DALLAS -- It was a triple-double, if you're into stats. But as LeBron James told us after Game 3, forget about the stats. Stats are for dummies. So let's dig deeper than the 17 points, the 10 rebounds, the 10 assists, and let's do what LeBron wants us to do. Let's ask a better question.
Hey, I have one:
Anyone seen LeBron James? What happened to him?
This James? The guy in these NBA Finals? Never seen him before. Never seen a LeBron James who refused to attack when someone like the shorter, slower, older Jason Kidd was guarding him. Never seen a LeBron who couldn't make shots outside of 10 feet, or who wouldn't get close enough to Jason Terry to stop him from shooting -- and making -- a 3-pointer with 33 seconds left on a night that Terry was locked in from long distance.
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This guy isn't doing anything LeBron James did in the playoff series against Boston or Chicago, but the more I think about it, it's him -- the headband gives him away. He wears it at a tilt, but not because he's sweating. Because he's balding. The headband hides his receding hairline.
And nothing can hide his receding game.
The shrinkage continued in Game 5, shrinkage that started in Game 1 and Game 2, was mentioned after Game 3, and was acknowledged by most everyone else after Game 4. The shrinkage was so bad in Game 4 -- James was so bad -- that these 2011 NBA Finals stopped being about Miami and Dallas. Days ago the typical white noise generated by a championship series had been drowned out by the shrieking about LeBron.
No he's not!
Yes, he is.
And it continued Thursday in Game 5, which Dallas won 112-103 to take a 3-2 lead as the NBA Finals return to Miami for the final two games. Unless James returns to full size, though, there won't be two games.
One is all Dallas needs.
If James stays like this, I said. If. That's not a wholesale prediction of a Dallas championship, because the real LeBron James combined with the incredible Dwyane Wade and the serviceable Chris Bosh would be enough, at home, to win twice. I'm sure of that. But Miami with mini-LeBron? Nope. Not enough. Dallas is too good. Dirk Nowitzki is a monster, and Jason Terry and J.J. Barea are giving him too much help. That guard duo combined for 38 points and 11 assists in Game 5. Nowitzki had 29 points.
LeBron James had 17. On 19 shots. On a night his team needed him more than ever, what with Wade sidelined twice, for more than 13 minutes total, with a bruised hip.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra tried to stop this from happening, too. Before the game he was asked two questions, and only two questions, both of them about his superstar head-case. After one of them, Spoelstra said, "We can't think about overwhelming thoughts."
Which is funny, because earlier in the day LeBron had said, "This is the biggest game of my life."
Spoelstra also said LeBron wouldn't be "over-thinking things."
Which is funny, because with the series tied at 2-2, and a return to Miami assured, James still had described Game 5 as "now or never."
So what we have here, I believe, is a failure to communicate. Spoelstra wants James to pretend this is no big deal. James wants to acknowledge that something enormous is happening. And James is right. It is enormous, and it is happening. Entering this offseason, James' reputation is on the verge of being damaged on the court as much as The Decision hurt him off it. He's a mess, and he's thrashing about for the right answers.
After his pregame show of bravado didn't work, James went laissez faire afterward. Asked if the pressure was getting to him, he talked himself into this answer, eventually:
|Forget about the triple-double. When the Heat need LeBron James late, he was nowhere to be found. (Getty Images)|
Next he was asked if the Heat needed more offense from him in the fourth quarter -- James has scored 11 fourth-quarter points in five games -- and James, impossibly, said no.
"I don't think it was a case of offense tonight," he said. "There was enough offensive play. We scored 103 points ... the offense wasn't a problem."
Incorrect, but thank you for playing. When the team's leading scorer isn't scoring in the fourth quarter, five games in a row, that's a problem. Especially when it unfolds like the fourth quarter unfolded Thursday night, with 38-year-old Jason Kidd staring at James and James ... blinking. Rather than taking Kidd into the post or trying to beat him off the dribble, James hoisted jumpers on a night, and in a series, when his jumper just isn't working. The last was with 1:50 left and the Heat trailing 102-100. Needing a two-pointer for the tie, staring at Kidd atop the key, with 17 seconds left on the shot clock, James put a stamp on this game and mailed it in. He chucked a 3-pointer. Not close.
Kidd came down and hit a 3-pointer for a 105-100 lead. Shortly thereafter, Terry stuck a 3-point dagger in James' face. It was 108-101, and the Mavs gave a mercy bucket to James -- his only points of the fourth quarter -- when he drove for an uncontested layup with 20.9 seconds left.
The biggest shot of the game, though, was that 3-pointer with 1:50 left. It wasn't simply an ineffective play. It was a lazy one. It was stupid -- and James isn't stupid. But he did say this, when asked about the thinking behind shooting a low-percentage jumper so early in the shot clock:
"I didn't think about it," he said. "D-Wade gave it to me, I had enough room, and I shot it. Shots I made before."
When, LeBron? When?
This isn't Chicago. This isn't Boston.
And this damn sure isn't Cleveland.