Before it was renovated last year, my high school had a murial in the center of a large brick wall that read a quote from the school’s namesake,  Benjamin E. Mays. It read, “He who starts behind in the great race of life must forever remain behind or run faster than the man in front.” This is a saying I walked by everyday for almost three years of high school. It stuck with me—and it applies perfectly to the Dallas Mavericks.

Dirk never gave up his old shooting coach. He never gave up on winning a title in Dallas, despite the free agent departures he never considered joining a super team and he hasn’t given up in a fourth quarter comeback to date. After 13 seasons, Dirk finally has a nickname that sticks—NoQUITzki. The Mavericks have had six 4th quarter comebacks in the 2011 playoffs. When they shocked the Lakers in Games 1 and 3, it was chalked up to L.A.’s fatigue. When they stormed back on the Thunder, youth was blamed. It’s time to face the facts, comebacks are in the DNA of this team.

After the letdown of Game 3, I had not given up on Dallas, but I was down on them. It seemed improbable that a team which had so much going against it and played from behind for so long could win three more games, including one more in Miami. They’ve played with a NASCAR philosophy by drafting behind Miami for most of the series. In NASCAR drafting is used to reduce wind resistance by riding behind the lead driver. Dallas has used it to pace themselves with Miami until the fourth quarter.

Miami’s style has dictated the series. Dallas churned out 99 points a game in the first three rounds. In the Finals they’ve grinded out only 87 points per game. Miami is dominating the scoring in the paint. When Doris Burke reported Dirk’s fever, it appeared nothing would go in Dallas’ favor. This isn’t the same team which went 2-0 against Miami during the regular season. Brendan Haywood may be done for the series and Caron Butler probably won’t play. These situations never turn out well for the trailing team. Fortunately, for Dallas they didn’t count on Lebron’s disappearance.

About a month ago, South Park aired an episode mocking the British Royal Wedding. The episode’s plot revolved around the kidnapping of a fictional Canadian Princess at her wedding. For weeks, all people of Canadian descent searched for her. Hopefully by now, you can see where I’m going with this.

Like South Park’s Canadian Princess, King James appeared ready to ascend to the peak of the NBA mountain. A ring was all that stood between Lebron and his throne. However, through four games, King James is averaging a Tayshaun Prince-like 17 points per game. His misses have been all the difference in a series of nailbiters.

If you happen to come across Lebron Raymone James, please contact the proper authorites at 1-800-MIAMI-HEAT. He was last seen wearing a white home jersey with “Miami Heat” printed on the front and “James” on the back. He is seen wearing the #6 but may have reverted to his #23 jersey. Please approach with caution as he is known to react erratically under pressure. 

Lebron James’ Game 4 performance was preempted by this confrontation but poignant confrontation with CBS columnist Gregg Doyel during Game 3’s post-game press conference.  The question was as direct as they come and Lebron deftly handled the first half of his response. The second half of his response was Game 4. Obviously, Doyel’s question and the pressure that followed had some effect on Lebron.

 

Doyel: LeBron, um, three games in a row – not much. That’s the moment superstars become superstars, seems like you’re almost shrinking from it. What’s going on?

James: Um, I think that you’re concentrating on one side of the floor, and, you know, all you’re looking at is the stat sheet. Honestly, I’m a two-way player, um tonight, in instance, D-Wade had it going offensively, um, so we allowed him to handle the ball. We allowed him to bring us home offensively. Um, you should watch the film again and see what I did defensively, and you ask me a better question tomorrow.

After Lebron’s repeat Invisible Man imitation in Game 4, Gregg Doyell’s “shrinking” question deserves to become the most remembered media question since Doug Williams was asked how long he had been a black quarterback during Super Bowl XXII’s Media Day. While Dwyane Wade had Mark Jackson declaring him the third best shooting guard to ever play the game of basketball—and Jeff Van Gundy’s rare agreement—Lebron James poured in 8 points. Judging from Lebron’s versatility, if I told you he had eight points in an NBA Finals Game it would usually be assumed he eclipsed Scott Skiles’ record of 30 assists. Not tonight. James’ complete contributions were only 8 points on 3/11 shooting, 9 rebounds and 7 assists. Wade finished with 32, Bosh with 21.

Lebron hasn’t been the only thing shrinking. He went from being defended by 6’8 Shawn Marion to 6’4 Jason Kidd. So have his numbers. His scoring output from Game 1 to Game 5 has progressively declined from 24, 20, 17, and 8. Lebron is a bad performance away from becoming an SAT question or becoming the first NBA player to score under par(-1)

Lebron is coming off pick and rolls and jacking up 3’s or giving the ball up immediately without setting up teammates. Only one of his baskets was something besides a dunk. The theory was bandied about that Lebron deferred because of his shooting woes. In my pre-Finals prediction, I was sure the zone would turn Lebron into an inconsistent shooter. Superstars persevere though. Kobe Bryant finished 6 for 24 in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals last season but closed the deal in the final five minutes. Lebron fell through a trap door midway through the first quarter and never returned.

Deferring has always been in Lebron’s DNA. Remember the uproar surrounding this pass from 2007? However, it does not explain the missed layup or his trip to the free throw line where he clanked both free throws. The negatives are piling up. The referees have begun whistling Lebron for shuffling his feet and the assortment of creative new ways he finds to travel with the ball. Lebron was so flustered, he drove down the court with a head of steam and charged right over Jason Kidd at a crucial point of the game. Lebron couldn’t even back up his claim to Gregg Doyel  as a defensive stopper after Jason Terry ran through him like Casper the Friendly Ghost.

After Game 3, Dirk openly told the media that Jason Terry had not been clutch.  In response, Terry shouted from a hilltop that Lebron couldn’t defend him for seven games. In Game 4, Terry put up 17, including 8 fourth quarter points. Does anybody even remember when Lebron wanted to defend Dirk?

In one series, James has gone from being discussed in the context of Michael Jordan’s shadow to “shrinking” beneath Dwyane Wade’s. At this point, he may just be Scottie Pippen’s equal which would explain Pippen’s pre-Finals comments. Maybe it was something in the glint of Lebron’s eyes he saw in himself—a second fiddle. Perhaps Lebron is more Lance Bass than Justin Timberlake.

Ironically, the German power forward who came into the league with Lance Bass’ haircut has been the leader of the Mavericks band. Lebron will be under the hot seat but it was Dirk Nowitzki, who played a gutsy game with an 103 degree temperature. If ESPN.com’s Trade Machine allowed players to trade legacies, Lebron wouldn’t have enough trade value for Dirk Nowizki at this point. Nowitzki has outscored Lebron 44 to 9 in the fourth quarter of this series. Nowitzki’s 10 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4 outscored Lebron’s game total.

Lebron will have time to save his legacy just as Dirk transformed his image after Dallas’ epic collapse as a #1 seed against #8 Golden State in 2007.(Ironically that season, Lebron met San Antonio in the Finals. This year, the Spurs fell to an 8th seed as Dallas plays in the Finals against Lebron.) However, he’s running out of time to save this series. The narrative about these Finals will will always revolve around Miami. Nowitzki and the Mavs are only trying to ruin the frame and ruin the Heat’s coronation. Thus far it’s working.

Jason Terry’s O’Brien Trophy gets all the pub but I noticed a tattoo on 7 footer Tyson Chandler’s right arm last night that read, “Only The Strong Survive”. In Game 5, we will see if Lebron is stronger than the 6’8 250 pound superstar who has disappeared thus far. It’s common knowledge among law enforcement that in a missing person’s case, the first 48 hours is most important. We’ll find out if that was enough time between Games 4 and 5 for Lebron to find himself.