After his Miami Heat were blown out in Game 3 of the NBA Finals Tuesday night, LeBron James' takeaway was simple:
"I've got to be better," James said.
The reigning MVP was a shell of himself Tuesday, shooting 7 of 21 for 15 points, his third game in a row with under 20. During the regular season, he had only one stretch of two straight games when he scored less than 20 points.
"It's frustrating when you get smashed like that, in a playoff game, a Finals game," James said. "When you felt like you came in with a great game plan and pretty much nothing works, you're frustrated about it. I mean, that's just the heat of the battle. Right now I'm still sweating from the game."
But less telling than what he (didn't) score was how he tried to score. 7 of his 21 shots came from outside the paint, and of his 9 midrange shots (between the paint and the three-point line), only one managed to find the inside of the cylinder.
The Spurs have found a way to frustrate James in the paint, and he has responded by retreating into the midrange area, where he is a much less efficient shooter. Further evidence is provided by the fact that James did not attempt a single free throw on Tuesday night, the first time that has happened all season.
"I hope he continues to miss shots," Spurs guard Danny Green said after the game. "It's LeBron stopping himself out there. We're making it tough for him."
What will it take for James to become the rim-attacking, defense-destroying force of nature that he was during the regular season and the second half of Game 2? If you ask the Heat, it is all a matter of effort, and James can simply flip the switch for Game 4.
"I'm not worried about him," Dwyane Wade said. "He'll be his normal great self."
Udonis Haslem was even more dismissive of the notion that LeBron is in trouble. "LeBron's fine, man," he said. "People need to lay off LeBron. We win as a team. We lose as a team. We're not going to put this on LeBron. This is a collective loss."
San Antonio has made a significant effort to disrupt James' newly-honed post game, doubling him in the paint and not allowing James to back his way toward the basket. In Game 2, the Heat got around this strategy by using James as a screener off the ball. He would slip away from defenders while Wade or Mario Chalmers was handling the ball and get just enough room to receive a pass near the basket and get off a quick shot attempt.
But that strategy might not even be necessary if James makes up his mind to force the issue and draw fouls in the paint like he normally does.
If Miami loses Game 4, they will fall behind 3-1 in the series, a margin that is effectively insurmountable against a smart veteran team like the Spurs. It is now or never for James, and how he responds in Game 4 will ultimately determine whether the Heat will retain their crown or fall short for the second time in three trips to the Finals.