Many players bear responsibility for the Heat’s six-game Finals defeat that featured late-game collapses and blown leads, but it was James’s inexplicable ineptitude that attracted the most attention — and excoriation. After averaging 26.0 points per game in the three early playoff rounds, he scored at a 17.8 clip against Dallas and averaged just 3.0 in the fourth quarter.
“I beat myself up about that all the time,” said James, who will lead the Heat against the Washington Wizards Friday night at Verizon Center. “I finished games in the Philly series, in the Boston series, in the Chicago series. Then, I didn’t [finish well] in the Finals and I got a lot of junk about that.
“I understand what this game is about. That was the biggest stage, and I didn’t produce for my team down the stretch. And that hurt me more than anybody, to not be there for my teammates in the big moments. I learned from that, and it’s made me a better person and better player as you see today.”
Indeed, James has placed himself at the forefront of MVP discussion by averaging 28.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game, but Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra understands that playoff victories are often earned not with general brilliance, but with late-game execution.
He said this week that the Heat has improved in the fourth quarter, sharpened more by plain old experience than any strategic design. He says his philosophy on who should take the last shot in a close game hasn’t changed: the guy who is open.
Even so, Miami has gotten an occasional lift from a lineup it envisioned riding to the playoffs last year — but couldn’t utilize during the regular season because of injuries. Spoelstra has lately tasked James with running the point in the fourth quarter while sharing the floor with shooting ace Mike Miller, slashing guard Dwyane Wade, rebound-hungry Udonis Haslem and the increasingly reliable finisher Chris Bosh.
The lineup lacks a true point guard and a true center, but it gives Miami lots of long arms and good size, and an excellent defensive presence. It also takes advantage of James’s massive skill set — he can pass and penetrate with equal facility — at a particularly suitable stage of the game.