Miami Heat: The Championship Rides on the Burdened Shoulders of LeBron James

We’re not doing this again, are we?

Can’t be. They just can’t be. It can’t be a repeat of 2011. We were supposed to be past that. The demons were supposed to have been exercised last year when LeBron James averaged 28 points and dropped a solid triple-double in the championship-clincher.

But here we are again. The Miami Heat struggling in the NBA Finals, and no player struggling more with their game than LeBron James, who has not been a stranger to faltering at this stage of the game.

James averaged 22 points on 36 percent shooting to go along with nearly six turnovers per game in his former team’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the 2007 NBA Finals. He would match the absurdity of such low numbers at such a high setting in 2011, where he posted 18 points per game on 48 percent shooting.

LeBron ended up taking 28 less shots than Dwyane Wade and even less attempts than Chris Bosh in that fateful series, one where Miami appeared ready to cruise to a title with a 1-0 lead already in hand and a double-digit lead at home with eight minutes remaining.

We don’t need to get into specifics of what unfolded. It’s been beat to death already.

But those narratives and feelings are going to rear their grotesque head if Miami ends up falling behind 3-1 tonight. And it will only be worse if LeBron continues to put up the underwhelming numbers he’s been throwing out over the first three games of the series.

The San Antonio Spurs aren’t making what they’re doing to James a secret. Tim Duncan openly came out and said that they’re defending him with all five players on the floor, and it’s also obvious to see from a simple eye-test that the Spurs are packing the paint and daring LeBron to shoot.

They’re giving him a cushion that Rajon Rondo used to receive, before he began consistently hitting the mid-range J. Like every other team LeBron has faced, they would much rather prefer him to take jumpers, rather than driving in the lane and drawing free throws.

Speaking of free throws, LeBron isn’t taking them. He only took 20 in six games in the ’11 Finals, taking three less attempts than Mario Chalmers. He’s only taken six thus far, including taking a grand total of zero attempts last game for the first time since 2009.

But his three-point attempts are plentiful. He’s already taken 13 of those, converting only three of them. He also took too many threes in the 2011 series, taking 28 and converting nine, good enough for a conversion rate of 32 percent.

LeBron also struggled with his shot in 2012, but also had a post-game and was being defended by Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden. He was still taking high-percentage shots, and not relying on the shots that every single opponent he has ever faced over his basketball career wants him to take.

He’s completely buying in to what the Spurs want him to do. They’re daring him to shoot and he clearly hasn’t shown any confidence in his outside shot, constantly hesitating and displaying a tentative approach in launching mid-range and perimeter jumpers.

Leave it to coach Gregg Popovich to employ a strategy to limit James, only needing all five players to do so, and it’s also only helped their cause that Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are continuing to play well-below average and not displaying any of the traits of an All-Star or a top 20 caliber.

But LeBron also stated before the series that he doesn’t take what the defense gives him.

The problem with that statement? LeBron is doing nothing but taking what the defense has given in. He isn’t putting any pressure on the Spurs defense with his inside game and is bailing them out time and time again when he’s pulling up for mid-range jumpers that are neither high-percentage and near the basket, nor a three-pointer that at least counts as one more point than the obsolete two-point jumper.

As long as he sits back and takes jumpers, the Spurs can go back on offense knowing they did what they accomplished, especially now that he’s missing. In the Finals setting, James’ jump shooting percentages are astonishingly bad as he’s converted near 30 percent of shots from outside of the paint in four NBA Finals.

There were three occasions in the disaster that was Game 3 that really caught my eye. One was LeBron denying a post-up attempt on the shorter and smaller Danny Green and opting to take a jumper; the second time he had Tim Duncan on the perimeter and decided to settle for a jumper; and the final time he had Tiago Splitter defending him on the perimeter, yet still settled for a three.

Tiago Splitter isn’t much of a defensive stalwart in the post, and he certainly isn’t one on the perimeter. Yet LeBron is bailing him, and every other inferior defensive matchup, out of what should either be an easy two points near the basket or free throws.

Let those six free throws in three games be an indicator of just how aggressive LeBron has been.

LeBron has two solutions: either begin making jumpers, a shot that every perimeter player should be capable of consistently hitting after a ten-year NBA career, or to begin attacking no matter the defense that is present.

He is too talented and too multidimensional of a player to rely on mid-range jumpers and to not at least attempt to drive the basket. He is supposed to be one of the most feared players in the transition, yet he’s passing out of those opportunities and sending it out to a trailer on the perimeter.

He is supposed to be LeBron James, four-time MVP and reigning NBA champion and Finals MVP. And right now, he’s not that. He’s not even close to that. It’s the same case as in 2011 when we thought the monsters from Space Jam had zapped all of his talent and turned him into a turnover-prone, jump shooting machine.

It’s so odd to see because nobody wants to win more than him. He’s the hungriest player out there. He’s the one with a legacy on the line and the one who will inevitably get blamed for the loss, no matter how poorly his All-Star teammates have played. He’s faced with that burden and responsibility because of what he has become as the greatest basketball player in the world that is miles ahead of the competition.

Plus, as much as we want to blame Wade and Bosh to excuse James of the constant heavy lifting that he’s doing, it’s also James’ responsibility to establish the tone of Miami being a volatile team that’s either going to kill you with drives to the basket or wide-open three-pointers that come off of those drives.

Miami hasn’t killed anyone with mid-range jumpers since Chris Bosh dropped a cool 40 on the Denver Nuggets early in the season. And since the Heat have been denying Bosh a significant role in the offense since, there’s no reason to rely on those mid-range jumpers unless it’s Bosh taking them.

Having LeBron take those shots is spoiling and wasting all of what he’s capable of and what he’s done in his career. The LeBron we have to come know doesn’t get to the NBA Finals just so he can take a bunch of mid-range jumpers and settle for the shots the defense wants him to take.

This is the final stage. It’s all over after this. And while we see youngsters in Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard bask in the spotlight and veterans in Mike Miller proving that even age and injury couldn’t subside this opportunity, Miami’s trio of All-Stars has yet to have any significant lasting impact, with the exception of an eight-minute stretch in Game 2 led by LeBron.

We have yet to see the sense of urgency or the feeling of exuberant energy that should emit from the guys who are supposed to live for these moments. Instead, we’re getting a team that is playing scared. Playing restless. Playing lackadaisical and without any focus.

What it looks like is a team that’s taking its eye off the prize. There isn’t a collective and unified stance being taken from this Heat team that indicates any such desire to win an NBA championship, as they have played certain stretches as if it’s another game in December.

There’s one player who can snap the Heat out of this funk, and he’s taken six free throws in three games.

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