Just when we thought we had it all figured out.
Just when the story of LeBron James' career had what looked like a defined narrative arc -- gifted prodigy struggles trying to carry a team on his own, sides with more talented players only to truly discover himself and becomes this commanding force that will collect championships for years to come -- we get this.
We get a player whose crisis of confidence -- a side of him we all thought he left behind in 2011 -- seems to have taken hold of his body once again.
LeBron told the world he was 50 times better than he was in 2007, when the Spurs forced him into 5.8 turnovers a game and 35.6 percent shooting in a Finals sweep. But he's shown us something resembling more the 2007 LeBron than the 2013 LeBron the past three games.
James seems transfixed by the Spurs' defensive approach. His shots aren't coming on his terms, which has him hesitant for the first time in a long time. That jump shot that became such a lethal weapon this season (the Heat were best in the league in midrange jump shots this season and second best in 3-point shooting percentage) has abandoned him for most of these Finals.
His most reliable teammates aren't helping nearly as much as they should, granted. But such was the case against the Pacers, and LeBron still managed to call upon himself more often and deliver.
So what is there to make of this?
Before we even see a Game 4, have we seen enough to say that this is the truer version of LeBron James than the one we saw break through last postseason and confidently dominate the league this season?
Or is this just a minor, three-game bump in what has been quite a smooth road for the past calendar year?
As tangible as LeBron's shortcomings have been, as much as they're reminiscent of previous failures, they serve to remind me of the repeated mistakes made in the past by so many others: making definitive statements about LeBron before a series, a season or especially his career has played out.
He's gone from the Donyell Marshall pass to the 25-point closeout in the same series. He went from "Good job, good effort" to the Terminator in back-to-back games last season. So let's see what he has in store for Game 4 and the rest of the series, especially now that he has more tools -- from 3-point range to low-post moves -- at his disposal. LeBron has composed some of the great playoff performances in NBA history, and he still has more hit songs in him.
Can he have it both ways? Can he answer the critics and play on his terms? We all want to see him score, but what if his path to victory is through rebounding and defense? It might be that boxing out Kawhi Leonard or closing on Danny Green are the winning plays for LeBron and the Heat. In that case, it would be up to us to appreciate what he's done.
If it's fair for us to demand greatness, then we also have the responsibility to watch the game on a microlevel.
There's only one conclusion that is fair to draw: You can't compare LeBron to Michael Jordan. That went out the window the first time LeBron lost a Finals series or scored fewer than 20 points in a Finals game -- two things Jordan never did.
Must ... fight ... MJ ... comparison ... discussion ...
Phew! That was difficult.
OK, moving on.
While I do agree that LeBron has shown the ability to recover after it appears he's suffocating under the pressure of his own expectations, he's also done enough coming up woefully short for people to define him by that.
None of it was more egregious than that Dallas series. His own teammates were wondering where LeBron's head was during those Finals.
We all call him some combination of MJ and Magic. He's a bigger, more athletic Oscar Robertson. He has no weaknesses, at least after he refined his jump shot this season. So why has it been so easy to throw him completely off the rails offensively in three games against San Antonio?
Is it the genius of Gregg Popovich? Is it the stage of the Finals again?
I thought the most damning evidence that LeBron is in his own head was when Green essentially said it. The Spurs marksman said LeBron was stopping himself out there and that he, as a defender, is getting lucky.
Maybe those are head games, but it's more likely honest words from a defender who's as surprised as the rest of us are.
LeBron's fallback mode ever since Game 7 of last season's Eastern Conference finals has been getting to the free throw line. While there is still some pressure to hit those free ones, he's comfortable there. In Game 7 against the Celtics, 17 free throw attempts. Against the Thunder in last season's Finals, 9.2 attempts per game. In Game 7 against the Pacers in these playoffs, 16.
So far in this series? Six. Total. Including none in Game 3.
That's not just the most complete player in the game becoming one-dimensional. It's him becoming nondimensional because he hasn't been hitting jumpers either. That's more than just a good game plan against him.
Now, if this were last season's Finals and he was playing this way, I'd call it a major problem. But given his bounce-back performance in last season's Celtics series and the otherworldly play that's followed, you have to believe his confidence has built up enough to shake him out of this malaise.
I'm expecting him to at least force the issue from here on out. Even if it's ugly, he'll draw fouls and make it his kind of game. Because he can't be the best in the world for 98 games then regress when it matters most.
You mentioned LeBron's 16 free throws in Game 7 against the Pacers, and it reminded me how frustrated I was that he didn't make double-digit trips to the line every game of that series. Instead, he was too willing to cede the paint to Roy Hibbert. LeBron should have been driving at Hibbert repeatedly and effectively telling the officials:
"I'm LeBron James! Are you going to call six offensive fouls on me or blow the whistle on this guy nobody was talking about two months ago?"
Maybe the fact he didn't was a warning sign.
Or maybe James is just susceptible to certain players and systems. If James doesn't get this ring, we could end up having to explain that the reason he didn't win more championships is he lost to Kevin Garnett's Celtics two out of three times, ran into a hot Dirk Nowitzki and had two meetings with Tim Duncan and Popovich in the Finals.
But it feels like LeBron should be the denier. He should be breaking an entire NBA generation's hearts. Except that would be ruthless, and that's a trait he doesn't have.
Not sure about a lack of ruthlessness in him. Ruthlessness wouldn't have gotten him better teammates when he was in Cleveland. He certainly appeared pretty ruthless when he saved Miami from last season's potential East finals disaster.
I am sure, though, that LeBron is calculated.
During his stretch of unprecedented efficiency in the middle of this season, LeBron was playing a game within a game. The sport was so easy for him, it appeared, that he took, and mostly made, only great shots. It was a phenomenal display of skill, patience and complete trust in teammates.
Perhaps that's what is abandoning LeBron right now: not just the trust in a group of teammates that has been less reliable in the past two rounds but also the ability to find those great shots against this Spurs scheme -- and the skill to make those jump shots he made with such ease all season long.
That combination could have thrown him for a loop through three games. Is that a sign of mental weakness or simply a player adjusting on the fly?
I guess Game 4 will start to help us figure that out.
If he's simply yielding to their defense and not discovering other ways to win, it's a reflection of LeBron.
Maybe this is a remix of the 2008 NBA Finals, when the Boston Celtics simply would not allow Kobe Bryant, the regular-season MVP, to take over the series. When they met in the 2010 Finals, Bryant shot 40 percent again, yet this time prevailed. Even amid that miserable 6-for-24 shooting performance in Game 7, Bryant still managed to grab 15 rebounds and found a way to get to the free throw line 15 times.
Or will these Finals turn out to be like the 2004 Finals, when Bryant shot 38 percent for the series, the star-studded Lakers fell to the Pistons, and Chauncey Billups won the Finals MVP? Speaking of Billups, I was using LeBron's five trips to the conference finals in the past seven years as a defense of his greatness until I remembered Billups went to the conference finals in seven consecutive years from 2003 to 2009.
We're so eager to fast-forward LeBron into the comparisons with the all-time greats that we forget he still has much work to do to separate himself from his contemporaries first.
The expectations are grandiose. The immediate order of business is to outplay Green and Leonard. It's something he didn't do in Game 3, but it's not unreasonable to ask him to do so in Game 4 and beyond.