SAN ANTONIO – The first sign of trouble should’ve been when LeBron James showed up at the podium after the San Antonio Spurs walloped the Miami Heat in Game 3 with a basic warm-up T-shirt that read, “Miami Heat Basketball.” For as long as he’s been doing post-game interviews on this run of four straight NBA Finals appearances, James has attempted to impress with his confident/defiant words and designer fashion. Fancy suits – like the Grimace-inspired dark purple number that he wore after Miami’s win in Game 2 – or colorful sweaters are often the norm.
Dwyane Wade has taken even more risks with his wardrobe, opening himself up for ridicule with his extra-tight Capri pants or Bell-Biv-Devoe-inspired overalls. But he has sauntered, dripping with so much self-assurance that you eventually succumb to the cool. However, after the Spurs put a more impressive whipping on Miami in Game 4, Wade joined James at the podium in … the same basic T-shirt?
If clothes make the man, then Miami is in more trouble than it has been letting on. Where has the swag gone?
The Spurs have done wonders in shaking the confidence of the two-time defending champion Heat, which is facing elimination for just the third time since James and Wade came together. Miami won the final two games at home to avoid going down against San Antonio last year. But three years ago, the Dallas Mavericks finished off the Heat in six games and sent Chris Bosh crashing to the carpet in front of the locker room in tears.
“I was extremely upset, sad, very emotional to myself after 3 and 4. I mean, you ask me, all the bad emotions you could have,” James said. “Today is a new day. I have another opportunity to help this team keep our season going. But I also know that… I’m in a good place in my life. It’s basketball. I go all into it. I give everything to this game. But right after Game 4 I was in the ice tub in the locker room, and my two boys coming running in there talking about let’s play some more basketball. It puts things in perspective, and I’m able to have a clear head about it.”
James has been the best player on the floor and even on the bench, battling leg cramps, and can’t play much better than he already has in this series. He is averaging 27.5 points on 60 percent shooting from the floor and 61.1 percent shooting from three-point range with 7.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists. The impact of his performance has been diminished by superior team play from the Spurs, who have been so balanced that they can choose between about four different players for series MVP – Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard or Boris Diaw – with a clinching performance on Sunday in Game 5.
No team has ever come back from a 1-3 deficit in the Finals. And while James is using the “why not us?” mantra as Miami attempts to ruin San Antonio’s championship plans for the second year in row, the Heat has no chance if the four-time most valuable player doesn’t get the support he needs, especially from Wade.
“When we lose the way we did, it looks massive,” Wade said of Miami’s situation. “But when you’re out there playing the game, it’s not that massive. We’re a very confident team and highly capable team. We’ve just got to go out there and put together a good game. We haven’t played one since Game 2, and that’s not like us. So that’s our only focus is to see how we’re going to come out, how we’re going to attack the game, how we’re going to approach the game and put ourselves in position on the road to win a ballgame.”
In their fourth Finals appearance together, James and Wade have basically swapped positions from that first series against Dallas. Overwhelmed by an unwanted role as a villain after leaving Cleveland in “The Decision” and shrinking under the moment, James had a stunning meltdown and forced Wade to do most of the heavy lifting. Wade averaged 26.5 points on 54.6 percent shooting with seven rebounds, 5.2 assists in the loss to Dallas while James contributed a perplexing 17.8 points on 47.8 percent shooting with 7.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists.
James’s struggles were magnified in Game 3 of that series, when Wade screamed at his friend and followed him around in an attempt to help James snap out of it. That moment never came.
Now Wade is failing to hold up his end of the bargain, averaging just 16.3 points on 46.2 percent shooting with four rebounds and three assists. Wade is 32, on the tail end of his prime and went through a calculated maintenance program to keep his creaky knees healthy and ready for a playoff grind. He once again denied his physical limitations on Saturday when asked the reason for his uneven play. In Game 4, Wade missed 10 of 13 shots, including several runners in the lane and even got dunked on by Boris Diaw. Diaw, by the way, is the same age as Wade.
“I’m fine. Way better than I’ve been in a long time,” Wade said on Saturday. “There is nothing I point out at all. Last year I had one leg and did all right. So I’m totally fine, man. I didn’t play well in Game 4. Has nothing to do with my health at all.”
Wade deferred to James after that disappointing finish in 2011, a move that helped James regain his confidence and made the Heat champions. As leader of the Heat, James has mostly inspired with his devastating drives to the basket, playmaking and occasional shutdown defense. Miami generally follows suit but James recently said he has to do more to help his teammates this time around.
“My teammates are everything. Obviously I wouldn’t be sitting up here with this, the NBA Finals thing behind me, without them. You know, and they’ve been there all year, and I still believe in them. The guys that are struggling, I believe they’re going to have a big game” on Sunday, James said. “I hold guys accountable. I don’t let things slide. I hold guys accountable and I want guys to be great while they’re out on the floor and do what’s best for the team. If you do that, you put the team before yourself, then I can live with that.”
In the closing minutes of Game 4, James sat next to Wade and covered his face in his hands. He could’ve been pondering the loss or his future – which he continues not to address publicly. But he won’t place the enormous weight of the situation on his shoulders.
“It’s not on my shoulder. It’s not,” James said. “I understand I get a lot of the limelight in the press and all that, but it’s not all on my shoulder. I take a lot of it, but I do it for my teammates and I want them to put a lot of pressure on me in that sense.”
The Heat is beginning to learn the limitations of that burden. But if Miami is able to extend its season and put a little doubt in the heads of the Spurs, check the podium afterward. The proof of the difference in mindset might be found in the outfits, in the swag.