SAN ANTONIO -- LeBron James can't simply open the NBA Superstar Manual and turn to the part that reads: "In the event of a subpar game or any slight, real or perceived, exact revenge by dropping 50 points the next time out." That was the section that was edited by Michael Jordan, and it has dictated the expectations ever since. It's too difficult to apply in these NBA Finals because the San Antonio Spurs simply won't let it happen.
No opposing player has ever scored 50 points against the Spurs in a playoff game. And since Gregg Popovich took over as head coach in 1996 the Spurs have allowed an opponent to score 40 on them in the playoffs only seven times. The Spurs won four of the seven games.
"Everybody in the league knows who the big scorers are, who the main All-Stars are," Spurs guard Danny Green said. "I guess we key in on them more. We don't want to let one guy guard him one-on-one. It's a team effort. I'm sure other teams do it too, but I feel like we hone in on it and try to make other guys kind of beat us."
Kobe Bryant has hung both 40 points and an L on the Spurs twice in the playoffs; scoring 45 in a Los Angeles Lakers victory on May 19, 2001, and 42 on May 11, 2004. Russell Westbrook just picked up the other 40-W combo, with 40 points when the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Spurs in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on May 27. The other two who have scored a postseason 40 on Popovich's Spurs are Dirk Nowitzki and Amar'e Stoudemire (twice).
That Westbrook game was notable for his defensive performance, with five steals and a blocked shot to help the Thunder wreak havoc on the Spurs' offense. The reality is that it's easy for an individual to make an impact against San Antonio on defense than offense, the way Serge Ibaka abruptly shifted the conference finals. Kevin Durant has been the most prolific scorer in the NBA in four of the past five seasons, but he isn't on the list of 40-point scorers against the Spurs. The 25.8 points per game he averaged against San Antonio in the conference finals was his lowest in a series since the 25 a game he scored in his first playoff series against the Lakers in 2010.
"You have to beat this team with everybody," Durant said in the middle of his battle with the Spurs. "You can't just focus on going out and scoring a lot of points. You've got to do it on both ends of the floor."
That actually fits in with LeBron's preferred style of play. He wants to get his teammates involved and cool off the other team's hot man. San Antonio won't let him stick to that, either. The Spurs are averaging 107 points per game in the playoffs, including the 110 they posted on Miami in Game 1, putting a premium on LeBron's scoring output if the Heat are going to keep up.
Just keep in mind it took him eight cracks at the Spurs in the NBA Finals (going back to 2007) before he had a 30-point game against them.
Asked to assess the challenge presented by the Spurs' defense, James started in the interior.
"I think Tim Duncan is very good," James said. "Probably one of the best at protecting the rim. So they're able to funnel a lot of things to him. He's able to protect the rim. Very, very smart guy.
"I also think the length that they have had at the wing position helps out as well. Very active with their hands. They kind of they want to bait you into taking low-percentage shots, and that's the contested two-point shot. ... They kind of try to bait you into taking shots that [are] maybe out of your team's comfort zone."
Not only can the Spurs throw the long arms of Kawhi Leonard at LeBron, Leonard's confidence in the help defense allows him to guard LeBron as closely as possible on the perimeter.
"Me playing the wing, I know I have Tim Duncan or Tiago [Splitter] or Aron Baynes or guys playing behind me to contest the rim," Leonard said. "I guess it just starts with, individually, guys playing the rim. And just knowing that your teammates will be there for you."
We've seen LeBron overcome great defenses to single-handedly win playoff games before. It happened when he scored 25 consecutive points in Detroit in 2007. It happened when he scored 45 points on 73 percent shooting in Boston in 2012.
More recently, we've seen the Spurs give up 40 points to Westbrook and 44 to Stephen Curry in the past two playoffs. You should note that Westbrook played 45 minutes and Curry played 58 minutes in a double-overtime loss.
To see LeBron put on one of his all-time great scoring nights against the Spurs' defense would be like a rarely-seen comet crossing the path of a solar eclipse. You won't find that anywhere in the manual.