DALLAS -- As bad and disengaged and ineffective as LeBron James has been in the NBA Finals, fair warning: Do not dismiss him. Underestimate him at your own peril. Root for his failure, but prepare to be disappointed.
James was back in American Airlines Center Wednesday, contrite after the personal and team failure that cost the Heat a chance to take what would've been an insurmountable 3-1 series lead. He was back on the interview stage, not making one false move -- even smiling and commenting on how it was "pretty cool" that the flash bulbs all popped when he did that. There hasn't been much for James to smile about in these Finals, and certainly not Tuesday night, when he pulled his greatest disappearing act since that infamous Game 5 no-show against Boston last spring.
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As good a job as the Mavericks have done to close down James' lanes and keep big, fresh defenders on him, LeBron is the hurricane gathering offshore in this series. He is the volcano spewing ash as a harbinger to an eruption, a solar flare signaling bad weather emanating from the million-degree surface of the sun.
"I think it's that time," James said.
And with those words, James foreshadowed his intentions to join this series, finally, in Game 5 Thursday night -- before it is too late. Too late for LeBron to save his postseason reputation and too late for the Heat to avoid an avalanche of momentum jeopardizing the championship they were built to win.
"If it was the Super Bowl, I would be kicking myself in the foot," James said. "'We have one game, that's it.' The great thing about this, it's a series. No matter if you can have a bad game, you can always make an imprint on the next game. Game 5 is a huge game."
Game 5 is everything for James, and pretty close to everything for the Heat, who would face their most formidable dose of adversity yet if they went back to Miami in a 3-2 hole -- with a crisis of confidence simmering within the psyche of the player who took his talents to South Beach to win titles with Dwyane Wade.
"If I say something to him, it's about ... just putting his mark on the series and obviously he's had a lot of time to think, a lot of things said," Wade said. "So obviously he wants to do it. But at the same time, I don't want him to put too much pressure on himself. That's what we're here for. We're his teammates. We have his back. If we have a guy that's not going, like me in the Chicago series, you've got other guys that can hold it up until you eventually get in.
"We have another game, and I think he's going to respond very well," Wade said. "That doesn't mean he's going to score 50. But I think his mentality will be a little different."
That is what James' presence has done to these Finals. His stature, his past playoff failures, the pressure of being the star who left his city and team to join Wade, have already made their mark. James scored eight points on 3-for-11 shooting Tuesday night in the most important game of his life to date. He failed to score in the fourth quarter after scoring two points in the fourth quarter of Game 3. Worse, he went long stretches without even being involved in the Heat's offensive plays. A prideful defender, James appeared to freeze on Dirk Nowitzki's game-clinching drive to the basket, failing to slide over and take a swipe at the ball.
|LeBron James appears loose and relaxed in preparation for Game 5. (Getty Images)|
"I don't worry about him, just like I know he's not worried about me," Wade said. "Eventually he's going to do something amazing and it's going to put us over the top."
After failing to show up in Game 5 of the conference semifinals against the Celtics last year -- quitting, as Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert later put it, with 15 points on 3-for-14 shooting in a 120-88 embarrassment -- James responded in breathtaking fashion. He had 27 points (though still didn't shoot well, going 8-for-21) with 19 rebounds and 10 assists -- but ultimately exited TD Garden with the playoff failure that sent him all the way to Miami. He avenged that loss by bouncing the Celtics this year, and was the undisputed star of the Bulls series, too.
But now, as James said, is the time. Now is the moment of truth for a supremely talented player burdened by his own hubris and confidence, a time when failure would be magnified in the eyes of all those hoping he'll fail.
"You don't want to drag on what happened [Tuesday] night," James said. "You get into the books, you get into your studies, and then you move on. It's a new day."
A new day with the same script for James, a script he wrote himself by joining Wade in Miami. The tone-deaf commercial he made after the Decision -- "What should I do?" -- has been replaced by a new challenge in another moment. What will he do? How will he respond? How will this drama end?
A piece of advice: Don't count him out.