SAN ANTONIO -- It's easier when things are obvious. When he is either wonderful or woeful or the game turns on a play he did or did not make.
In the Heat's 2011 Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks, James' fourth-quarter failings stuck out. Last season, when the Heat beat the Oklahoma City Thunder, his growth as a clutch performer became the lasting memory of the series.
But this year, there's nothing you can really point to. James has been great in some games, lethargic in others, and overall pretty good.
He had 25 points, eight assists, six rebounds and four steals in the Heat's 114-104 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 on Sunday evening. He also shot just 8-for-22 from the field after the Spurs switched Boris Diaw, of all people, onto him.
Some good, some bad, the rest average. Neither great nor awful.
If he were any other player, we'd be writing an entirely different story. But this being LeBron James, and these being the NBA Finals, pretty good provides no cover.
Fairly or not, it will always be about James. Not always what he does, but who he is. He gets that now. He's stopped questioning it or challenging the fairness of it. So as he sat in front of the cameras to tell his side of the story to the world after a middling loss in Game 5 that left the Heat one game away from elimination, James said exactly what he was supposed to say.
"I have to come up big for sure in Game 6," he said. "Me being one of the leaders of this team, I do put a lot of pressure on myself to force a Game 7, and I look forward to the challenge."
This wasn't the emotional, passionate James who felt terrible about his awful performance in the Game 3 loss here on Tuesday and vowed to play better.
This was the James who has been through this spin cycle enough times over the years to know what line he was supposed to deliver after losses, no matter how much of the blame truly fell on his shoulders.
This loss wasn't on him, it was on the Heat's supporting cast -- outside of Ray Allen (21 points) -- which contributed virtually nothing. It was on the Heat's wretched defense on Danny Green, who is still remarkably open despite hitting 25 3-pointers in the first five games of the Finals.
It was on San Antonio's "teamness," in all its glory, exposing the Heat's increasing lack of connection both on and off the court. The team that won 27 straight games during the regular season just looks tired now. It's the 30-something Spurs who are growing energized by the game.
But when you're LeBron James, every loss is on you in some way. If the Heat lose these Finals, no matter how James plays, history will not treat him kindly. He'll be 1-3 overall in NBA Finals. He will have failed to deliver again on that bold proclamation of winning "not 5, not 6, not 7" titles he made under a disco ball the first day he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh got together in Miami in 2010. His four regular-season MVP awards will continue to mock his lone Finals MVP trophy.
He will seem unworthy still of the place on basketball's Mount Rushmore that should be his destiny.
"That's the narrative, whether it's right or wrong," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "So often we want the cowboy in the white hat and the villain in the black hat and a nice, tidy storyline.
"In sports we try to place LeBron in that narrative, but I think it's off base. … I don't think he'll be fully appreciated until he's away from the game. That's the era we live in. They're always going to find something to nitpick at. Be it right or be it wrong, and he's not without his faults or his warts, like every player, but I don't think he'll be fully appreciated until his days are done."
If things go well for him, James has eight quarters to change this narrative. Eight quarters to shape his legacy, at least until the next time.
It may not be fair. But James understood these terms long ago. He's only recently accepted them.
"He has a level that not many have ever had that's put on an NBA jersey," Wade said. "We've seen the growth in him these last couple of years to become a dominant, dominant player pretty much every night. When he doesn't do it, there's something wrong with him."