How LeBron James’ worst game motivated him to become the greatest


It’s Game 4 of the 2011 NBA Finals, and the Miami Heat are down three to the Dallas Mavericks with 6.7 seconds left in the fourth quarter. James, in his quest for his first NBA championship, has scored only 8 points, looking lost on the floor at times. But now, with one shot, he can tie things up and keep the Mavericks from evening the series — if only he can get free for a look.

Jason Terry won’t let it happen. As Heat forward Mike Miller takes the ball on the inbound, Mario Chalmers sets a screen for James, but Terry fights right through it. Miller pump-fakes in the direction of James, then passes to Dwyane Wade, who fumbles the ball and dives to prevent a backcourt violation. He barely manages to get the ball back to Miller as James watches in the corner. Miller throws up a desperation 3, which misses the rim and lands with a thud. Game over. A defeated James, who shot the ball only once in the fourth quarter, slowly walks to the locker room.

The Heat never recover, losing the final two games. James’ critics grow louder than ever — where was he when his team needed him the most?

His career since that Mavericks series has provided the resounding answer. Eleven seasons and four championships later, he’s quickly approaching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record for the most points scored in league history. The Lakers have struggled since winning a title in 2020, but James has remained dominant.

This is the oral history of James’ worst performance — Game 4 of the 2011 NBA Finals — and how he used it to unlock his greatness.

JAMES BECAME ONE of the most hated players in sports after leaving his home state to take his talents to South Beach and form a superteam with Wade and Bosh in 2010. He was nicknamed “LeFraud” and found himself in uncharted territory for a beloved basketball prodigy.

In the 2011 playoffs, the Heat eliminated the Sixers, Celtics and Bulls, each in five games. Miami then won Game 1 of the Finals at home. James had 24 points, nine rebounds and five assists. But in Game 2, Miami blew a 15-point, fourth-quarter lead. James had only two points in the final period.

The Heat squeaked out a two-point win in Game 3, but James again had just two in the fourth. Miami held a tenuous 2-1 lead in the series.

James [on an episode of “The Shop”]: My first year in Miami … I wanted to prove everybody wrong.

Heat guard Eddie House: LeBron is a great dude. Funny, outgoing, outspoken. He’s a great leader. That first year in Miami, he took on a different persona. It was serious business and everybody hates me, and I want to show them why they shouldn’t hate me. That weighed on him silently. It didn’t look like he was having fun at times. And he always looked like he had fun playing basketball.

Heat assistant coach David Fizdale: That year was so hard on [James] because of “The Decision” [a 75-minute ESPN special that revealed his free agent choice] and all of the backlash that he had received for really just being like any normal human being who controlled the destiny of his career and picked where he wanted to work. He got really torn up about that. The press never let it up. It was a good story, and negative stories always play well.

House: He was even more guarded, at that point, than he had ever been in his life, just because of “The Decision” and all the stuff that people were saying.

In the regular season, Miami’s Big Three — James, Wade and Chris Bosh — scored two-thirds of its points. Dallas was led by future Hall of Famers Dirk Nowitzki, its star, and Jason Kidd, its leading assist man, and future Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler. But the Mavs needed to throw everything they had at James and company, including different lineups cooked up by head coach Rick Carlisle and imaginative defensive schemes spearheaded by assistant Dwane Casey.

Former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry remained a reserve, where he was joined by guard DeShawn Stevenson, who had started the first three games of the series. Stevenson was replaced by a hard-nosed 5-foot-10 guard named J.J. Barea.

Barea: In our shootarounds, there was a lot of talking between Jason Kidd, myself, Jason Terry, Tyson Chandler, [forward] Shawn Marion and Dwane Casey, [Carlisle], [assistant coach] Terry Stotts. There were arguments during shootaround, talking about what we were going to do during the game. Going into Game 4, I remember coach [Carlisle said], “Hey, you’re going to start, and we’re going to put DeShawn Stevenson off the bench.” I said, “OK, I’ll be ready.”

Heat center Joel Anthony: He really gave them a really big spark. And that definitely helped them change the momentum.

Barea: There was going to be some times when I have to guard bigger people like LeBron. It’s tough, but I was pretty good at guarding bigger guys away from the paint. I liked it. I knew they were going to try to bully me.

Marion: That’s part of the postseason, though. That’s part of great coaches, man, you have to make adjustments. … When you look at our roster, we [were] probably the deepest team in the playoffs. That goes a long way. You’re going to go as far as your bench takes you.

In the locker room before the game, Carlisle tasked his squad with overwhelming the Heat as a collective. He’d make sure to use the whole roster to do so. Meanwhile, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra implored his players to simply outwork the Mavs.

The game began with Nowitzki hitting a fadeaway along the right baseline. Then another fading jumper along the left baseline. Then a jumper from the right wing. The Heat, on the other hand, didn’t score until more than two minutes passed. James scored his first four points in the opening period on a tip-in and two free throws. The first quarter ended with a 21-21 tie, but Nowitzki’s Mavericks set the tone for the rest of the game.

Mavericks swingman Corey Brewer: I’m not going to say [Game 4] was like Game 7, but focus was definitely really up there. Really high-focus game. We have veteran guys. They knew what it took to win.

House: When you break it down, in every playoff series, the guys that are the guys need to be the guys — and you get what you get from the role players — and our guys were hit and miss at times [throughout the series]. [The Mavericks’] guys were hitting.

Heat guard Mike Bibby: Dirk’s confidence [was]: “I don’t think anybody could stop me on that team.” I think that’s what his mentality was like.

Brewer: Dirk let his game do the talking.

Nowitzki [in a news conference following Game 4]: This is the Finals. You’re going to leave it out there.

The Heat’s offense was disjointed in the second quarter. During a 9-0 Dallas run midway through the period, Miami had four straight turnovers caused by confusion and clutter: an offensive foul drawn by Kidd on James, a shot clock violation, an errant pass that evaded a cutting James and a stolen bounce pass intended for James, who was the roll man in a pick-and-roll with Chalmers.

James’ only shot in the second, a running heave that slammed off the backboard, came as the halftime buzzer sounded. The Heat led 47-45 at halftime.

Fizdale: The first big down the floor for us always ran to the strong-side post. And if LeBron has the ball, you don’t want Joel Anthony standing in the strong-side post as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade [are] bringing the ball up the court. All these guys who are really brilliant basketball minds are using our system against us to help guard him, clog up the paint and just keep people in front of them.

James [in a news conference following Game 4]: I got the ball in the post a few times, and I [saw] double-teams. I tried to kick it out to guys and [who have] made shots for us. At the same time, I can’t let that stop my aggression when they bring two on the ball. I still got to make plays for my team but also make plays for myself to keep me in the rhythm of the game.

Marion: We took them out of the things they normally do.

Brewer: Jason Kidd was freaking amazing defensively [in the series]. He was picking up 94 feet.

Fizdale: And we were killing … the process of LeBron just being great and giving him the space to go.

But the Heat did have Wade, who made all five of his shots in third. Meanwhile, James had his best all-around quarter of the game, collecting four points, four rebounds and three assists. With just over a minute left in the quarter, he muscled Terry near the free throw line and made a 15-foot jumper over him. It was decisive and defiant. They also were his last points of the game.

The Heat went on an 8-1 run to end the third quarter and entered the fourth with a 69-65 lead, but James — who was just 3-of-10 from the field to that point — was still riding shotgun.

Bibby: D-Wade [was the go-to guy] that game.

Wade [in a news conference following Game 4]: My teammates and my team count on me to be more than one-dimensional. So obviously I’m in an offensive rhythm.

James [in the same news conference]: I’m confident with my ability. It’s about going out there and knocking [open shots] down.

Fizdale: I don’t care what people say, a jumper just is not going to consistently fall if you’re not getting some free throws [James and Wade combined to attempt 13 free throws in the game; James attempted just four of those]. We weren’t getting the easy ones.

Bibby: I’ve never been in that situation to where it’s like, “We’re both superstars, it’s not my night tonight, you got it. Go do what you do. Take us home.” I think LeBron was saying [to Wade], “OK, you got to go get it.”

Heat center Zydrunas Ilgauskas: The whole season, when we ran into trouble, we didn’t know where to go, who to go to. Because Chris, Dwyane and LeBron were the main guys coming in. So, it was kind of, “Is it your day? Is it my day?”

Nowitzki [in a news conference the day after Game 4]: Whoever has the ball [in Miami’s Big Three], the other two can’t have the ball.

Wade [in the same news conference]: Obviously, when you have players playing well, playing aggressively, like I’ve been playing and Chris played, you kind of get passive. That’s what LeBron kind of got [in Game 4]. That’s kinda how I got in the Chicago series. … When [LeBron has the ball], we want him to take advantage of his opportunities.

James [in the same news conference]: Me just being more assertive, that’s what it’s about.

But James spent much of the last 12 minutes of the game in neutral — standing passively in the corner or swinging the ball around the perimeter.

A little more than three minutes into the fourth, the Mavericks subbed out Barea in favor of Kidd, who joined Nowitzki, Stevenson, Terry and Chandler. Carlisle and Casey then used both zone and man defenses. Against those looks, James missed the only shot he took in the period, a contested jumper over Stevenson with 2:25 left.

Barea: We put [Kidd] on LeBron sometimes, And every time he went for a layup, he had Tyson Chandler there waiting for him. We started switching it up on everything. We went from zone to man to pressing a little bit sometimes [throughout the series]. With the second unit — me and [Terry] were small — coach gave us a lot of freedom the whole year to change it up, and we did.

Anthony: It wasn’t something that we had dealt with heavily during the season, in terms of having a smoothness to [zone] offense. We weren’t able to do that as well as we would’ve wanted to.

Casey: We knew that guarding LeBron and Wade one-on-one was an impossible feat. We had to do something to counteract their athletic ability.

Anthony: A lot of what we were doing, because we were a great defensive team, we were able to do with [defense] first and then generate offense. When that momentum [defense creating offense in transition] slowed down, which would happen in the playoffs, and especially in the fourth quarter when the game slows down more, things just weren’t as smooth.

Casey: Against great athletes, you can’t give them rhythm. You have to make them play in crowded spaces. If the Heat were going to beat us, it was going to be from the outside. We played zone mainly in Game 4 and Game 5. But Game 4 gave us more confidence to run it in Game 5. The zone kept them off balance and made them slow down and think.

Anthony: In basketball, once you start thinking about things, you’re kind of done. … It wasn’t like [James] was just missing shots [in Game 4]. He was also not having the same aggressiveness that we’re used to.

House: [For James, it was] almost like, “I’m here, but I’m not. My mind is on something else” — almost like a blank stare at times. Plenty of guys went up to him, “Hey, we need you. Come on, let’s go. Let’s go.” At times, it was falling on deaf ears because everybody’s coming and telling you the same thing. It probably just made him a little bit more numb to whatever the situation was that he was dealing with inside, mentally.

James [in a news conference the day after Game 4]: You start aiming shots. You start thinking about plays too much. You start thinking about the game too much and, instead of going out and reading and reacting and playing the game.

Ilgauskas: Looking back, we all wish LeBron was more aggressive in that series, but it’s hard to get into somebody else’s skin. I always told him that I would never consider any of his shots bad shots.

Fizdale: We were still trying to play like the old Heat when we just had Dwyane, [when] he was our star and that was it. We weren’t ready to deviate from what we have been doing all year long.

The game’s final 14.4 seconds put that failure on full display.

After Wade missed a potential tying free throw and Nowitzki made a layup, the Heat had two possessions down by three. James was a spectator in the right corner for both. On the first, Dallas conceded a dunk to Wade (the Heat’s only field goal in the last seven minutes); Mike Miller’s airball ended the second — and the game, 86-83 in favor of Dallas. The series was tied at 2. Both plays were run for Wade.

The question on everyone’s minds: What happened to LeBron James in Game 4? James, through a representative, declined to be interviewed for this story.

James [on “The Shop”]: [In the series], I literally lost myself in the moment.

Anthony: [James has] never been in that situation [that he faced in 2010-11], probably since middle school. That’s a huge change, to go from your entire basketball life being that main option, and then having a situation where you’re still the main option but, right now, the ball is in someone else’s hands. That would be tough for any player, it doesn’t matter how good they are, to be able to deal with and to be able to figure out how to play off of that, how to be efficient off of that.

Fizdale: At the time we were all together, for sure [it was James’ worst game]. If you look statistically, for sure. That [game] probably sticks with him the most, sticks with all of us the most. It probably still burns in him now, and he would want that game back a million times over.

Barea: When we tied [the series], that gave us confidence that, “Hey, we could really do this.” And he really thought, “Oh, maybe this is going to be tougher than I thought to win. Maybe we could lose.” I think that’s when the pressure really got to him.

Bibby: Everybody [on the team] was saying, “We could get the next game. We know we can beat them here. We’ve done it.” And our star player is in single digits, and we lose by three? That’s not going to happen again. That’s the mindset we had going into Game 5.

Bosh [from a news conference the day after Game 4]: It’s not [James’] first bad game in his career. He knows how to put it behind him and move on. We’ve seen what he’s done after a bad game in the last series [after 15 points on 5-of-15 shooting in a Game 1 Eastern Conference finals loss to the Bulls, James had 29 on 12-of-21 shooting in a Game 2 win]. He’s been there before. We’ve all been here before. We just have to keep trusting ourselves and trusting each other.

Spoelstra [in the same news conference]: He doesn’t need to overthink it. He’s a great player. He’s a proven player. He knows how to be aggressive and how to pick his spots. The aggressive mentality will be enough. We will do some things to help him, put him in positions to be aggressive.

Barea: When we won [Game 4], that’s when everything started to change. [James’] confidence went away, especially on offense. That’s when I really knew we had a chance.

Before Game 5, which James called the biggest moment of his career thanks to his Game 4 struggles, a video surfaced that showed James and Wade coughing as they walked through the tunnels inside the American Airlines Center in Dallas. Many perceived this as mocking Nowitzki, who played Game 4 with a fever.

At the time, James and Wade deflected questions about their intentions. In 2021, Wade claimed it was more of a dig toward the media than Nowitzki but admitted he doesn’t like watching it and would tell his son to avoid making the same mistake. Last year, Nowitzki denied seeing the video until after Game 5, but his teammates say the video helped seal the Mavericks’ championship fate.

Barea: Making fun of Dirk for being sick, that really gave us a little bit more energy. We didn’t even need more. We made sure [Nowitzki] watched that video, though.

Brewer: I remember Dirk was like, “All right, whatever. I’ll show them.”

Mavericks forward Caron Butler [in an interview on Bally Sports Southwest]: When [Dirk] got wind of people thinking he wasn’t built for the moment, he was just dialed in to a whole new level. It immediately shifted to, and I say this with the utmost confidence, that we was going to have a parade in Dallas.

Nowitzki scored 29 points in Game 5 and had 21 points and 11 rebounds in Game 6. The Heat were outscored by a combined 35 points when James was on the floor in those two games. Nowitzki captured the Finals MVP for the Mavericks, who won the series 4-2 en route to their first NBA title.

Three days after the series, ESPN published a piece titled: “Does LeBron James need a sports psychologist?” James then disappeared into the offseason and wouldn’t return to the court for a meaningful game for more than six months because of a lockout.

James [on “The Shop”]: We lost because I wasn’t even there. … I wasn’t even present.

Fizdale: I know he cried a lot. I know he spent a lot of days alone in the dark, really having to face himself. I know that because that lockout didn’t give you a choice, right? He was really in his own little bubble. It really forced him to take a hard look at his ego. When you suffer at monumental levels like that, especially at the thing you identify with and your craft, I think it was a huge blow. I think it was really the final blow to really tear through all of the BS that our brain clouds us with, this whole thing, “Who we are, what we are.”

James [in a 2019 interview with ESPN’s Dave McMenamin]: The level of scrutiny that I was dealing with, and how I got out of my comfort zone, I lost my love for the game. I knew that was the mental side.

House: That [series] is something that he could directly look at and reflect on and say, “I no longer ever am going to have an opportunity and let my team down, let myself down. I’m not going out like that no more,” and he hasn’t since. That motivated the hell out of him.

Anthony: D-Wade told him, “Look, this is your team, your show. We go as far as you will take us.” There was that change where there wasn’t that hesitancy anymore. He knew what he wanted to do.

Fizdale: That time [after the 2011 Finals loss], whatever he was doing, I just saw a different guy come back into the gym. And it was really beautiful to watch his evolution.

On Christmas Day 2011, in a season-opening rematch with the Mavs, James collected 37 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in Miami’s 11-point win.

Redemption, though, would have to come in the postseason. When the 2012 playoffs arrived, James tuned out the noise by reading books instead of consuming media — both traditional and social.

Then came perhaps his best game ever: a 45-point, 15-rebound demolition in a Game 6 road win over the Celtics, who were leading the 2012 Eastern Conference finals 3-2. It was one year to the day from Game 4 of the 2011 Finals. James’ Heat won Game 7, too. They went on to win an NBA title, the first of James’ car1eer.

Fizdale: It was one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen on a basketball court. And I do think a lot of it had to do with what happened in Dallas.

Anthony: For us to fully get there where we’re a really well-run machine, sometimes it takes those losses to get those final tweaks out.

Fizdale: [Losing the 2011 Finals] caused [Spoelstra] to assess our system so that it fit LeBron instead of trying to fit LeBron into what we were doing. Our system came together that next year, and monumental numbers [for James] came out of it.

House: You can’t hit [Michael] Jordan status until you win a championship.

In 2012-13, James set career highs with 56.5% shooting from the field, including 40.6% from 3. Miami went on a 27-game winning streak and won its second straight title. James won the regular-season and Finals MVPs for the second year in a row. James and Wade became one of the best duos of all time, their success drawing a blueprint for future superstar unions. And James is at least in the conversation — avert your eyes, MJ loyalists — as the best player ever.

Brewer: LeBron is always chasing greatness. So when he has a game like that — and when he loses in the Finals — of course he’s going to go to the drawing board and just get better at his craft. And as we’ve seen, he definitely got better. I think it was motivation for him.

James [tweeted about Game 4 on May 17, 2022]: I hit the reset button, went back to the basics, worked on things in my game I needed to get better at so the defense couldn’t just sit on one thing. Hours and hours and hours every day in the offseason on it.

Marion: I think he started to try to make a conscious effort to just seal guys under the basket more. He did add some more stuff to his game. He’s one of those guys that, with his ability to get to the rim the way he does, is truly special because he’s been able to do it for 20 years.

Casey: He’s a computer on the floor. When you play against LeBron, it’s a chess match. That series made him see the game and think the game. … Matter of fact, that’s why I’m [the head coach in] Detroit right now. I spent three years [losing to James’ Cavaliers in the playoffs] in Toronto. Some of the same ideas I had in Dallas, we used in Toronto. But they didn’t work.

Fizdale: He was no longer playing with the worry of what people thought of him [or] what if I don’t win this thing.

Bibby: Everybody talks bad about him still, and he [will pass] Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] in scoring in NBA history. He’s strong-minded enough to where he blocks all that outside noise out. I think he learned for the next time, “I’m not going to let that happen again.”

James [in the 2019 interview with ESPN]: To be able to be in a packed arena on the road, with 20,000, 22,000 screaming fans going crazy, to be able to find a moment — two minutes, one minute, 30 seconds, whatever — to be able to close my eyes, to be able to relax myself, calm myself. It’s like meditation, basically. It has worked tremendously for me in my career.

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