At this point, the San Antonio Spurs are almost at the mercy of LeBron James. Their strategy in the NBA Finals the past two seasons has been to cut off the paint, let James shoot and deal with the consequences. Aside from a broken down air conditioning system shutting down his body, James has repeatedly found the answer over his past six Finals games.
James’s point totals in those games: 33, 25, 32, 37, 25 and 35. Miami’s record in those games: 4-2. Both losses came when he failed to reach 30, including that Game 1 loss this year in which James had to watch the final four minutes from the bench battling severe leg cramps.
Lost in the ridiculous ridicule that came as a result of “Crampgate,” is that James scored 25 points in just 32 minutes. Had his body allowed him to finish, James could have reached 30 in four straight Finals against the Spurs. In his first 18 Finals games against San Antonio, Dallas, Oklahoma City and San Antonio again, James had two 30-point games.
James was 8 of 11 from the field and scored 22 points in the second half without attempting one shot inside the paint in his merciless 35-point performance in the Heat’s 98-96 win in Game 2. The most dangerous player in the league with a head of steam, James punished the Spurs with step-back midrange jumpers and pull-up three-pointers and their only response was, “More, please.”
“Yes, I mean they were contested jumpers,” Spurs guard Danny Green said. “You’re not going to block his jump shot. He’s 6-9 and he’s pretty athletic. So, you’ve got to live with contested jumpers. … We didn’t expect him to shoot that well, but he got hot. That’s what stars do in this league.”
The Spurs might have to “live” with the jumpers but they will die if James remains so accurate from the perimeter. The sit-back-and-hope-he-misses defense confused James through the first three games last year, when he averaged just 16.6 points on 38.1 percent shooting.
But James figured them out and that resulted in his monster Game 7 performance – when he had a personal Finals-best 37 points, including a critical late jumper – and his heat-check shooting effort on Sunday.
Green, Boris Diaw, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard, a second-team all-defensive team member, took turns watching James hit jumpers over them. Each time he watched a shot drop, James got more confident and celebratory. He posed after a three-pointer at the top of the key forced Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich to call timeout and he flailed his arms, glared angrily and stomped after hitting a three-pointer from the left corner over Leonard.
“For me once I get into a good groove, I feel like everything is going to go in,” James said. “I just try to make plays out there on the floor, and like I continue to say, put myself and my teammates in a position to succeed and live with the results after that.”
Popovich was asked about double-teaming James but said he never considered it as an option.
“Well, you can go double him if you want,” Popovich said. “He’s a pretty good player.”
Popovich, like the rest of the league, knows that an unstoppable James creates more opportunities for his teammates because the four-time league’s most valuable player is also extremely unselfish. James had only three assists on Sunday, but he chose to feed Chris Bosh for three-pointers twice in the final two minutes, with Bosh’s last attempt giving Miami the lead for good.
“Look, he’s the best player in the game,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He has an incredible way to put his fingerprints on a game in a lot of different areas.”
Sitting out during Miami’s fourth-quarter collapse and helpless to alter the outcome in Game 1, James was determined not to let down his teammates again. He took a morning yoga class to stay flexible and had no other obstacles standing in his way with the temperature inside AT&T Center sitting at 72 degrees instead of the 90s from three days earlier. James had a slow start, getting just one dunk in the first period, and then he caused the Spurs’ defense to cramp up in the final three quarters.
“Just play the game, try to play the game the right way,” James said. “However the flow of the game is going, I just try to impose my will in some kind of way, either scoring or rebounding or assisting or defending. Put myself and my teammates in a position to succeed, and I was happy in the fact that I was able to make some plays to help us get the victory.”
James has silenced his detractors until his next slip up, but he has become immune to the noise ever since his meltdown in Dallas, repeatedly following up a bad game with a memorable performance. His ability to bounce back under extreme scrutiny has contributed to the Heat winning 13 consecutive playoff games after a loss.
“I’ve got a great supporting cast around me that allows me to vent at times. Try not to hold it in. I also understand at this point in my life what’s important and what’s not important and what’s important is my teammates, what’s important is my two kids at home, my wife, my family and my friends. That’s what I can control and that’s what’s important to me,” James said. “Obviously the game of basketball has brought me so much, and I love to play this game at a high level. And without this game, I wouldn’t be who I am today. But I also know what’s important. Everything else kind of just fall by the wayside.”