Nuisances add up for LeBron James


SAN ANTONIO -- It was understood -- expected, actually -- that the week would go downhill for LeBron James from the moment he scored a career-high 61 points against Charlotte the other night.

But not even James could have imaged the drop-off since Monday would be this frustrating and steep.

In other words, where are those Bobcats when you need them?

The San Antonio Spurs certainly weren't as accommodating in their approach to defending James on the way to smothering the Heat in a 111-87 victory in a matchup of teams that met in the Finals last season.

James missed 12 of his 18 shots and had five turnovers in the Heat's most lopsided loss of the season. That effort Thursday came on the heels of Tuesday's 106-103 loss in Houston, where James missed a shot that would have forced overtime to cap a fourth quarter in which he was held scoreless.

As James sat in his locker after Thursday's loss, he pointed out of number of nuisances that aggravated him throughout the game against the Spurs.

First, there was the mask.

James had grown so frustrated with the mask he had worn to protect his broken nose the past week that he tossed it aside in the first quarter Thursday and played the rest of the game without it.

Then, there was San Antonio's defense.

Using the same schemes that gave James problems through the first five games of the Finals last season, the Spurs backed off James on the perimeter and clogged the lane to keep him from getting clean drives to the basket. James eventually played his way into a rhythm last June over the final two games and guided the Heat to a Game 7 victory to secure their second consecutive championship.

But this was a one-and-done night in the regular season, and once James missed five of his first six shots in the first quarter, he never established much of a flow offensively to emerge from his funk.

Yet there was a bigger headache for James than the Spurs defense or the nagging mask.

It was the promotional sleeved jerseys.

James despised the tight-fitting, sleeved jerseys the NBA has required teams to wear on occasion this season. And James insisted after the game that the snug fit around his shoulders was uncomfortable to the point that the shirt tugged on his arm and affected his shot.


"I'm not going to make any excuses, but I'm not a big fan of these jerseys," James said. "So I have to figure something out the next time I have to wear a short-sleeved jersey. Every time I shoot, it feels like it's just pulling right underneath my arm. I already don't have much room for error on my jump shot anyway, so it's definitely not a good thing."

Unprompted, James then rattled off some shooting statistics from two other times when he had to play in the sleeved jerseys this season. The first instance came in the Heat's 101-95 win on Christmas Day against the Los Angeles Lakers. James shot 7-of-14 from the field and scored 19 points but missed all four of his 3-point attempts and four of his nine free throws.

He even brought up the 0-for-7 effort from 3-point range in the Feb. 16 All-Star Game, in which the league switched from their traditional tank-top jerseys to the sleeved variety in New Orleans. Clearly, James grappled with the uniform attire Thursday as much as he did with the mask or the Spurs, who contributed to his missing 10 of his 11 shot attempts he took outside the paint.

Spurs wings  Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard also had complaints after the game about the jerseys. Still, not every Heat player was as uncomfortable as James.

"That ain't the reason we lost," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "You're just not used to it, that's all. The [Spurs] didn't have a problem with it. It is what it is, man. Let's not make this about a jersey. We got our butt kicked. That's it."

After winning eight in a row, Miami's past two setbacks have had similar scripts.

Slow starts have haunted the Heat both times. They gave up 39 points in the first quarter of Tuesday's loss to the Rockets and surrendered 37 points in the opening period against the Spurs. In both games, the Heat have had to dig themselves out of double-figure deficits to get back into the game.

And both times, they've failed to get completely over the hump and never held a lead at any point against Houston or San Antonio. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra suggested the Heat's defense needs to get back to being as tight and consistent as the sleeved jerseys.

Spoelstra said it's time to kick the tires "and check under the hood" to diagnose the recent lapses.

"We have to wrap our arms around it," Spoelstra said as the Heat try to get back on track Sunday, when the three-game trip ends against Chicago. "We have to look at it, be honest with it, study it and fix it. We have to keep perspective, but we have to get back to who we are -- our identity -- and we're a far cry from that in our last two first quarters. We certainly have to regroup."

James will likely resume wearing the mask Sunday. Spoelstra said James wasn't necessarily cleared medically to play without it, but "it was his decision to throw it off, [and] we didn't throw it back at him."

James anticipated having another battle on his hands over that decision.

"I got frustrated with it early on, so I took it off," James said of the mask he's worn the past five games since breaking his nose Feb. 20 against Oklahoma City. "It's probably a game-to-game thing. I got a message from my wife at halftime telling me to put it back on. So I may be in trouble when I get home."

The Heat will be in just as much trouble if they don't reverse this recent trend.

As far as the jerseys, center Chris Bosh didn't have much of an issue with the fit. Bosh shot 10-of-16 from the field and led the Heat with 24 points in his best outing in five games.

"I'm not as big as LeBron -- his shoulders are a little bit bigger than mine, and he likes to wear smaller sizes," Bosh said, half-jokingly. "He kept saying it was tugging on his underarm a little bit. But like I've always said, I'm more of an old-school-type basketball player. They've been having tank-top jerseys for a hundred years. And they should keep it that way."

James actually perked up when a team trainer told him Thursday was the last game the Heat were required to wear the sleeved jerseys. Thursday was also the last game they have to play in Texas, at least in the regular season.

"After a couple of beatdowns," Bosh said, "you just want to move on."

James isn't too concerned about the slide he's been on this week.

"It's the averages," James said. "I'm OK with that. One thing about me is I'll look at the film, break it down. I missed some shots I'm capable of making -- some really, really good looks. I'll move on to the next one."