SAN ANTONIO -- Game 4 started, but it was Game 3 all over again for LeBron James. It was Game 2. It was the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. The impossible that is somehow possible with LeBron -- this incredible player losing focus, interest or even confidence on the biggest stage in basketball -- was happening all over again. He looked bad.
But then Norris Cole made a play that perked up the monster. Cole had the ball in transition, leading a 3-on-2 fast break with someone open on the far side of the lane. Cole didn't see that guy, and after the game he didn't even know who that teammate was. It was Dwyane Wade, if it matters. Which it does not.
Because Cole was looking at LeBron.
"All he needed was an easy one," Cole said. "Throwing it to LeBron in transition is always the smart basketball play, and he needed that easy one to get going."
LeBron finished the break with a layup. He saw the ball go through the basket, as he has been saying all week about other players, and for LeBron it was no longer Game 3 or Game 2 or the 2011 NBA Finals against the Mavericks. It was Game 4, and it was against the Spurs.
And the Spurs were in trouble.
A few minutes later LeBron grabbed a defensive rebound and started dribbling. In other games at other times, he would have given the ball up somewhere. Maybe at halfcourt. Maybe the top of the key. Somewhere. But not this time, because he had flipped that switch in his brain, the one that toggles back and forth between timid and terminator. LeBron dribbled 85 feet until he was finishing at the rim.
Next possession: LeBron had the ball on the break, and he wasn't giving it up. He bulled into some poor sap, vaporizing whoever it was, and banked in a short runner.
LeBron didn't score on the next possession, but the Heat did and he made it happen. This was the LeBron we're used to seeing, the LeBron who has won four MVPs and could win another four -- if not more -- before he's done. This LeBron had the ball as he crossed midcourt and he wasn't waiting for the defense to dictate his next move. This LeBron dictates, and he attacked the defense and got into the lane and was surrounded, so he passed to Shane Battier in the corner. Battier kicked it to the wing, and the Spurs’ defense dissolved. They were everywhere, and nowhere. Two passes later the ball reached Ray Allen for an open 8-footer.
Then LeBron hit a 19-footer. Followed by a 17-footer. He had scored 10 points in less than five minutes, and the Heat had rallied from a 15-5 deficit to take a 25-21 lead, but this was bigger than that. This was LeBron the destroyer, come to life.
The Heat routed the Spurs 109-93 to even the NBA Finals at two games each, and LeBron -- who came into the game averaging just 16.7 points and shooting 38.9 percent after three games -- finished with 33 points on 15-for-25 shooting. He had 11 rebounds and four assists. And two steals and two blocks. It's the kind of game we have come to expect from LeBron, and the kind of game he has produced routinely in January and February and March. And April and May. But June has been a different month for LeBron. He has had great games in the NBA Finals, but he has been just as likely to have a stinker.
What all-time great player have we ever said that about? We can say it about LeBron, because he stunk in the 2011 NBA Finals. He stunk in Game 2, and then again in Game 3. And for five minutes on Thursday night he was smelling atrocious again.
It was 15-5 when Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard hit a 3-pointer and the Heat called timeout, and one way or another this was going to be the game's tipping point. The game was nearly five minutes old and LeBron hadn't taken a shot from the field. This three-minute break in the action meant three minutes for LeBron to sit and stew, and to get better -- or worse. He is a mystery, a basketball savant and a baffling head case, and this timeout could have broken him as something broke him in those 2011 Finals, and as something broke him in Game 3.
Shortly after the timeout Cole found him in transition, and LeBron finished at the rim, and it was like LeBron remembered who he was. After the game he was asked about Wade making that same discovery -- Wade, who has been a shell of himself for months, scored 32 with six steals, six rebounds and four assists -- and LeBron gave an answer that described them both.
"No matter how great you are," LeBron said, "no matter what your resume is, to have a game like this ... it lets you know you're a bad -- you know the next two words. I can't say. My kids may be watching."
Of course they're watching. The whole world is watching, and we're not watching the Spurs vs. the Heat. We're watching the same thing we watch every June. We're watching LeBron vs. LeBron.
And LeBron seems to be winning.