LeBron James, Cracking Under The Pressure

DALLAS, TX - JUNE 09: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat stands on the court with his head down against the Dallas Mavericks in the fourth quarter of Game Five of the 2011 NBA Finals at American Airlines Center on June 9, 2011 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

LeBron James called the Game 5 of the NBA Finals the biggest of his life. He finished with a triple double Thursday night, but it wasn't enough to get the Miami Heat past the Mavericks. Now, with the world getting impatient, it's time to wonder.

Nobody knows what's going on with LeBron James right now. He could be sick, he could be injured, he could be dealing with issues in his personal life, or he could be taking the same shots that went in against Chicago and Boston, only now they're not falling. Or maybe he cares too much about all this.

Whatever the explanation, we've come a long way from LeBron James, Best Basketball Player On Earth. Really, don't fool yourself into thinking his triple double in Game 5 was anything less than a failure. Sure, "LeBron was much more aggressive tonight," his coach tried to tell us afterward. "He had a triple double. And he had an impact on the game."

But triple double or not, he scored two points in the fourth quarter, and even those came on a layup when the game was already out of reach. He settled for bad shots, and when Shawn Marion switched onto Dwyane Wade, putting Jason Kidd on LeBron for the most critical stretch of the fourth quarter, he scored zero points and took just three shots. Triple double or not, when his team needed him, LeBron wasn't the same guy that single-handedly destroyed Boston and Chicago.   

Thursday afternoon, LeBron called Game 5 "the biggest game of my life." Thursday night, he went out and played a completely average, unremarkable game. Nobody's saying that a triple double in the NBA Finals is somehow mediocre, but LeBron said it was the biggest game of his life, and next to his other games, it's okay to say that this one grades out to about a C. It's the sort of thing that makes you wonder what's going on with him.

After Game 5, a reporter asked whether he's struggling under all the pressure. His response: "I don't think so, I don't believe so, I know I'm not." So there you have it, guys. The haters can write what they want, but LeBron James is maybe, possibly, definitely not struggling.

The rest of his quotes were equally surreal. "Offense wasn't a problem," he said when reporters asked what went wrong in a game where Miami got outscored by 17-4 in the final four minutes.

"As a team we played good enough to win," he said, completely oblivious to the irony.

It just seems like we're watching a guy unravel a little bit. It's not a point that needs to be belabored too much, because after the past two games, I'm actually starting to feel bad for LeBron.

Maybe he just doesn't have it in him. He cares so much about his legacy and how he's perceived that he can't let go of the pressure and what all this means. It's hard to prove something like that, but the best way to understand it is by looking at the guys on the other side.

You watch the Dallas Mavericks, and from Dirk Nowitzki to Jason Terry to Deshawn Stevenson to J.J. Barea, they're playing like a team with nothing to lose. They don't think, because they can't afford to against Miami. The game's much simpler that way. That's why they're winning.

For LeBron, it's more complicated. Everything he does prompts discussion of his legacy, and he's spent the past eight years building a brand for himself that's predicated on winning. But he hasn't won yet, and especially after that idiotic free agency spectacle, everyone's getting impatient.

Screen_shot_2011-06-10_at_4

On Thursday, he talked like a guy who knew exactly what was exactly what was at stake in Game 5. Then he played like a guy who knew exactly what he had to lose.

We expected better in Game 5 because we've seen better from him so many other times, and when the man, himself, proclaims it's the biggest game of his life, you expect big things. Bigger than two points and four shots in the fourth quarter. Bigger than a guy who calls this the biggest game of his life, loses, and then shrugs and says, "We played good enough to win."

Maybe it's not permanent, and lord knows Dirk's proof that players can evolve and use failure to make them stronger. But LeBron failed in Game 4, and in Game 5, he wasn't a whole lot stronger.

Now it's "now or never," again, in Game 6. But maybe LeBron can't let go of what's at stake here, and he can't be as great as he's been elsewhere. Maybe he cares too much, and if Miami still has a shot, it begins and ends with Dwyane Wade. With LeBron, the same way it's okay to admit his triple double was a disappointment, it's okay to wonder about this stuff. Last night, my buddy CJ said it best:

If that's how he plays when it's "now or never"...  Maybe it's never.

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