NBA finals 2011: LeBron James’s fourth-quarter performances are mystifying

— Was it all a dream? A figment of the imagination? A fluke? What are you supposed to make of what LeBron James has accomplished throughout this postseason run by the Miami Heat?

If he hadn’t played so well, and been so clutch, in closing out games against last year’s Eastern Conference champion Boston and Chicago, James’s struggles in Game 4 of the NBA Finals might not be so startling.

In mystifying fashion, James scored a career-playoff-low eight points, had more turnovers (four) than field goals (three) and appeared disengaged while attempting just one shot in the fourth quarter.

“The game of basketball is so weird,” said James’s teammate, Dwyane Wade. “One moment you can be on the high, you can be playing unbelievable. The next second, you could be feeling like you haven’t played basketball in years. You can’t do much right.”

James’s disappearing act down the stretch has become a trend in this series, as he has scored just four points in the fourth quarter of the past three games, with the Heat losing two of them.

“You’re at the point where you’re just not in a good rhythm,” James said. “You start aiming shots, you start thinking about plays too much. You start thinking about the game too much instead of going out and reading and react and playing the game.”

Mavericks guard DeShawn Stevenson, who forced James into traveling in the fourth quarter on Tuesday, said James appeared to have “checked out” while deferring to Wade at the end of the game, which “helped us out.”

James smiled when told of Stevenson’s comments, since the two have had a history dating back to when Stevenson called James “overrated” three years ago.

“DeShawn, he’s been talking for a long time, since our Washington-Cleveland days. I don’t let that get to us,” James said. “It’s a three-game series. Talk is cheap.”

James is averaging a team-best 44 minutes per game this postseason, but both he and Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra played down the possibility that fatigue has helped to slow him down. James said he simply has to play better.

“Eight points is definitely inexcusable for myself. I hold myself up to a higher standard than that,” James said. “Absolutely, I criticized myself all last night. When we lose and I don’t play well, and I feel I could have did one or two more things to help our team win or get over the hump, you’re definitely hard on yourself. That’s just me. That’s just the makeup of who I am.”

‘Absolute heavyweight bout’

The past three games of this series have been decided by a combined seven points, with Dirk Nowitzki making the decisive layup in Dallas’s 95-93 win in Game 2, Chris Bosh making the decisive jumper in Miami’s 88-86 win in Game 3, and Nowitzki again making a layup that proved to be the difference in the 86-83, Game 4 win.

“These games have all been extremely competitive, obviously, so we’re seeing great basketball,” Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle said.

No NBA Finals have had three consecutive games decided by three points or less since the first two Finals series in 1947 and 1948. There has never been four consecutive games decided by such small margins.

“We’re in an absolute heavyweight bout,” Spoelstra said, “and that’s the way it should be. It’s as even a series as it can be.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.

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