's what it has been like for James in these NBA Finals, a series of flops for calls and then the bitter-beer face when nobody falls for it. I'm starting to think James is making things worse for himself, like the boy who cried wolf -- lying about it so often that nobody takes him seriously when it actually happens.

Remember that play I mentioned earlier, the shot by James that Marion blocked with 1:15 left? There was a foul on that play. Marion bumped him. No doubt about it. But instead of getting the call, as superstars almost always do, James got nothing.

Maybe the officials are onto something.

Maybe LeBron James isn't a superstar.

If the 2011 NBA Finals were the only games I had seen him play, that would be my conclusion.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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