SAN ANTONIO -- LeBron James was shooting and he was missing and it wasn't Game 3 of the NBA Finals, but the next day -- the Heat's practice on Wednesday. The first 30 minutes were open to the media and there were about 50 of us there, all on LeBron's side of the court, watching him miss.
On the other side of the court was pretty much the rest of the team. Ten guys were shooting at one end, LeBron at the other. Chris Bosh was watching him shoot. Dwyane Wade was watching. The media. Watching.
He missed one 16-footer from the elbow, then two, then three. He made plenty, don't get me wrong, but he was missing a lot. Too many. And he knew it, which is why he started tossing glances at the media after his missed shots -- but never after a made basket -- and then, after three straight misses followed by three straight glances at the media, he decided that his shoulder was hurting. Or maybe it was his back. Probably it was nothing, but LeBron hunched over and then started swinging his arms as if to loosen something up.
He made a shot or two, then started missing again. Back came the arm swing. Now he was cursing. GOD, he yelled, followed by a softer, more disgusted dammit.
Heat assistant Robert McAdoo was between LeBron and the rim, and that was enough to keep the ball out of the basket, so LeBron dribbled around McAdoo and floated under the rim and spun for a tomahawk dunk.
A few seconds later he shot a baseline jumper that hit the front of the rim and bounced high into the air. "Get up, b-tch," he muttered.
This is what LeBron has been reduced to -- talking the ball into the basket in an open gym.
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LeBron has been here before, the 2011 NBA Finals when he shrank against the Dallas Mavericks, and his methodology that time didn't work. LeBron went for denial, pretending nothing was wrong after Game 3 and telling the reporter who asked about the shrinkage to "watch the film ... and ask me a better question tomorrow."
Tomorrow was Game 4 in 2011, and LeBron shrank even more: eight points, nine rebounds and seven assists, a triple-single on 3-for-11 shooting from the floor. The Mavericks closed out the Heat in six games. LeBron, who averaged 17.8 points in the series, got the blame.
Now it's happening again. Three games into the 2013 NBA Finals the underdog Spurs are leading 2-1 and LeBron is averaging 16.7 points. He is shooting 38.9 percent from the floor and 23.1 percent on 3-pointers, but his worst statistic is from the foul line -- six free throws, total, in three games. Offensively he has been bad since Game 1 but he is getting markedly worse, culminating in an abysmal Game 3 when he was 7 for 21 from the floor and didn't attempt a free throw for the first time in four years.
"I played like sh-t," LeBron said Wednesday.
Nobody was arguing with LeBron on Wednesday, when he unleashed several sound bites of self-loathing including that last sentence and also this one:
"As dark as it was last night, [it] can't get no darker, especially for me."
And this one:
"I didn't particularly care for myself [last night]."
LeBron is trying to talk his way out of it now with a combination of abject honesty and self-delusional optimism. Recall this quote before the NBA Finals began, when LeBron was asked about his struggles in the 2007 Finals against this same San Antonio franchise, coached by the same man and featuring the same trio of stars:
"I'm a better player," LeBron said on June 5, "and you can't dare me to do anything I don't want to do in 2013."
The next day the Spurs dared LeBron to pass in Game 1, and he did. He kept funneling the ball to Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, who combined to go 13 for 31. He got to the foul line just four times. The Spurs won, and LeBron conceded afterward that he hadn't been aggressive enough. Reminded of his "you can't dare me" declaration before the series, LeBron called me a "literal" journalist.
So let's stay that way. Let's stay literal and speak the truth: LeBron is choking in these NBA Finals, averaging 16.7 points and shooting 38.9 percent and not getting to the line and being outplayed by Kawhi Leonard, of all people. Now he is trying to talk his way out of his slump. Everything else has failed him -- his body, his head -- as his struggles have become the dominant storyline in the NBA Finals for the second time in three years, so he has gone to the final weapon in his arsenal: his mouth.
LeBron on Wednesday made all kinds of declarations, saying things like, "I'll be better. I'll be much better tomorrow night."
And things like, "I had 11 rebounds, I had five assists, but 7 for 21 [shooting] and zero free throws ain't going to cut it. So I will be better tomorrow."
And, "Mentally it's not a problem. Mentally I'm not out of it, saying that my shot is gone. I know what I can do. It's just about going up there and knocking them down. I will do that."
And, "I guarantee I'll be better tomorrow for sure."
He guarantees it. Sort of like ...
I'm a better player, and you can't dare me to do anything I don't want to do in 2013.
LeBron James is trying to talk himself into being LeBron James, and maybe this time it'll work. A few minutes later on Wednesday he walked onto the court wearing a dark T-shirt with his red practice jersey draped around his neck and hanging on his back, like a cape.
Soon he was shooting in front of the media, shooting and missing and cursing and missing a dunk and pretending he was injured and then finally throwing a brick from the baseline that hit the rim and bounced several feet above it.
"Get up, b-tch," LeBron muttered.
And this is what happened next: The ball fell through the net.