LeBron James was full of excuses, or maybe explanations. After a 6-for-18 shooting night, including 0-for-3 from three in a wire-to-wire blowout loss at San Antonio, James had a lot to say about things that weren't the Spurs defense.
Frustrated with the protective mask for his recently broken nose—the same one with which he scored 61 points on Monday—James flung it off during the first quarter, never to return. "I don't like it," he said afterward. "It's that simple." Not even a text message from his wife at halftime could convince him to put it back on.
Comfort was an issue all game. As part of the NBA's Latin Night promotion, James suited up in a sleeved "El Heat" jersey, and said it specifically affected his shooting form.
"I'm not making excuses, but I'm not a big fan of the jerseys," said James. "Every time I shoot it feels like it's just pulling right up underneath my arm...It's definitely not a good thing."
Players have been complaining about the sleeved jerseys all year, but whether it was a factor or not, James's shooting woes played right into the hands of a familiar Spurs defensive strategy.
We saw it in the finals. The Heat's top scorers, especially James, can beat you on the drive and from the outside, so San Antonio simply chose to take one of those weapons away by closing ranks around the paint. That runs the risk of giving more open looks, but it's a risk the Spurs were willing to take in June, and it worked with enough success that they were a last-second Ray Allen three away from a title.
It worked to perfection yesterday, through some combination of James's stroke being off and tenacious defending from Kawhi Leonard. Leonard forced four of James's five turnovers, and stuck on his man all night, limiting James to a mindboggling 1-for-11 from outside the paint. And when he attempted to drive past Leonard, the rest of the Spurs were waiting: In the opening minutes of the second half, Danny Green and Tim Duncan drew charges on James, putting an end to that gambit. When you can't get inside and can't get comfortable from mid-range, well, that's how you have your second-worst shooting night of the season, and how you lose by 24.
The sleeved jerseys are selling well, so they're not going anywhere. Neither are the Spurs. Healthy for the first time all year, San Antonio leapfrogged Miami for the NBA's third-best record. It's not a two- or three-team league anymore, but if the Heat and Spurs were to meet up again in the finals, I don't think anyone would be disappointed—except maybe LeBron.