MIAMI — LeBron James has been here before, with dire results.
It was two years ago, the end of the first season of “Big Three” basketball in Miami. The situation: Heat down 3-2, hosting Game 6 of the NBA Finals, only two home wins separating them from what would have been James’ first title.
James had six turnovers in Game 6, the Heat were outscored by 24 with him on the floor, and the Dallas Mavericks became NBA champions. And now, here comes a chance to face the same situation. Down 3-2 again, and back at home for Game 6 of the finals against the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night, Miami needs two wins in three days or else it will be watching someone else end this season with a party on its own floor.
“We’re going to see if we’re a better team than we were our first year together,” James said.
We’re also about to see is how much James has grown since that 2011 season.
He has more at stake than any other Heat player in this series, especially now that the Spurs are one game away from grabbing the championship. If the Heat lose, it’ll be widely perceived as James’ failure. If the Heat win, his status as the game’s best player not only becomes even more cemented, but he might even win over a few more doubters.
“Our next challenge, biggest challenge, will be Tuesday night,” James said. “We have an opportunity on our home floor with our home fans to keep the series going, and we look forward to it.”
Getting swept in the finals by San Antonio in 2007, that one was written off as James just not having enough talent around him. Losing to Dallas in 2011, a year after he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together in such ballyhooed fashion in Miami, was an absolute nightmare for James. Winning it all by topping Oklahoma City last season, that was his long-awaited ascension.
And what will be written about this season, it’ll all be decided over the next few days.
“I have to come up big, for sure in Game 6,” James said. “But I believe we all have to play at a high level in order to keep the series going. So me being one of the leaders of this team, I do put a lot of pressure on myself to force a Game 7, and I look forward to the challenge.”
When the Heat have been in trouble the last two postseasons, it’s pretty much has meant James to the rescue.
In matchups where the Heat have been down in a series or faced elimination over the past two seasons, the game’s best player has played like the game’s best player. Overall, in those eight games — Game 4 against Indiana last season, Games 6 and 7 against Boston last season, Game 2 against the Thunder last season, Game 2 against Chicago this year, Game 7 against the Pacers this year and Games 2 and 4 against the Spurs — James’ numbers simply pop.
He’s averaged 31.1 points on 53 per cent shooting, added 10.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists, and the Heat are a whopping plus-128 with him on the floor in those contests.
“LJ has proven himself enough in this league,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, “and on the biggest stage.”
The Heat aren’t down in this series with the Spurs because of James, who was a deserved scapegoat in 2011 against the Mavericks. He has more points than anyone else in this year’s NBA Finals, the second-most rebounds (two behind Tim Duncan) and the most assists (one ahead of Tony Parker).
They’re down in the series for a litany of other reasons, not necessarily related to James.
The Spurs might be the best top-to-bottom team that the Heat have faced in these three seasons of playoff runs. They have the mastermind coach in Gregg Popovich, the veteran core of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili, and the supporting cast like Danny Green (with a Finals-record 25 3-pointers and counting) and Gary Neal (12 3-pointers in the series, second-most behind Green).
“Well, we challenge ourselves to see if we’re a better team than we was,” Wade said. “Same position no matter how we got to it. We’re in the same position going back home with Game 6 on our home floor. So we’re going to see if we’re a better ballclub and if we’re better prepared for this moment. Everything happens for a reason. And this is not a bad reason at all to go home for Game 6 on your home floor.”
There was no outward sign of Heat dejection before leaving San Antonio on Sunday night.
In a corner of the arena where players milled about with their families before departing toward the charter flight that carried the team home to Miami early Monday, Wade had a quiet moment with girlfriend Gabrielle Union, Bosh made “roar” sounds toward some kids and James stopped to give high-fives to about a half-dozen boys who barely came up to his waist, if that. He was smiling the whole time, too.
If there was a “what, me worry” vibe, James was masking it well.
“We’ve been through so many battles,” Spoelstra said. “And we’ve been through everything. The trust level is there now. We’ve been through enough losses, we’ve been through enough pain, been through success that we’re able to manage each other much better than initially the first few weeks together.”
Ray Allen said he would gladly have taken the deal at the start of the year, that being have two games at home to win the NBA title. Same goes for Mario Chalmers, who insisted he couldn’t wait to see what the atmosphere in Miami will be like Tuesday night.
“All I know is, the schedule says we’ve got another game,” Bosh said.
That was his way of saying that no, absolutely all is not lost for Miami. And in the 2-3-2 format, on paper, it was supposed to be exactly this way.
“That’s the position we’re in,” James said. “The most important game is Game 6. We can’t worry about a Game 7. We have to worry about Game 6 and going back home, being confident about our game, being confident about getting a win, which we are. So it is what it is. We have a Game 6 on our home floor.”
He left off the last word of that sentence: Again.