SAN ANTONIO (AP) — LeBron James looked at the cameras and reporters packed five-deep around him in a quiet, frustrated postgame locker room and made a simple declaration.
“I’ve got to be better,” James said.
Really, nothing else needed to be said. And whatever hopes the Miami Heat have of extending their reign as NBA champions almost certainly hinges on what James can do in the next few days.
The San Antonio Spurs controlled him again, and kept control of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night. The final score was 113-77, the biggest margin of defeat for the Heat in the “Big Three” era in Miami, and came on a night where the Heat were outscored by 32 points when James was on the floor — the worst such stat of his entire career.
James scored 15 points, nine of them coming in 90-second span late in the third quarter with the outcome already essentially decided. He had four points at the half for the second straight matchup, the first time he failed to score at least five in the opening two quarters of consecutive contests since December 2003, his second full month in the league.
And for just the 10th time in his career — 899 games — he failed to attempt a single free throw. The last time that happened was 2009, and comes now as a byproduct of the Spurs packing the lane, taking away the drive and daring the league’s best player to shoot jumpers.
He’s shooting them — and missing them.
“I’m just missing shots,” James said. “They’re going under my pick-and-rolls, they’re daring me to shoot and anytime I get into the paint they’re putting two bodies in front of me. When I get in transition they’re putting two bodies in front of me. They’re doing a good job, but also I’ve got to be able to knock down shots. If I knock down shots, that would draw them closer to me and I’d be able to get into the lane.”
The Spurs held James to 18 points in Game 1, 17 points in Game 2 and 15 in Game 3.
Maybe, maybe not. But the Spurs are clearly doing more than a few things right.
The Heat shot 41 percent. Two starters, Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers, didn’t score a single point. James shot 7 for 21, missing 10 of 11 shots in one stretch, most of them jump shots.
“I’m hoping that he continues to miss shots,” the Spurs’ Danny Green said.
Miami just doesn’t expect that to happen. At least, not with so much at stake in yet another championship-or-failure season.
“I’m not worried about him,” Dwyane Wade said. “He’ll be his normal great self.”
Added Chris Bosh: “He’s the best player in the world. That’s a proven fact. He’s going to have to play better if we’re going to win this series. We’re going to have to play better. The coaches have to coach better. It’s going to have to be an all-around effort.”
They both took the high road, as did Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who blamed the defense more than anything else and said he’ll spend the off day Wednesday trying to get James into places where he’s most confident.
James went another way in his postgame assessment. He welcomed the blame.
“I’ve got to be better. It’s that simple,” James said. “If I’m better, we’re better. And I’ve got to be better. I’m putting everything on my chest and my shoulders and I’ve got to be better. It’s that simple. My teammates are doing a good job. They’re doing a great job. I’m not doing my part.”
He spent a few moments at his locker in silence afterward, before plunging his feet into an ice bath, waving off a chance to have his postgame meal right away, then headed to the showers with frustration clearly on his face.
When the Heat have been down in series in recent years, James has been at his best, like the 40-point game at Indiana and the 45-point, season-saving effort at Boston last year.
For the Heat to win this series, it might take something like that.
“LeBron’s fine, man,” Haslem 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.”
James was a nondescript 1 for 2 in the first quarter. The next 22 minutes were forgettable for James, who only got a layup to go down during that stretch. Everything else just clanked off the rim or got blocked.
Of his 10 misses in that stretch, virtually everything came off jump shots. And by the time he got rolling, the game was essentially over.
James made a 3-pointer with 1:36 left in the third, cutting the San Antonio lead to 75-57. Another jumper from the left elbow followed 34 seconds later, then an 8-footer, then a layup off a turnover. All of a sudden, the Heat were within 13.
Fools gold, it turned out.
Tiago Splitter — who found his way onto highlight reels when his dunk try got erased by James with about 8 minutes left in Game 2 — got loose for a dunk with one-tenth of a second left in the third. That started what became a 37-14 run by the Spurs to end the game.
Much too little.
Much too late.
“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.
“I’m absolutely not happy, I’m upset, very upset about the game. But like I said, there’s tomorrow. We will prepare. We will be better. And I will be better.”