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LeBron James Is An Enigma Wrapped In A Mysterious Collapse (Again)

A look at LeBron James vs. the Clippers, and the latest in the canon of Miami Heat collapses. It's only January, but Wednesday night sure felt a lot like last June.

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After the Miami Heat dropped their second-straight game Monday night, this time to Chris Paul and the L.A. Clippers, LeBron James told reporters, "I need to concentrate a little bit more." For some context to that quote, we present some highlights from the final eight minutes of the game--the last three minutes of the fourth quarter and five minutes of overtime.

  • LeBron James misses lay-up
  • LeBron James turnover (offensive foul)
  • LeBron draws shooting foul, makes 1 of 2 free throws
  • LeBron settles for a jumper at the top of key, misses
  • LeBron fouls Chauncey Billups shooting a three (Billups hits all three)
  • LeBron draws a foul, makes 1 of 2 free throws
  • LeBron blatantly travels on the potential game-winning possession
  • LeBron gets bailed out with a foul call, has two shots to take the lead
  • LeBron makes 1 of 2 free throws to tie it
  • LeBron is embarrassed on defense by Chris Paul (who misses an open jumper to win)
  • LeBron misses his first jumper of overtime
  • LeBron turnover
  • LeBron misses a jumper
  • LeBron misses a layup
  • LeBron assists Mario Chalmers on a three-pointer
  • LeBron misses a desperate three as time expires

LeBron's the most talented basketball player on earth. He's spent nine months hearing about his failures in crunch time. When he fails like that, blowing chance after chance at redemption, it's not a matter of concentration. If he misses a few first quarter free throws, it's concentration. Wednesday was something else. Something we've seen before.

But it's too early in the year to play armchair psychologist with Bron Bron. So for now we can only say this: After the most spectacular disappearing act we've ever seen in the NBA Finals, LeBron hasn't really changed. Just like in the Eastern Conference playoffs, there were moments all night when he looked like the most invincible player in basketball, but in the final minutes, he looked vulnerable as ever, vexed by Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler, and the Heat offense fell apart just the same.

On Wednesday, Tom Ziller called him "basically perfect" and named him the NBA's early MVP:

LeBron has been bar none the league's best player this season. He's scoring more and doing so more efficiently while providing the world class defense, playmaking and rebounding we've become accustomed to. He's working out of the post more frequently, taking fewer threes and generally doing everything the majority has wished he do. That's paying off: if voting was held right now, there's no chance LeBron would fail to win the MVP award.

A day later, the argument isn't so airtight. Dwyane Wade did all the talking in the timeout huddles Wednesday night, while LeBron was apparently dead silent. And as his team went back-and-forth in a close game, LeBron missed free throws and jumpers, and the Heat had one made field goal over the past 12 minutes of the game--from Mario Chalmers. This was textbook King James, right down to the media session afterward where he downplays the entire affair.

From ESPN's Brian Windhorst in the Heat locker room after the game:

“We gave ourselves a chance to win and we can be satisfied -- you don’t like to lose -- but we’re not going to hang our heads about this one,” James said, his eyes bright and his tone upbeat at his locker. “I need to concentrate a little bit more out there and knock [the free throws] down.” ... After this game, James was shouting rap lyrics and Wade was sharing private giggles with teammates as he iced his still sore foot.

It isn't even criticism at this point.

LeBron wouldn't be LeBron if his exclamation points over the first three quarters didn't come with question marks in the final minutes of close games. It's been eight years now, and the final eight minutes last night were the latest reminder that in the galaxy of NBA superstars, LeBron's the one who shines brighter than any of them but sometimes self-combusts. This is who he is, and we should embrace it, because his failures make him more fascinating than success ever could.

Fans and writers bristle whenever someone brings up LeBron's crunchtime failures. For two reasons:

  1. Reading crunchtime is more complicated than a missed (or made) game-winner
  2. It shortchanges how brilliant he is the other 95 percent of the time.

But the five percent is such an integral part of LeBron's career so far that glossing over it shortchanges the meaning of the other 95. On Wednesday night and for the past few years--a fluke isn't a fluke if it happens over and over again. It's not like the Clips game turned on one missed jumper, or one flubbed free throw. It was an entire offense grinding to a halt for a quarter's worth of crunch time basketball, with LeBron leading the way to nowhere.

Sure, great players can fail. Kobe Bryant--the yin to LeBron's crunch time yang--missed a game-winner Wednesday night, and Dwyane Wade was as invisible as James on offense (albeit with one spectacular play to keep the Heat hopes alive). Before he wandered around the Austrailian outback and learned how to let go, Dirk Nowitzki was deemed a failure. His team's barely above .500 this year. But not one of those guys is the most talented player on earth.

That's LeBron's spot now and for the foreseeable future. And as long as he bears that burden without a title next to his name, watching LeBron will be less about the gap between he and the greatest players of all time than the real or imagined gulf between "most talented" and "best."

Embrace it. This makes him more fascinating than any "best player" the NBA's ever seen. But it also makes you wonder: Wouldn't Miami have been better off with Chris Paul on Wednesday?