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LeBron's not quite ready to be the King

WashPost: With his team's season basically on the line, LeBron James froze while driving the lane and inexplicably passed to Anderson Varejao, who threw up a hideous shot in one of the most hideous NBA Finals games you'll ever witness.
NBA Finals Game 3: San Antonio Spurs v Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James missed a chance to lift his Cavs to victory in Game 3.Gregory Shamus / Getty Images
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

And in the Third Game, he passed.

LeBron James knows the NBA. Its all-time great players, its long and storied history. He knows no team has ever recovered from a 3-0 deficit in a seven-game series, which is why with less than 15 seconds left here on Tuesday he needed to be The Guy. Down two points and with no other role players of consequence to help him out, he needed to put his head down and, whatever it took, get to the rim or the free throw line — whatever came first.

It's an old basketball axiom: Get the ball to your best player in the final seconds and let him find a way to prolong the game or win it.

With his team's season basically on the line, James froze while driving the lane and inexplicably passed to Anderson Varejao, who threw up a hideous shot in one of the most hideous NBA Finals games you'll ever witness.

South Texas Dynasty 3, LeBron and This Crestfallen Midwestern City 0.

Before we unfairly put it all on a 22-year-old who shocked the hoop world to even get his team this far, we have this to say:

Take heart, kid. You're not alone.

LeBron and his followers shouldn't feel that bad after the Spurs outlasted the Cavs here in a slug of a contest.

After all, Shaquille O'Neal was swept from the Finals in his first try. Magic Johnson's Lakers were swept twice in the Finals, once by an overdue Julius Erving-led Philadelphia team in 1983 and again in 1989, when Magic and Byron Scott were injured. Isiah Thomas lost in his inaugural trip before winning twice. Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets were dumped by Larry Bird in 1986 and came back to win two straight in the next decade. Unless you're Michael Jordan, losing on basketball's biggest stage is almost a rite of passage to winning it all one day.

Now, whether the Cavs can take solace in that or not, LeBron still needed to have the ball in his hands and decide the game when it was very winnable.

When this series ends Thursday, or Sunday at the latest, there are indeed moments LeBron will want back when he watches the film. At the end of the first quarter, he got the ball on the right baseline, about 10 feet from the basket. He basically had Bruce Bowen on the blocks and hesitated, rather than backing a defender down who is two inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than he is. Until the double-team finally came and LeBron gave it to the limited Varejao, who has heart but cannot be counted on to bail his team out in the final minutes.

Three games in, Bowen has just discombobulated James. LeBron really doesn't know what to do when Bowen is facing him up. He showed a little life late in Game 3, but with three minutes left when he absolutely should have been going to the rim every time down, LeBron pulled up for a 3-pointer that rimmed out. In fact, if there was an MVP of Game 3 it would have to go to the 36-year-old veteran who became a father for a second time over the weekend.

Tim Duncan (6 of 17 from the field) and LeBron (9 of 23 and 0 of 5 from 3-point range) were both mired in some weird offensive funk for most of the night. Tony Parker came back to earth after two MVP-caliber games, though he did nail a huge 3-pointer with a minute left. And Manu Ginobili was unable to do much more than chip paint off the rim. His only contribution offensively came with three free throws in the finals seconds.

So Game 3 of the NBA finals came down to what role player wanted to seize it — what non-star would remember what it was like to be a great scorer.

In what should go down as The Game No One Wanted to Win, before the final minutes Bowen at least seemed to be interested in his profession Tuesday night.

The defensive stopper who has been in LeBron's grill for more than 100 minutes in five days, the guy who has just taken whatever magic LeBron had going into these Finals and exposed Cleveland's most valuable commodity for being a player who needs to work on his jumper, has now put the Spurs one game away from their fourth title in nine years.

He had 13 points and, when no other Spur seemed to be able to make a shot, connected on 4 of 5 3-pointers he took.

The NBA might have bigger problems than LeBron putting on some kind of memorable show in these NBA Finals. For example, a competitive series worth watching.

Ratings for Game 1 were down 19 percent from last season, which, given the star power of Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade, Pat Riley and Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks, is not a crime. But Game 2 was down 30 percent from last year. Less than 9 million of 111 million households who have ABC watched Game 2. HBO is available in about 30 million homes, 12 million of whose sets were tuned to the "The Sopranos" finale. And it's not all a certain mob boss's fault, either.

The third quarter of Game 3 was one of the worst exhibitions of basketball from both teams in modern Finals history. Blown layups, no-look turnovers, lackluster play by the stars and so many missed, wide-open shots. They had combined for 18 points with three minutes left in the third.

This town was ready to lift the roof off The "Q" when the game began, expecting another one of those turbo, fuel-injected runs that put the Pistons away when the Cavs last left this building for a triumphant Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. But the magic of Boobie and Bron-Bron had long since faded away, pushed aside by the flailing arms and laterally-quick feet of the Spurs. Bowen and his team had uglied the Finals up just to their liking.

With nine minutes left, it was 60-52 and longtime NBA observers were wondering when they had seen a game this bad. The Jazz once put up a 56-point debacle against the Bulls in 1998, and the Knicks in 1999 were god-awful against the Spurs a couple of nights. In 2003, the Nets beat the Spurs 77-76 in Game 4. It took almost four quarters for any real drama to unfold.

And in the crucible, the exact moment when a 22-year-old from nearby Akron needed to backpack his team to one more win for survival's sake, he gave it up.

Again: Take heart, kid. This is a Finals lesson, and some of the very best players in the game know what it's like to be on the precipice of a sweep.