NEW YORK — And after all that, after LeBron James’ big second quarter, after his bigger third quarter, after he was on his way to tying a career playoff high with 49 points, it still wasn’t enough.
He still had to do more.
Here, in the final dance steps of a playoff game that finally felt like one for Miami, LeBron wasn’t asked to score the biggest points in the Heat’s 102-96 win in Game 4 against Brooklyn. Chris Bosh made the tiebreaking three-pointer with 57 seconds left.
But James had to stop the big points from being scored. Twice, the Nets’ top scorer, Joe Johnson, got the ball with LeBron on him after Brooklyn cleared out the side. Twice, LeBron stopped him.
“I take as much pride in my defense as my offense,” James said. “I believe in one-on-one situations I can stop anyone from scoring. It doesn’t happen all the time. Guys make shots. But in that situation he missed one ... He missed two.”
Johnson was miffed afterward, saying James “flopped on the last one. I should’ve known they wouldn’t call it on him, but I had time for the shot.”
That’s how miffed the Nets were on this night they could’ve clawed back into the series. Instead, they’re down 3-1 because the Heat got the best game possible from the game’s best player.
Old rival Paul Pierce asked to guard LeBron? Fine. James put him on the bench with two fouls in less than seven minutes. Not that it mattered who tried to guard him this night.
LeBron shot over any defender. James drove by whomever. At half, he had 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting. He scored 13 straight Heat points in the third quarter.
Did he feel the need to take over this game?
“I feel the need we needed to win this game,” LeBron said. “So whatever it took to win, I felt I had to do it.”
James did whatever he wanted offensively. He was in full Cleveland mode, pulling the ball out, going solo at times, daring any Net to guard him. And, when they didn’t, he often seemed to skip after scoring a basket, as if adding some more fun to his moments.
“He was going,” Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd said. “A lot of shots were in the paint, and we tried to keep him out of the paint. But that’s hard when he wants to go there. Tonight he didn’t settle. He put pressure on our defense.”
The question wasn’t if he was having a great night. The question became: Would it be enough?
The Nets, as a team, were staying with him. At half, no Net was in double figures. But nine had scored. They couldn’t beat the Heat, one-on-one. They’d try to gang up on LeBron, though.
Late in the third quarter, James intercepted a pass near midcourt and had an open lane to the basket for a dunk even Brooklyn fans must have wanted for their price of admission.
But Alan Anderson grabbed him from behind. It worked out for the Heat, as LeBron made two foul shots on the clear-path foul call, then couldn’t score on Norris Cole jump shot.
That was the story for too much this night, just as it has been for so long this season. Can Miami find someone to help James as the season goes deeper into May and June?
On one fourth-quarter possession, James Jones had an open three-point shot. He missed. Allen got the rebound and another wide open three-point attempt. He missed, too.
These were the Heat’s hired guns, the team’s sharpest shooters, and they couldn’t connect on their specialty. And then the Nets went down and scored again to go up, 82-79.
Tied at 92, LeBron drove the lane, was double-teamed and resisted the temptation to force a shot. Instead, he kicked it out to Mario Chalmers, who passed it to an open Bosh in the corner. His three-pointer made it 97-94.
“That’s a play LeBron was criticized for at different times, but it’s the right play,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He trusted his teammates. That was the big play.”
In the final seconds, LeBron added a free throw to tie his playoff career high of 49, scored while with Cleveland. But he also missed a second foul shot that would’ve made it 50.
“That’s the first time I’ve been disappointed in myself in a win, ” he said.
Then he smiled, realizing Miami is one game from the Eastern Conference finals.
Indiana is, too, up 3-1 on Washington. And so we’re on familiar ground again. Reservations are being made. The Pacers may be coming to Miami for dinner as soon as this weekend.