Is LeBron James a Non-Factor in the NBA Finals ... or the Deciding Factor?

And with three games left in the series, can the Spurs make a final push past a resurgent Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh?

AP / David J. Phillip

Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic), and Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic) make their predictions for the last three games of the NBA Finals series, currently tied 2-2.

Stevens: Maybe the Heat were inspired by that incredible, triple-overtime game between the Blackhawks and Bruins. Maybe Miami finally recovered from their bruising series against the Pacers. Maybe they were inspired by the military-style camouflage that LeBron wore to the game—a departure from his usual suit and tie. Whatever the reason, the stars finally came out for Miami in their 109-93 Game 4 win over the Spurs.

Until last night, this Finals had been about the role player-turned-quirky hero. Thursday, though, wasn't for guys like Mike Miller, Gary Neal, or Tiago Splitter. Game 4 was for the big guns. Like, for instance, the heretofore frigid Dwyane Wade, who got hot for the first time in the series to lead the 33-5 second-half run that won it for Miami.

But this game—like any in which he plays—was defined by the presence of LeBron James. The big story before tipoff—in addition to his olive-drab outfit—was James's anger at his own poor play in Game 3 and repeated insistence that Game 4 was on his shoulders. It sounded like he was trying to convince himself.

Therein lies what's so striking and ultimately frustrating about James. No matter how hard he tries to act deadly serious about his sport, we all know he isn't. It's done for the cameras, from a sense of obligation to fans. Deep down, LeBron knows it's just a game. Worse, we know he knows it. Sure, the guy wants to win. The players like Michael Jordan and Bill Russell to whom he's inevitably compared didn't just want to win, though. They had to win. They were desperate for it. They needed victory like a vampire needs new blood.

Can you imagine Michael Jordan having to announce that a game was on his shoulders? Like there was ever any doubt. Can you imagine Bill Russell waiting until Game 4 of the NBA Finals to finally get mad? The guy was mad in preseason.

We want our heroes to suffer for their greatness—to feel agony after defeat, not head for the clubs of South Beach. We want them to care more about the game than we do. James tries. He acts like it, because he knows he's supposed to. But it's nevertheless obvious that he just plain doesn't live and die with every bucket. Even more galling, he's so insanely talented that he can win without having to. That why LeBron will always respected, but never be beloved.

Boys, what's your take? It's down to a three-game series. Will James muster enough of whatever it takes to win his second title, or can Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, and company somehow overcome? Let me hear it.


Hruby: Hampton, no mas. I'm begging you. Begging you and the entire sports media-industrial complex. Particularly ESPN. Please stop. Please stop turning individual games, the entire playoff series, and the whole of the National Basketball Association into a never-ending see-saw referendum on LeBron James and his psyche. Does he want it enough? Is he aggressive enough? Is he shooting too much? Too little? He should help his teammates. He should assert himself. Why can't he be more like Michael Jordan? Where is my "Space Jam II?" WAHHHHHHHHH!

Here's the thing: The NBA Finals—and, by extension, professional basketball—is not a summertime superhero movie. It is not a bunch of throwaway supporting characters and scripted plot points revolving around one hero's narrative journey. No matter how well or poorly James plays, no matter passive he looks or angry he sounds, there are always nine other guys on the floor. Plus more on the bench. Plus coaches, scouts, and front-office people. And every single one of those people is the hero of their own story. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that James is not the cosmos, and the Finals are about a lot more than his choice of suit color. There's plenty else to analyze, appreciate, and discuss—and we should keep that in mind, because all of those non-LeBron things will end up deciding the series.

Take Game 4. James was great: 33 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. Still, the Heat won because previously-MIA SuperFriends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were great, too, combining for 52 points after averaging just under a collective 27 points during the first three games of the Finals. Miami also evened the series because San Antonio was unable to punish the Heat's small-ball lineup of undersized shooters—Tim Duncan was typically solid, but fellow big man and block sponge Tiago Splitter looked decidedly unready for prime time—and got: (a) one good half out of injured star Tony Parker, hamstrung by a sore hamstring; (b) zilch out of moldering former star Manu Ginobili, whose -22 plus/minus rating was not, in fact, a misprint.

So, what happens going forward? For the Spurs to win, they need Parker's sore leg to make like Wade's sore knee. They need to free sharpshooters Danny Green and Gary Neal for open looks. They need to counter Miami's new lineup, as well as the Heat's defensive strategy of funneling the ball to Splitter before blitzing him. More than anything, they need the once-swashbuckling Ginobili to enter a Wayback Machine and have an impact the way Bosh finally did. As for Miami? The Heat need to play well collectively, and not simply rely on James. In Game 4, I think they found the formula—play smaller and faster, gamble more, create and capitalize on turnovers, force San Antonio's role players to consistently shine—and so long as whatever treatment Wade is receiving on his knee continues to work, I think they'll stick with it. Miami in six.

Jake, what's your take?

Simpson: My take is simple: Don't sleep on the Spurs. Despite what we see from pundits and the Twitterverse alike, there are two teams in this series. The outcome is not simply in the hands of LeBron, dependent on his ability to flick his On/Off switch to On. Not when San Antonio has the best basketball strategist in the world in its corner.

In fact, Gregg Popovich may well be the key to the final three games of this series. With Wade in peak form, Miami presents a matchup nightmare for any defense, and Pop will have to counter with a defensive adjustment that minimizes the Heat's athletic advantage. Pop also has to coax a Vintage 2003 effort out of Duncan, who has been good but not dominant in this series. With Parker playing on a balky hammy, 15 points and 11 rebounds a game from the big fella (his per-game averages in the Finals so far) is not going to cut it.

But I think San Antonio will find a way to bounce back in Game 5. For one thing, the Heat have been stupefyingly inconsistent for the last three weeks. You know that stat about the Heat not losing consecutive games since January? Well, Miami hasn't won consecutive games since May 22. Every win against both Indiana and San Antonio has been followed by a loss, a one-step-forward-one-step-back pattern that has created the schizophrenic reactions from the media and the public.

The Spurs will have a frenzied home crowd for Sunday's Game 5, and I think they'll take the game and swing the narrative of the series once again. Expect a big game from Duncan, who even at 37 has outplayed the younger and higher-paid Bosh. And then, Miami will take their talents back to the South Beach and win Games 6 and 7. At least I hope that's what happens. A series this compelling deserves to go the distance.