LeBron James had a mediocre shooting night, but he pushed through and led the Heat to a win and a 3-1 series lead.
It was the type of game that has plagued LeBron James throughout his playoff career, and the type of game that has kept him from getting a ring up to this point in his NBA career.
A year ago, James led his team to a 2-1 series lead against one of the best defensive teams in basketball, only to be effectively shut down over the next three games. Those struggles against Boston's defense were the first in a chain of events that saw him go from one of the league's most admired players to one of the most hated athletes in American professional sports, in part because it wasn't the first time it had happened to him.
Time and again throughout his playoff career, when he was challenged by a defense that refused to give him easy lanes to the basket or easy passing lanes, LeBron came up short, whether it was against Detroit, San Antonio or Boston.
When the Chicago Bulls ambushed the Heat after yet another sluggish Miami start in Game 4, jumping out to a quick 19-8 lead as LeBron missed five of his first seven shots from the field and turned the ball over once, it looked like it was happening again. This time, however, LeBron responded, cutting the Chicago lead to three with eight quick points to close the first quarter.
Things didn't get any easier for him from there, though. The Bulls consistently forced one of the league's best drivers to settle for deep jumpers, and his improved midrange shot failed him, as he only converted only 5 of 18 jumpers on the night. Every time he went into the paint, he ran into a wall of defenders, and the Bulls forced him to earn his points from the free throw line.
When the Bulls switched Joakim Noah onto LeBron on pick-and-rolls, LeBron wasn't able to do much except for pull up for a contested jump shot. He didn't run the offense with nearly as much aplomb as he did in Game 3, committing five turnovers while only one of his six assists led to a dunk or a layup.
Defensively, James had his worst game of the series for the first three quarters. He regularly got caught ball-watching and over-helping on Rose, allowing Luol Deng to get free and pour in 20 smooth points on 8-of-16 shooting from the field.
For most of the game, LeBron couldn't rely on his superstar teammates to pick up the slack for him the way they have throughout these playoffs. An exhausted-looking Dwyane Wade was in a funk for the vast majority of the game, and didn't really make a positive impact of any kind until the extra period started.
Chris Bosh wasn't the offensive fulcrum he was in Game 3, and was bottled up by Noah for much of the night.
The bench showed up to keep the Heat in the game by hitting some outside shots and keeping the Bulls from destroying the Heat on the glass, but it was the out-of-rhythm LeBron who had to keep the Heat from giving up home-court advantage by forcing the issue time and time again.
Then there was the stretch run. LeBron lost his third consecutive MVP award because of his struggles in late-game situations, and two of his most egregious crunch-time gaffes came against the Bulls. But just like he has throughout the playoffs, the two-time MVP was there to step up when his team needed him most. He scored or assisted on 10 of the Heat's fourth-quarter points, which kept the game tied as the final possessions neared.
LeBron nearly cost his team the game by committing an awful offensive foul on Ronnie Brewer when the Heat had the ball, a tie score, and a chance to leave the Bulls with only three seconds on the shot clock.
But he atoned for the miscue by playing a second consecutive possession of perfect defense on the player who was given the MVP over him. Rose made a free throw to tie the game when James was caught gambling on him with just over a minute to go, but LeBron was able to bear down and keep the game tied with excellent fundamental defense on Rose during the Bulls' final two possessions.
On both plays, James stayed in front of Rose, didn't bite on the uber-quick young point guard's dribble-fakes and forced him to take two long-contested jump shots that had little chance of going in.
Of course, if Rose's second jump shot had somehow found its way through the net, the game would have gone down as another LeBron "choke job" that could have easily washed away the goodwill he's accrued with his late-game playoff performances -- but sometimes it helps to be a little lucky as well as very good.
In overtime, James shut the door by scoring or assisting on half of the Heat's 16 points, including a key bucket on a hard drive to the left on Noah -- the exact play that Noah has stuffed James on in late-game situations at least twice in the past.
Just as important, James combined with Wade to hold Rose scoreless in the extra period. Just like that, the Heat took a 3-1 series lead, and James is now officially closer to a championship ring than he has been since he made the NBA Finals as a 22-year-old.
James has been talented enough to be the best player on a championship team for years now, but his struggles against elite defensive teams have been his Achilles' heel throughout his playoff career. But in a Game 4 that turned into a knock-down, drag-out affair, James kept his cool, never stopped working hard or trusting his game, and was able to put the Bulls away when he had the opportunity to do so.
It wasn't the prettiest performance of James' career, but it was enough to put the league's best regular-season team on the ropes and James one game away from a return to the NBA Finals.