SAN ANTONIO — LeBron James is really down on a certain Miami Heat player.
It’s the passive guy who took 21 shots from the field in Game 3 of the NBA Finals but not one from the free throw line.
It’s the player who didn’t exactly settle for jumpers but also didn’t put enough pressure on San Antonio’s defense to stop the Spurs from routing Miami at home on Tuesday night.
LeBron wants a word with that cat. But luckily for Miami, their team leader and best player can look in the mirror and work it out.
“I take full responsibility for our team’s performance last night,” LeBron said Wednesday after the Spurs’ thorough 113-77 win. “Me as a leader, I can’t afford to perform like I did last night and expect us to win on the road. It’s that simple.
“So I’m putting all the pressure on my chest, on my shoulders to come through for our team. That’s the way it is.”
The self-flagellation of a superstar has begun here at the Finals, where two story lines have taken over the proceedings: How bad is Tony Parker’s hamstring? And will the real LeBron James come to the fore in Game 4?
The former is up in the air at the moment. Parker has a Grade 1 strain of his right hamstring, the least severe injury of its kind. But neither the Spurs’ point guard nor Coach Gregg Popovich gave any indication he was a go for Thursday night’s Game 4. Of course, they didn’t say Parker wouldn’t play, either.
When Magic Johnson went down with a hamstring strain in the 1989 Finals, he said he cried, realizing his series (won by the Detroit Pistons in a sweep) was over. Parker isn’t there yet, but if he plays there is a big question as to how effective he will be with an injury that often takes a week to heal.
As to which LeBron will show up, he pretty much answered that himself before the Heat practiced at AT&T Center.
“I’ll be better,” he said. “I’ll be much better tomorrow night.
Asked to elaborate on Tuesday night’s 7-for-21 performance from the field that included zero free throws, LeBron replied, “I played like [expletive.]”
He wouldn’t discount San Antonio’s defense, saying: “They’re doing a great job of putting bodies in front of me and not allowing me to have some of the creases I have had throughout the playoffs.” But he added: “Some of it is me being out of rhythm. It’s a little bit of both.
“I have to do whatever it takes. I mean, 7 for 21 isn’t going to cut it. Zero free throws. I had 11 rebounds, I had five assists, but 7 for 21 and zero free throws ain’t going to cut it. So I will be better tomorrow.”
LeBron is always compared to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. But the more he spoke Wednesday, he sounded like he was close to pulling a Larry Bird.
In the 1984 Finals, the Celtics were embarrassed by the Lakers in Game 3, 137-104, falling behind 2-1 in the series. Afterward, Bird didn’t take aim at himself as much as his teammates.
“We played like a bunch of sissies,” he said then. “I know the heart and soul of this team, and today the heart wasn’t there, that’s for sure. I can’t believe a team like this would let L.A. come out and push us around like they did. Today I didn’t feel we played hard. We got beat bad, and it’s very embarrassing.”
Boston came out and won a physical confrontation of a Game 4 in Los Angeles and ended up winning the series in seven games. If LeBron wants similar results, he is going to achieve them by not taking a shot at his Heat teammates, who have vacillated between decent and non-existent thus far in the series.
“We wouldn’t be at this point without my teammates,” he said. “I have all the confidence in the world in my teammates. But I am the star, I am the leader. And they look at me to do things on the court, to make plays, and if I’m not doing it, I’m not doing my job.”
I still think much of this comes down to the Heat’s collective personality. The best player loves drama. The coach loves drama. The team president started the drama almost two decades ago when he took the job.
If Miami doesn’t have its back against the wall, if America hasn’t counted out the Heat yet, their series hasn’t started. Over the past two years, the Heat’s players have been down 2-1 in a conference semifinal, 3-2 in a conference final and tied at three games apiece this season going into Game 7 against Indiana in the East finals.
Each time, they used back-to-the-wall perseverance to survive and eventually lift a trophy or advance.
But it’s dangerous to bank on that resilience every time. Just because the Heat hasn’t lost back-to-back games this season since Jan. 8 and Jan. 10 doesn’t mean the law of averages won’t catch up with Miami.
“We’ve been able to bounce back throughout adverse times throughout the season throughout the years that we’ve been together, these three years,” LeBron said. “We’ll see.
“As dark as it was last night, can’t get no darker than that, especially for me,” he added. “So I guarantee I’ll be better tomorrow for sure.”
LeBron has twice put up games of 40-plus points with his team’s season in the balance. But these are the Spurs, unbeaten in their four previous Finals, with two home games to spare. Sure, if Parker is gimpy or hobbling, they might be in trouble.
If not? Like LeBron said, we’ll see.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.