Before Tuesday night’s Game 3 of the NBA Finals, a television camera caught LeBron James sitting alone on the Miami Heat bench with his eyes closed.
Whether he was meditating or visualizing or clearing his thoughts, no one knew. One reporter who has covered him for years had never seen him take that pose before.
Watching at home, I felt like the NBA’s four-time Most Valuable Player was mulling which persona he wanted to assume against the San Antonio Spurs.
Cleveland LeBron or Miami LeBron?
Dominating LeBron or Distributing LeBron?
Selfish LeBron or Selfless LeBron?
That’s not to say Cleveland LeBron would always be the preferred choice. Cleveland LeBron never won anything. On many nights, Cleveland LeBron stood around and dribbled while his teammates waited for him to do something and all that produced was lethargy.
But the Miami Heat would take that one-man band version right now, especially coming off the 36-point pounding it suffered in San Antonio. They might be thrilled if James stood behind the 3-point arc, bouncing the ball and surveying the scene, poised like a lion ready to strike, then unleashing his fury in a flash.
It would love it if the L-Train were steamrolling the Spurs.
James seems caught in a conundrum. Should he be the Heat’s facilitator because he promised the Big Three would win “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” championships and thus far they have just one? Should he assume that role because the clock might be ticking on close friend Wade’s bad knee? Should he go against how he believes the game should be played?
Or should James forget about his teammates and channel the Cleveland LeBron who poured in 48 points in Game 5 of the 2007 playoffs against the Pistons in Detroit?
Considering that he’s scored 50 points in the first three games of the Finals, the basketball world would be fine with the latter.
The issue of him being more of a distributor than an aggressor came up after Game 1 and James had his answer ready.
“I’ve done more and lost before,” he said, according to the Associated Press. That could be the crux of James’ issue.
Going back to his days at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, James has prided himself on being a good teammate. Since then, he’s always seemed capable of winning every game by himself if he wanted to.
His eyes always light up when he’s compared to Magic Johnson for his passing skills. He’s averaging 7.3 assists against the Spurs, matching his season average. James has been taught that there’s no place for selfishness on a championship team.
But scoring two points in the first quarter of Games 2 and 3 is not the way to do it, either.
James has totaled 10 points and six assists in the first 36 minutes against the Spurs. That’s not the type of tone he needs to set, no matter how hot Wade or Chris Bosh or Mike Miller or Mario Chalmers are.
James has yet to score 20 points in the Finals after running off 33 consecutive games of 20 or more during the regular season. He’s averaging 16.7 points and 12.3 rebounds in the Finals, 10 points below his season average.
“I can’t have a performance like that and expect to win the game,” James said Tuesday after scoring 15 points on 7-of-21 shooting. Nine points came in the final 1:36 of the third quarter, which means for the other 46:24 he was virtually no threat. “I’ve got to shoot the ball better, and I’ve got to make better decisions. I’m not putting the blame on anybody; I’m owning everything I did.”
Ex-Cav Danny Green, now the Spurs’ 3-point whiz, delivered the most telling remarks about James.
“We know he’s not at his best right now,” Green said. “He missed a lot of shots that he normally makes.
“LeBron has kind of stopped himself out there and we’re getting a little lucky.”
James’ lack of energy prompted one questioner to ask Wade if James was sick. Presumably that’s not the reason.
But it seems almost impossible to comprehend that the NBA’s best player is having a crisis of confidence. Yet he’s shooting just 39 percent in the Finals, 23 percent (7-of-30) outside the paint. In Game 3, he did not go to the free-throw line for the first time since Dec. 2, 2009, when he was with the Cavs.
It might not be his confidence as much as the conundrum.
James seems to have conditioned himself to be happiest when he’s merely one of the Big Three. He seems to be trying to move away from his old moniker of “The Chosen One.” He doesn’t want to do it alone.
Sitting on the bench before the game with his eyes closed Tuesday, I’m sure James wasn’t really debating which LeBron should come out in the first quarter. But for the Heat to repeat as champion, Cleveland LeBron needs to return immediately.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.