Keeping Score

Choke: Why LeBron James Is Failing in the Finals

The NBA Finals were supposed to validate LeBron James' decision to join the Miami Heat. But after his failures to deliver in the fourth quarter, James now faces a stunning loss

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REUTERS / Lucy Nicholson

Miami Heat's LeBron James during Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Dallas, June 9

Some 50 minutes before Game 5 of the NBA Finals Thursday night, which LeBron James labeled the “biggest game of my life,” the Miami Heat star could not have been more relaxed. James stood at his locker stall, all smiles, bopping his head to the hip-hop beats playing in the room. Dwyane Wade, another of Miami’s “Big Three,” or “Heatles,” or whatever fashionable nickname you choose to call the Heat’s best players, was leaned over in a chair, solemnly staring at a film of the Heat’s deflating Game 4 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, which tied the series at 2-2.

But James was his jovial self. He mouthed the words to a song called “Play Your Part,” which features vocals from hip-hop artists Rick Ross, Wale and Meek Mill. “Just play your part,” the lyrics go. “Just play your part. We’ll be cool as long as you just play your part.”

It’s a catchy — and fitting — tune. After James scored just eight points in Miami’s 86-83 Game 4 loss and two points in the fourth quarter of the Heat’s 88-86 victory in Game 3, the world wondered where LeBron had gone. Would James play his part to help Miami dust off Dallas? Is all cool with the Heat?

(Watch a video about LeBron James.)

Not really. Dallas took Game 5 Thursday night, 112-103, as the Mavericks pulled away from Miami down the stretch thanks to some sick shooting. A pair of Jasons — Kidd and Terry — sank two huge three-pointers for Dallas in the last 90 seconds; for the game, the Mavs hit an unbelievable 13 of 19 shots from three-point range, a 68.4% clip. Dallas now returns to Miami, for Sunday night’s Game 6, one win away from the NBA title. And a summer of endless scrutiny for the Heat, the NBA team America loves to loathe, would begin.

You can certainly say that James played his part, as he finished with the measure of a terrific all-around game, the triple-double: 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. The problem is that when you’re LeBron James, a physical freak who, upon ditching his native Cleveland for South Beach, told a preening Miami crowd that he envisioned the Heat winning “five, six, seven” championships, you can’t just fill digits in a box score.

After James began to shed his reputation as a playoff choker in Miami’s series wins over Boston and Chicago, he has stalled again in the finals, scoring just two points in the fourth quarter of Game 5. When Miami needed him most, he failed, triple-double be damned. With the score tied at 100 and just under three minutes left, James shot an 18-foot jumper over Kidd, a defender a dozen years his senior — and missed it. A dunk from Dirk Nowitzki (who scored 29 points) gave Dallas a two-point lead. On the ensuing possession, James charged into Dallas center Tyson Chandler, who drew the offensive foul. After the Mavs missed, James then settled for 25-foot three-pointer from the top of the key. It clanged off the rim. Kidd’s three put Dallas up 105-100 with 1:50 left, and Miami never recovered.

(See TIME’s 2008 cover story about LeBron James and 99 other athletes to watch.)

What a weird series for James. After he dominated the top-seeded Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, none other than Scottie Pippen, the Hall of Famer who helped Michael Jordan win six titles with the Chicago Bulls, hinted that James could end up the greatest all-around player ever, a title long reserved for His Airness. But in these finals, on the most important stage of LeBron’s career, he’s been an underwhelming Pippen, largely letting Wade star in Jordan’s role as the cold-blooded scorer. (The role fits Wade, who is averaging 28.4 points on 58% shooting. James did take 19 shots on Thursday, seven more than Wade, who missed the start of the second half with a bruised left hip.)

James has scored a measly four points in the fourth quarters of the last three games — you can picture Jordan shaking his shaved head right now, wondering why anyone would put he and James in the same sentence. Since hitting 4 of 5 three-pointers in Miami’s Game 1 win, James has shot 3 for 18 from three-point range. He’s averaging 17.2 points per game in the finals; against the Bulls, he averaged 25.8 points per game.

But are we all expecting too much of LeBron? Is the finals criticism unfair? “I think a lot of it is undeserved,” says Dallas Mavericks forward Brian Cardinal, the journeyman who absorbed a vicious hit from James Thursday night, only to have the refs whistle him for a blocking foul. (The boos from the Dallas crowd are still screeching in my ears). “It’s hard for him to be aggressive sometimes when Dwyane Wade has it going, when Chris Bosh has it going. It’s hard to have three guys get 30 points a piece. He’s out there dishing, being unselfish, all those things that you want your kids to do. But it’s unacceptable for people. It’s mind-boggling and bizarre.”

These are fair points, and I agree with Cardinal to an extent. In itself, James’ deference to Wade shouldn’t fuel such antagonism. However, James does deserve a fair amount of flack, because, despite his greatness, his approach to the game can be frustrating. James spends way too much time standing 25 feet from the basket. He is 6 ft. 8 in., 250 lb. When he’s matched up with Kidd (6 ft. 4 in., 210 lb.) or DeShawn Stevenson (6 ft. 5 in., 218 lb.), James should just overpower them down low, in the post, rather than settle for the jumper, like he did in the fourth quarter. Having a freight train like James lounging outside the three-point line on so many possessions is a waste of basketball resources. It’s like chucking diamonds down the drain.

“I’ve been saying for years that LeBron should be unguardable in the post,” says one Eastern Conference team executive. “But he’s most comfortable going 100 miles per hour or shooting jump shots facing the basket. He’s the ultimate A.A.U. player. He doesn’t have the repertoire of moves, so he’s not going to put himself in a position where he looks stupid.” The executive points to the clever footwork and fade-aways that players like Wade, Kobe Bryant and, of course, Jordan, developed down low through their careers. Even Magic Johnson, to whom James is often compared, had a hook shot. “I get the sense that during the summer, he works on his conditioning and his shooting,” the executive says. “And his shooting has improved. But he hasn’t become a better post player because he hasn’t wanted to.”

In the second quarter, Miami started to pound the ball into James down low, and though he never looked entirely comfortable, James scored a few buckets and drew a few fouls. But in the second half, that strategy faded. I asked James why he stopped going down low and if he thought of posting up in the last three minutes, while the game was still tight. “Honestly, we just worked our game,” James said after the game. “I was able to get the ball in the pot a few times in the first half. It worked. Some of them didn’t work. With D-Wade being out to start the second half, I took it upon [myself] to be a little more of a ball handler, get guys into our offense.

“We just try to give what the defense gives us,” James continued. “We have nothing to say about our offense tonight. We shot 53% from the floor. These guys shot 57%, shot almost 70% from the three-point line. Offensively, it had nothing to do with why we lost this game. We just couldn’t get enough stops down the stretch.”

This isn’t entirely true. Sure, Miami couldn’t get a stop late. But offense — especially James’ lack of production — helped Miami lose. With the game tied or within a two-point difference late, James missed two jumpers and rammed into the Dallas defense on one of those 100-m.p.h drives. James could have seen old man Kidd guarding him and demanded the ball down low for a high-percentage shot. Instead, he took the tougher one and missed.

Now Miami is one game from elimination. The prospect of a Dallas victory will surely delight most of America. After the game, it seemed as if the delirious Dallas crowd had bottled up all of America’s loathing for the Heat, and it was now time to unleash it. “No, no, no, no, no honey,” a Mavs fan told an elevator operator who raised the prospect of Miami winning both Games 6 and 7. “They made us believe. We played a team with three $100 dollar players, we kicked their ass. Thank God. We kicked their f—–g ass.”

And James knew it. Though he was bouncing around before the game, he sat stone-faced and silent in the locker room afterward. At one point, after fiddling with his phone, he just folded his hands, staring blankly. If James can’t rediscover what got him to these finals, he won’t like what’s ahead of him.