Ever see someone so angry after scoring 49 points in a close victory that gives his team a 3-1 lead in a playoff series? That would describe LeBron James, which should explain not only his intuition about what qualifies as major sports news in America — and what falls just short — but the inferno that burns within to win a third straight NBA championship.
“That’s the first time I’ve been disappointed in myself in a win,’’ he said.
Seems he wanted the round, symbolic 50 and was ticked he didn’t get it, missing a free throw with 1.1 seconds left in a 102-96 victory in Brooklyn. “I understand history,” James told TNT. “To put up 50 in a playoff game would have been pretty cool. But at the end of the day, I understand to win is what’s most important. I had fun.”
The Heat now have control of an Eastern Conference semifinal series that seemed wobbly for a moment there — and may continue to be in doubt if Paul Pierce hadn’t opened his mouth. After the Nets won Game 3, the old warrior talked proudly about his defensive job on James, who was unusually tame in the final three quarters Saturday night and went long stretches without touching the basketball. Pierce had asked to defend James and was feeling a little too cocky about it.
“You know you’ve got to have that type of mental (approach) when you’re going against a juggernaut,” Pierce said of James and the Heat. “When you go against the best … a lot of series are won on fear factor, or the non-belief. When you have that non-belief, then you have no chance. What I try to do in this locker room and with my teammates is just try give them belief — that we can beat this team. They’re not unbeatable. You’ve got to have that mental (approach) if you’re trying to get over that mountain that you’re trying to climb.”
James viewed the statements as fighting words. “Words don’t win the game, you’ve got to go out and play. Why should there be a fear factor, it’s just basketball,” he said Sunday. “We’re not trying to win a war here, it’s just basketball. We’re all grown men, who cares about who is fearing who. We’ve never been a team that talks, we don’t get into that. We’ve never been a bulletin board team. We just want to play the right way and give ourselves a chance to win.”
Fueled by Pierce’s foolish smack, James was close to a one-man team, embarrassing Pierce by tying his playoff career high in points while going 16 of 24 from the field and adding 14 points from the free-throw stripe. “He was what was needed on the road and that’s what makes him the best player in the game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He reads the game as well as anybody who’s played this game. He was simply indefatigable the entire game on both ends of the court. … He did his aggressiveness within the context of what we do. It can’t be one-one-five against this team. As good and as talented as he is, you have to execute offense, and he’s the best end-of-offense there is.”
Grasping the stunning turnaround of the heretofore dysfunctional Indiana Pacers, who have received remarkable performances from Roy Hibbert and Paul George since they escaped on a therapeutic fishing trip early last week, James realized the Heat need to put away the Nets so the Pacers don’t gain an unforeseen advantage in between-series rest.
When Spoelstra asked if he wanted a breather early in the fourth quarter, James refused. “He asked me and I didn’t know if he was serious or not, and what I told him I cannot say again,” he said. “So I wanted to finish out the game. I felt like it was a must-win for us.” He proved it at both ends, silencing Joe Johnson twice in the final seconds.
Assuming the Heat and Pacers close out their respective series, they will play for the Eastern Conference title starting this weekend. This was the showdown expected until the Pacers, during a bizarre four-month free-fall, devolved into a mess of bad chemistry and infighting. It’s hard to believe they’ve fixed all their issues in one week, but James isn’t taking any chances.
“I’m in attack mode,’’ he said.
We only can wonder what that means in the weeks ahead.