DALLAS – Shrinking implies attendance. To shrink, one must first show up.
To say that Miami Heat forward LeBron James shrunk in Game 4 of the 2011 NBA Finals would be inaccurate. To say that he was invisible, absent and inconsequential in an 86-83 loss to the Dallas Mavericks would be closer to the truth. To pin the fact that the Finals series now stands at two games apiece on his shoulders is not only fair, it's unavoidable.
After stating Thursday morning that he was “starting to taste” his first NBA title, James -- the NBA’s most dominant force playing in the most important game of his career -- had the worst game of his season and made the smallest offensive impact of his playoff career.
He declared earlier this week that no single Mavericks player -- nor any single player in the league -- could guard him. He promised that he would be in “attack mode.” He scolded a columnist who questioned his late-game performance in Game 3 for focusing too much on the box score. He lauded his own defensive abilities and reminded everyone to check the tape.
And then he came out, played 45 minutes and laid the egg of his life.
James finished with eight points, nine rebounds, seven assists and four turnovers. His eight points marked the first time he has failed to score in double digits in 90 career playoff games. He finished with less than half of his regular season low point total: 17. He shot just 3-for-11 from the field, making just one field goal that wasn’t a dunk.
In the fourth quarter, James scored zero points, and had more turnovers (2) than field goal attempts (1). The last points he scored came with 1:17 left in the third quarter. He didn't take a shot in the game's final two minutes and, on the final possession, the Heat's fate rested in an errant jumpshot by reserve forward Mike Miller.
“Definitely didn’t play great offensively,” James said, delivering the understatement of the playoffs. “I got to do a better job of being more assertive offensively, not staying out of rhythm offensively the whole game.”
“He struggled,” Heat forward Chris Bosh said. “Point blank, period. He struggled out there.”
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra attempted to fall on the sword, trying to shoulder some of the burden for his massive small forward.
“We’ll have to look at the film,” Spoelstra said. “Obviously we would like to get him involved. He’s a very important piece to what we do. So we’ll work to help make it easier for him next game.”
The performance was so out of character that Spoelstra was asked directly whether there was something wrong with James.
“He’s physically fine,” Spoelstra said.
Rather than serving as reassurance, the words inadvertently hinted at a more serious, problematic explanation. If there’s no physical ailment, then surely the malady must be mental?
To James’ credit, and to the surprise of some whispering reporters, James didn’t duck out of his postgame press conference, showing up to face the music. Once he sat down, looking composed in a green suit, but clearly dejected, reporters openly questioned his confidence level.
“I’m confident with my ability,” James maintained. “It’s about going out there and knocking them down.”
The performance was as confusing as it was shocking, leaving both James and those tasked with stopping him unsure why he performed so far below par. James said it wasn’t because of any new defensive looks that Dallas was throwing at him.
“They haven’t changed their coverages on me,” James said. “Me just being more assertive, that’s what it’s about.”
The Mavericks did switch their starting lineup by inserting J.J. Barea for DeShawn Stevenson, which did impact the players who were guarding James slightly. Stevenson was in the game late, drawing the assignment on James along with his usual matchup: Shawn Marion.
"I don't know,” Stevenson said when asked to explain James’ night. “He's a great player. I don't know why he's struggling.
"That's not him. Cleveland days, he was attacking.”
Marion, who James said over the weekend couldn’t guard him one-on-one, was happy to claim the credit.
“We did a great job,” Marion said. “I think our defense has been working pretty well. We just have to make him take tough shots. You keep him from getting those transition breaks and breakaways, and having to take tough fadeaways.”
“Phenomenal,” guard Jason Terry said of Marion’s defense. “[James is] having to facilitate a lot of times for his teammates and get them involved. But we’re just trying to get our hands up, distract him a little bit and when he puts his second hand on the ball, we’re trying to be there to distract him.
James would only point specifically to his inability to make better use of his touches in the low post.
“I got the ball in the post a few times, and I [saw] double teams,” James lamented. “I can’t let that stop my aggression when they bring two to the ball. I still got to make plays for my team, but also make plays for myself to keep me in the rhythm of the game.”
If the night left him without explanations, it also left him upset.
James said that he was most angry because it happened in a loss. “That’s all that matters to me," he said. "If I had had eight points and we won the game, I could be satisfied."
As he departed, James offered a promise: “I’ll come back in Game 5 and do the things that need to be done to help our team win.”
All week, and especially in the aftermath of the Game 3 criticism, those traveling with the Heat have marveled at James’ ability to resist folding under the immense pressure. On Tuesday night, he didn't fold, he burst.
The rest of this Finals series will hinge on whether he can put the pieces back together.