SAN ANTONIO — It would have taken Dr. Phil McGraw to give an accurate assessment of why LeBron James was in such a cheery mood Wednesday following one of the worst games of his postseason career.
He broke more than one smile, called reporters by their first names, and said “bless you” when another reporter sneezed. He was confident, calm, and at peace. He promised atonement, giving off that eerily similar aura that he did just before Game 6 of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics. On that night he single-handedly dismembered the Celtics with an expressionless face, as if saying, “You guys made it come to this.”
It’s become apparent that such circumstances are almost necessary for James to become Jordan-like. For reasons the basketball world has yet to discover, James only unleashes his fury when absolutely necessary, which differentiates him from Michael Jordan and many of the all-time greats who would drop 50 in Game 1 as quickly as Game 7.
James realizes the days of passing to Mario Chalmers at the 3-point line when the rim is merely 10 feet away are over. LeBron James has to be an alpha male for the rest of the season, using his burly shoulders to carry the Heat to a second consecutive title, if possible.
He has chosen to play distributor, helper, for the first three games of the series and while the numbers are admirable — 16.7 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 6.7 assists — Miami has dropped two of the first three games. Even Magic Johnson, during a conference call Wednesday, said he would rather James be more like Mike and less like Magic.
He has to.
“Absolutely. I take full responsibility for our team’s performance last night. Me as a leader, I can’t afford to perform like I did last night and expect us to win on the road,” he said. “It’s that simple. So I’m putting all the pressure on my chest, on my shoulders to come through for our team. That’s the way it is. I have to do whatever it takes. I mean, 7 for 21 isn’t going to cut it. Zero free throws. I had 11 rebounds, I had 5 assists, but 7 for 21 and zero free throws ain’t going to cut it. So I will be better tomorrow.”
He repeatedly promised better days with a wry smile, as if he was convinced another historic day was in store. Which begs the question: if James, the best player on the planet, can call on these types of performances when necessary, why doesn’t he impose his will more often? Would Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, or even a Paul Pierce in his prime settle for 15 points in an NBA Finals game?
James’s ability to control tempo, his basketball IQ, his court vision and unselfishness are admirable traits. But the great ones always have a selfish gene, especially when their teammates are practically begging for help.
It’s apparent that Dwyane Wade — whether it is because of his balky knees or years of crashing to the floor — cannot produce as he once did, while Chris Bosh is content with being the third option. While Miami’s Big Three was present for about 1 ½ years, they now have been reduced to the Big One, and that Big One needs to look at his teammates, use his open hand to pat his chest and say, “this is me now.”
The ability to seize the moment, unafraid of failure or disdain from teammates is what separates Bryant and Jordan from LeBron. Kobe was apathetic to how his teammates viewed him, especially when they were next to him at the O’Brien trophy presentation.
Jordan’s teammates are still scoring free beers in Chicago because they were on the roster with MJ. People appreciate a great teammate, but they appreciate a winner more, and James now has to make that transition to a winner.
He is more than capable as a stunned TD Garden witnessed a year ago. And you have to believe the Spurs truly expected beastmode LeBron to arrive in this series much earlier than Game 4. LeBron insisted his alter ego will emerge and he usually backs up his promises.
“I mean, if you see my comments and you see my interview, it’ll let you know it was weighing heavily on me, right after getting blown out in a Finals game,” he said of his demeanor after Game 3. “So it was weighing heavily on me. With my performance, I didn’t particularly care for myself at that point in time. So obviously it was in my head. I’m just confident in my ability. And my teammates are going to put me in positions to succeed. And the coaching staff will put us in positions to succeed.
“I’m a positive guy. I love the game. I have fun with the game. As dark as it was last night, can’t get no darker than that, especially for me.”
The light had better shine Thursday night because James’s legacy could be on the line. Winners aren’t always nice guys. In fact, most of the time, they’re egomaniacal. But in this situation, that’s exactly what Miami needs.