Andrew Unterberger is the Last Angry Man in the crusade against LeBron James and his not-so-gradual march towards total unassailability. He’ll be checking in with us once a month this NBA season for an update on where he’s at with his LeBron hating, and how his attempts to channel all the world’s negative energy towards one generally well-meaning basketball player are progressing.
In my pre-playoffs edition of the LBJ Hate Index, I ranked the 10 most likely obstacles to LeBron winning his second ring this season, taking another step towards basketball’s innerest circle in the process. No. 1, of course, was LeBron himself — as fearful as I am of the man, I always believe him to be the person most in control of his own destiny — and more specifically, “Whatever weird stuff happened with LeBron during his handful of prior playoff meltdowns.” I wrote the following in explanation:
That guy can’t be completely dead and gone, can he? Sure, LeBron seems like he’s “clutch” now, and he’s figured out when to “take over” and all that other nonsense. But there must be a little bit of 2010 LeBron remaining, right? Something that can be triggered, and cause him to act weirdly passive and inert during big games and big moments as his team and the world crumples around him?
Last night, the San Antonio Spurs absolutely steamrolled the Miami Heat, running them off the AT&T Center floor to the tune of a 113-77 final. This isn’t as big a deal as it would be if the Heat hadn’t essentially done the same thing to the Spurs the game before in Miami, rocking them 103-84 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the final 19-point margin would indicate. But it’s still a pretty big deal. It’s by far their biggest loss of the season — they hadn’t lost by more than 20 all year — and more importantly, Miami now trails 2-1 in the series, facing the possibility of the Spurs winning out before the Heat can even make a return trip to South Beach.
This is doubly notable, for both this column and for national news purposes, because LeBron James has not played particularly well over that stretch. Well, by mortal standards, he’s still been fairly boss, going for a triple-double in Game 1 and keying a 33-5 second half run in Game 2 that put the game well out of reach for San Antonio. But he’s been uncharacteristically ineffective when it comes to scoring the ball, going for less than 20 in each of the first three games, shooting under 50 percent in all three, and most stunningly, only getting to the line a combined six times, including a big ol’ bagel in FTAs for Game 3, his first game without a single trip to the charity stripe since 2009. Also worth mentioning: The last time LeBron went three straight games, regular season or playoffs, without scoring 20? Games 3-5 of the 2011 Finals, where the Heat let the series against the Mavs slip through their fingers.
It begs the question, and I certainly doubt that I’ll be the only one asking it today: Is it happening again with LeBron? Is this going to be another playoff series — his third in four years — where we sit around waiting for the Chosen One to flip the switch, put the team on his back, and blow away the inferior competition … only to never have it actually happen? Are we due for another post-elimination press conference where we stare dumbfounded at LeBron, expecting some sort of explanation to make sense of what just happened, but without him giving us any kind of satisfying answers with either his rote responses or stupefyingly blasé demeanor? Is 2010 LeBron alive and well after all?
It’s a little perplexing to me, because for reasons I can’t quite articulate, this one doesn’t feel the same as the other LeBron no-shows yet. The common factor in all of those was a sort of hesitance to really assert himself, a deference to less-qualified teammates and kind of offensive inertness that, despite what Magic Johnson may have blathered about on NBA Countdown, I haven’t totally felt from LeBron in this series. He’s averaging 18 shots a game so far for the series, which is pretty closely in line with his regular season and playoff average in attempts. He’s still driving the ball a lot, even if he’s not getting the whistles for doing so. He seems engaged. He seems like LeBron James, for the most part, except for one crucial difference: He’s worse.
The Spurs’ game plan for the Heat, particularly for Dwyane Wade and LeBron, fascinates and amuses me endlessly, because its core principle seems to be an attempt to prey on the duo’s fear of inefficiency. Both players have improved immeasurably as offensive weapons over the years by cutting down low percentage shots and maximizing their looks near the rim, from the free throw line, and (for LeBron anyway), on rhythm looks behind the arc. The casualty of this is the pull-up jumper from distance, commonly seen as the least efficient shot in basketball, especially when still within two-point range. It seems like it’s been so driven into the two players not to take those relatively low percentage shots that doing so barely even crosses their minds anymore as they operate in the half court.
It’s amazing no one thought before, then, to give them that shot unreservedly. At just about any point in these three playoff games, Dwyane Wade and LeBron could pull up for a long two or a reasonable three, and get a half-hearted contest from the Spurs, at best. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard have been playing so far off LeBron at some points that even as a card-carrying LBJ Hater, I’m screaming at him to pull up for the top-of-the-arc three that I know he can hit. But LeBron still seems so intent on getting the most efficient looks possible that he doesn’t seem to realize yet that in these instances, a pull-up three or even a long two might be higher-percentage than barreling into the congested lane for a tough layup, especially when the refs have been pretty loose with the foul calling. When he has taken those shots, he’s seemed uncommitted and begrudging, like he’s going against his nature by taking them. It’s a brilliant maneuver by Pop and the Spurs to make a weakness out of perhaps LeBron’s greatest strength: His fixation on playing the game the right way.
And still, I’m not totally convinced this is sustainable. Even though he only scored 15 points last night, seven of those points came within one terrifying minute of each other near the end of the third quarter (in which the Heat cut the lead down to 15), five coming on long jumpers the Spurs were goading him into taking. It wasn’t enough to mount a serious comeback, as Gary Neal and Danny Green continued to battle for Game 3 naming rights into the fourth quarter, ultimately combining for an utterly ridiculous 13 three-pointers, but it was enough to put the fear back into the hearts of anyone who had dared let their guard down against LeBron. He’s still just a game adjustment or two from potentially being LeBron James again.
Regardless, I am thoroughly enjoying this reminder of LeBron’s fallibility. Even if he hits 13 threes on his own in Game 4, and the Heat end up surging back and wrapping this thing up in six, I will be able to minorly content myself in the knowledge that even amidst his ascendance to immortality, he’s finally once again shown signs of mortality, of vulnerability, of being properly defended and game-planned against, of being upstaged by two guys who probably wouldn’t be in the league right now if the Spurs hadn’t resuscitated them (one of whom was even watching LeBron from the bench during his first true playoff meltdown). I am a happy Hater today.
LeBron Hate Index: 8/10