DALLAS -- This was the heart of the matter when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade to chase championships in Miami. These were the questions that wouldn't be answered, couldn't be answered, until June. Could three superstars become a team? Could a team of stars beat a team that played like one?
It took 100 games and 44 minutes of basketball, but the answer came Thursday night in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Once again, the Dallas Mavericks were the kings of the fourth quarter. The King and his subjects offered barely a whimper, their star power outshined by a better team -- a better, more complete, and more versatile team.
If this revelation was going to come, it was going to come against the Celtics in the springtime or the Lakers in June. But it was not to be. It was the Mavs who finally backed the Heat's star-studded trio into a corner, backed them into a dark place where they will have to confront the essence of what they are and what they are not.
With a 112-103 victory that gave them a 3-2 lead with the Finals, the Mavs sent the Finals back to Miami with the Heat facing elimination on their home court. There, the champions of July will confront the end of an 11-month journey never before seen in NBA history -- an ending that will either be improbably triumphant or unimaginably bitter.
"We wouldn't have it any other way than the hard way," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
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The calamities just kept coming Thursday night -- Wade injuring his hip in the first quarter and playing only 35 minutes; a four-minute span without a basket in the fourth as the Mavs closed on a 17-4 run; backbreaking 3-pointers by Jason Kidd and Jason Terry as Dallas turned a four-point deficit with 4:37 left into an avalanche of regrets for the Heat.
"We know it's the thing that's either going to lose or win us a championship," Wade said. "It comes down to either not closing out games or closing it out. We have another game Sunday to be able to do that."
But the game that James had openly referred to as the biggest of his career -- he hadn't run from that fact the way he's run away from big moments in the fourth quarters of his series -- turned into a legacy-shaping nightmare for him. On a night when the Heat needed him with Wade limping, James played brilliant as facilitator -- but nothing more. Once again, he treated the fourth quarter like foreign soil, or like another planet.
"Offense had nothing to do with why we lost this game," James said -- and he was right. Defense doomed the Heat, too, including James' defense on Terry -- who was the star of the fourth quarter, despite the overwhelming star power around him.
"We have to make sure we stay locked in and make sure he doesn't get open ones like he got tonight," James said.
James scored two points in the fourth, raising his series total to 11, and again got outscored and outplayed by Terry down the stretch. This is what it has come to: the most talented all-around player in the world is getting outplayed by a perennial sixth-man-of-the-year candidate who looks like his goofy kid brother.
"All season long, ever since I've been a Maverick," said Terry, who had eight of his 21 points in the fourth, "I've been the guy in the fourth quarter they depended on to either make plays or make shots."
In the end, it's not that the guy Miami relies on to do those things failed to do them. It's that, after 100 games and 44 minutes, they still didn't know who it was supposed to be. And James, after 48 hours of nationwide hyperventilating over his fourth-quarter failures, couldn't stand up to that role even on a night when his sidekick -- or his superior, depending on how you look at it -- was hurting.
After Wade's 3-pointer with 4:37 left and a free throw by Bosh, James missed a jumper, committed a charge, and missed a 3-pointer on the next three trips. Then, Terry pulled off a thing of beauty, and made a decision that LeBron would've been criticized for if he'd done it.
Driving to the basket from the left wing, Terry got caught in traffic and rifled a kickout pass to Kidd, who was waiting at the 3-point line with no one around. Terry was so decisive with the pass, so sure that Kidd would be there, that he didn't even turn his head until he'd already committed to throwing it out. Kidd, the 38-year-old point guard who'd been guarding James at the other end, knocked down the shot for a 105-100 lead with 1:26 left.
"I was really looking to get to the basket, drawing a foul," Terry said. "They do a great job with help defense, and my outlet was Jason Kidd. He shoots it well from the spot he was in. The right decision. The right play to make."
About 36 hours earlier, Kidd was talking about a similar decision that James had so infamously made when he was with the Cavaliers, in a moment that seems like a playoff lifetime ago. It was Game 1 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals against Detroit, and on the most important play of the game, James drove to the lane and turned down a point-blank layup. Instead of taking the biggest shot of the game, James let Donyell Marshall do it.
The difference, of course, is that Kidd made the shot and Marshall didn't. (And also, that Terry was throwing the pass this time, and back then, it was James.) But Kidd was talking about the pressure that James, a giant when viewed through every conceivable prism except the postseason, must feel in moments like that -- moments that in these Finals have taken apart his reputation as the most talented player in the world one miscue and unfulfilling moment at a time.
"That's what comes with being one of the best in the world," Kidd was saying the other day. "You're going to be criticized that you didn't do something. The one thing that always stood out in my mind about LeBron was the Detroit game, when he passed the ball to Donyell Marshall for the 3 and people thought he should've shot the layup. He made the right play. He made the right basketball play. He is a basketball player that understands the game and he doesn't have to be dominant by scoring. I think sometimes he gets criticized for some things that if you were in that situation you would do the same thing."
This has become James' burden, one that he tried to bravely slough off again Thursday night -- after another crushing defeat. He had a triple-double -- 17 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists -- but it wasn't good enough. It wasn't good enough because the three plays that everyone will remember -- the three plays that mattered -- were two jumpers and an offensive foul, at a time when the Mavs were moving the ball and running basketball plays at the other end. Like a team.
In this way, maybe James fell into the trap, trying to take the shots and make the plays instead of doing what he'd done so effectively for the first 44 minutes. Damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't. Either way, the crucible is hotter than it's ever been for the Heat, especially for the player whose shoulders bear all the weight of this championship burden -- all the way from Cleveland to South Beach, where he took his talents.
In 2007, you'll remember, the Cavs recovered from James passing on the last shot in Game 1 against the Pistons because he scored 48 points in Game 5 -- including 25 straight. James left Cleveland so he wouldn't have to do that anymore. But what's happened in these Finals makes you wonder if he ever will again.