Only LeBron James could average 21.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 2.2 steals a game through the NBA Finals and look like he is being passive and not doing enough.
He has for much of the NBA Finals looked like the physically best player on the floor but one that couldn’t impose his will on the game for any extended period of time. It’s true of LeBron and the Heat as a team.
If the Spurs win Game 6 Tuesday night — they are up 3-2 and you know they are going to come out with a great game plan and exploit every Heat mistake — it will signal a shift in the conversation about LeBron’s ultimately legacy.
After last year’s Finals we started to wonder if he would live up to his potential, if LeBron would end up in the Magic, MJ, Kareem “greatest of all time” tier. Lose and will appear to be more in the Wilt Chamberlain tier — the greatest physical specimen of his day, a guy ahead of his time, who could not get his team to beat the best teams of his era.
LeBron is 28, in the prime of his career, it is too early to say what we will think of him a decade from now. It’s a world of instant analysis (this blog is certainly part of that) but some things take time to fully come into focus. Legacy is one of those things.
But another loss, making LeBron 1-3 in the NBA Finals, starts to change the conversation.
“I have to come up big, for sure, in Game 6,” LeBron said after Game 5. “Me being one of the leaders of this team, I do put a lot of pressure on myself to force a Game 7, and I look forward to the challenge. We have to worry about Game 6 and going back home, being confident about our game, being confident about getting a win, which we are.”
You could explain away LeBron’s first loss in the NBA Finals — he single-handedly carried an inferior Cavaliers team to the big stage, only to fall to a much better Spurs team. Even the 2011 Heat you can say was a great team still figuring out who it was. Those Heat were learning to play together and had a thin bench. Last season’s NBA Finals win, where LeBron owned games late, seemed to suggest LeBron and the Heat had figured it out.
But all season he — and Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, and all the Heat —coasted for long stretches. After cruising through two rounds of the playoffs, the Heat have been intermittently dominant and pedestrian, unable to impose their will on games for a full 48 minutes. Particularly in the Finals the counterpunching Spurs have taken advantage of Heat mistakes and withstood almost every Heat run. The Spurs have been the more consistent, and better, team.
The pressure of legacy in Game 6 is not on the Spurs — they already go down as one of the greats of their era — it is on the Heat. Miami doesn’t have the excuses of not knowing how to play together or a thin bench anymore.
The pressure is self-imposed; LeBron went public with “not two, not three, not four” and set the bar high.
Now he has to reach it or get called out for it.