SAN ANTONIO — LeBron James’ teammates are doing everything they can not to put too much pressure on their resident savior.
They’re saying it’s a team game and a superhuman effort isn’t necessarily now needed from James. They’re saying they also have to step up. They don’t want the finger pointed squarely at their star.
Meanwhile, James couldn’t care less what anybody says. He wants the pressure to be on him entering Thursday’s Game 4 of the NBA Finals at the AT&T Center.
“I take full responsibility for our team’s performance,’’ James said Wednesday about his Miami Heat’s embarrassing 113-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 3 Tuesday. “Me, as a leader, I can’t afford to perform like I did (Tuesday) and expect us to win on the road. It’s that simple. So I’m putting all the pressure on my chest, on my shoulders to come through for our team. That’s the way it is.’’
Apparently, some of James’ teammates didn’t immediately get the memo that he is vowing to rescue them. He expects to come up big in Game 4 after shooting a meager 7 of 21 for 15 points Tuesday. That dropped his Finals scoring average to 16.7, about 10 below his regular-season number, on 38.9 percent shooting.
“We’re not going to sit here and put all the pressure on LeBron to pull us out,’’ said forward Udonis Haslem. “Everybody on the Miami Heat, players 1 through 15, have to come out and give a better performance, … We’re not going to put all the pressure on LeBron to go out and there and score to lift us up and make everything a-OK.’’
Nice try, Udonis, but James wants the pressure. He realizes his legacy continues to be on the line.
If the Heat blow these Finals, James’ will drop to 1-3 on the game’s biggest stage. And two of the Finals defeats would have come when his team had homecourt advantage. The Heat also had it when they lost two years ago to Dallas.
James is in peril of having a bad individual Finals for the third time. But credit him now for vowing he’s going to turn this thing around.
“I have to do whatever it takes,’’ James said. “I had 11 rebounds. I had five assists, but 7-for-21 and zero free throws ain’t going to cut it. So I will be better (in Game 4). … I guarantee I’ll be better.’’
So James is doing his best Joe Namath impersonation. But will he have to go Boston on the Spurs?
With the Heat trailing 3-2 in last year’s Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics, James had a game for the ages with 45 points and 15 rebounds in a road win that saved the season. Including that game, the Heat won six of their last seven to snare the NBA title.
But that Boston team was a tired and battered bunch. These Spurs may have some old guys but they’re well rested after having had nine days of before the Finals started last Thursday.
The Spurs also have tremendous confidence in their defensive principles. James might be a four-time MVP, but lots of stars have looked pedestrian over the years against San Antonio’s D.
“We know that he hasn’t exploded yet, that he didn’t get hot,’’ said Spurs 11-year man Manu Ginobili. “But the guy is a big presence and we are really shifting and trying to get everybody in the paint so he doesn’t get to the rim. … I don’t think he’s struggling. At least I feel like we’re putting a lot of work on it.’’
So that leads to the age-old question when a star is putting up sub-par numbers: Is it the player or is it the defense?
“Some of it both,’’ said James, who at least is averaging 12.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists in the series. “They’re doing a great job of putting bodies in front of me and not allowing me to have some of the creases I have had throughout the playoffs. Some of it is me being out of rhythm. It’s a little bit of both.’’
James figures it’s about time to fix whatever might be wrong with him. If the Heat lose Thursday, they’ll be down 3-1. No NBA team ever has overcome such a deficit to win the NBA Finals.
James hardly is expecting to have to worry about such a deficit. He said he’s a “positive guy’’ and sees no reason why he won’t come back strong in Game 4.
“He can’t feel like he always has to take so much of the burden on himself,’’ said Heat guard Ray Allen, speaking Wednesday at around the same time James did.
Sorry, Ray. Too late. James already has put the pressure squarely on his shoulders for Game 4.