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Conventional wisdom holds that LeBron James of the Miami Heat is the best basketball player on the planet. But despite all that talent, he's had some struggles on the court, most notably now in the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. James has failed to crack 20 points in any of the three games so far and at times he's looked indecisive against a very good Spurs defense.
As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, tonight's game is a moment of truth, as LeBron James and the Heat try to even the series.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: LeBron James began the finals secure in his title as BPP - Best Player on the Planet. After three games, he still holds the title, but it's lost a little luster, even though things started well.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: James, backs it in.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: How do you top that?
GOLDMAN: Game 1, he had a coveted triple double: double figures in rebounds, assists and points, although only 18 points. Remember, this is a man who scored at least 20 in 33 games in a row this season. Game 2, 17 points and other contributions as the Heat won big. Game 3, 15 and no free throws by a 6'8, 250 pound man who's proved he can bull his way to the basket and get fouled any time he wants.
Yesterday, James bluntly assessed Tuesday's performance.
LEBRON JAMES: I'll be better.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And what would better mean for you?
JAMES: Better than last night. I played like (censored by network).
GOLDMAN: Better than bleep, means a much more aggressive performance. James is a great facilitator who constantly strives to make the best basketball play, even if that means giving up the ball. Tonight, on the road in a must-win game, James understands it's critical to get himself going. One way is trying to break free from San Antonio's smothering half court defense by running in the open court.
JAMES: If I can get the ball and transition where I'm facing my defender or maybe just one other defender, I can kind of break their defense down.
GOLDMAN: Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra will do what he can.
ERIK SPOELSTRA: We'll work to make sure that he's getting to places where he can be comfortable and confident.
GOLDMAN: Which begs the question, is James uncomfortable and lacking confidence even after a career year in which he won his first NBA title, a fourth Most Valuable Player Award and an Olympic gold medal?
MARK STEIN: I really thought after last season when he did all these things, I thought he was past this.
GOLDMAN: Past the debacle of the 2011 finals, says ESPN NBA senior writer Mark Stein, when James shrank on the biggest stage and was described as passive and uncertain, as heavily favored Miami lost to Dallas. To be fair, Stein says, the Heat are facing another Texas team, San Antonio, with championship DNA. The Spurs have won four titles since 1999 and a defense that, in hoop-speak, is packing the paint, swarming James when he gets near the basket and daring him to shoot from outside.
Also, Miami's other big stars, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, are, respectively, hurting and ineffective. Still, all eyes are on James as the designated BPP as he tries not to revert to 2011. Is he, in fact, a flawed best player on the planet or, as Mark Stein wonders, is James a victim of these talkative times?
STEIN: One of the most fascinating what-ifs in sports is what if Michael Jordan played in the Twitter era and we dissected his every tongue wag the way we do now with guys like Lebron. So I do feel a degree of sympathy for him there because it is such a different environment. But you're right, a player of his stature, we shouldn't be having this kind of discussion.
GOLDMAN: Yesterday, James grunted and cursed at practice as another jumpshot fell short. Those will go in tonight, he says, as he works mightily to bring his team back and turn around the discussion from what ails Lebron to will Miami repeat. Tom Goldman, NPR News, San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.