Beyond all of the bleating about LeBron James' heart, guts or reproductive glands, no one can deny that he has impeccable individual numbers in elimination games. Heading into Game 6 between the Heat and Spurs on Tuesday, he'd averaged 31-10-6 in 11-career elimination games; the scoring is said to be the highest figure in NBA history. On Tuesday he racked up 32-10-11. So much for LeChoke, LeBum or whatever other nonsense the dismissal crew scribbled down in the back of their heads. When the pressure is the highest, he performs.
What's interesting to consider is how he does it, the style of his performance. Game 6 began like the rest of the series for LeBron: the Spurs paid extra attention to his every move, and with or without the ball, he struggled to get to the rim. San Antonio defenders played softly off of him, and his shot wasn't dead-eye off of the dribble. There wasn't a ton of regular ball movement because the Spurs were hitting so many shots, preventing Miami from getting into the frontcourt with some pace. It was all pretty surgical for Miami, and though the Heat remained in the lead or within a possession or two of San Antonio until the late third, LeBron and his teammates couldn't really do much to show off their power.
All series, LeBron and Dwyane Wade -- two of the best attackers of this era, maybe ever -- have attacked the Spurs defense pretty softly. There have been a lot of jab steps, a lot of lateral dribbles, a lot of patience and a lot of short or mid-range jumpers. There have been relatively few dunks and lay-ups. When Miami's been at its best, the two wings attack hard enough to get by Defender No. 1, suck in the defense and find an open shooter or, less frequently, a big man at the rim. But again, most of the attacks have been fairly soft, almost conscientious: neither wants to get his shot blocked, or boot the ball out of bounds, or beg the refs for a bailout foul.
But with Wade on the bench in the fourth, LeBron changed totally. The Heat trailed by as many as 13 in the late third and ten in the fourth before James attacked hard. He drove for the rim. Not to break down the Spurs defense and get an open look for a teammate, not to find San Antonio's weak points and exploit them. He stuck his foot on the pedal and went at the Spurs.
And it was wonderful. Miami erased its deficit and built a small lead by the time Wade re-entered the game. LeBron ended up with 16 in the quarter on 7-11 shooting. He took 12 of the 20 Miami shots (including trips to the line) in the quarter, had three of the team's four turnovers and two of the five assists. With the season -- the championship -- on the line, LeBron was aggresssive. Desperate.
But with a small lead and Wade back on the court, LeBron went back into careful mode. He had two more aggressive plays (a transition play broken up by Danny Green, a dribble-drive that ended in a turnover). But otherwise, in the final minutes, LeBron's aggression and desperation dissipated.
It could have been exhaustion. The guy guarded Tony Parker much of the game, had to cover the glass, is playing insane minutes and almost single-handedly carried his team back from the brink in the fourth. But the way LeBron moves and attacks at certain moments makes it all look so much more ... institutional.
LeBron knows he can't win alone, that pulling the hyperaggressive act all game, every game won't work. It didn't work in Cleveland. He knows that relying on very good teammates to help does work -- he has the 2012 championship to prove it. And he has very good teammates, though Wade isn't exactly in top shape. So he focuses more on quality of his attacks than quantity. And it has worked! Miami has the best record in the NBA over the past three seasons (170-60). They are 45-21 in the playoffs since The Decision. (S.A. is 27-13. Oklahoma City is 27-21. Boston is 18-17. The Lakers are 9-17.) Miami has made three-straight NBA Finals with this style of LeBron, has won a championship and is a game away from adding another. And LeBron himself has two more MVPs and the best shooting numbers of his career. Adding better help and focusing on attacking quality over quantity has been an obvious boon to LeBron's career.
But there are times when that help is not really there. This is one of those times, Game 4 aside. Wade is not healthy, not primed, not the WADE that helped Miami rack up those unbelievable numbers. And in that critical stretch in the early fourth when San Antonio threatened to run away with the rings, he was resting. The LeBron that racks up those crazy, historic numbers in elimination games arrived. He attacked. He focused on quantity -- every single possession, attack! -- and he obliterated the sound, smart San Antonio defense. When he's like this, no team, no Frenchman, no coach can stop him.
He can't be like that all the time: it doesn't work, it didn't work and it won't work. The selective nature of that, yes, Jordanesque beast is part of what makes it work. Unfortunately, its selective nature and impermanence also allows it to fail. It never arrived in the 2011 Finals, and the very second Wade re-entered the game on Tuesday, that LeBron was replaced by a less bloodthirsty, less desperate, more exacting version. And but for a clutch LeBron three, a crucial Chris Bosh rebound, an incredible Ray Allen three and some fortuitous free-throw misses by the Spurs, the exacting version of LeBron -- one that attacked less hard on a couple occasions, and passed off to Wade for some ugly jumpers -- might have watched San Antonio celebrate a title on his home floor.
Instead, we get to see if the aggressive, desperate LeBron, the unsustainable but invaluable LeBron, the LeBron that no one but the hourglass can stop, comes out to play on Thursday. If so, the Spurs are in real trouble. The beauty of LeBron's Decision, though, is that even if that LeBron remains hidden underneath the calculating, patient LeBron, Miami can still win. Unlike in Cleveland, it's not an all-or-nothing proposition. The Heat can have LeBron both ways.