DALLAS, TX - JUNE 05: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat sits on the court as court attendants mop up liquid which was spilt onto the court agaisnt the Dallas Mavericks in the second half of Game Three of the 2011 NBA Finals at American Airlines Center on June 5, 2011 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
For nearly a year, LeBron James has shaken off the criticism, laughed off the trash talk.
None of it mattered to James, not as long as the Miami Heat remained on the route to a championship.
But when that pursuit became threatened in part by his own poor play, James couldn't ignore the only critic that matters: himself.
James said Wednesday he "didn't play well" in Game 4, when the Dallas Mavericks edged the Heat 86-83 to even the series at two games apiece after the two-time MVP failed to find ways to make an impact offensively.
"I didn't do that last night," James said. "Those are the things that I pride myself on that hurt me the most. I'll just be hard on myself and figure out a way to do it better the next game."
The Heat arrived about 30 minutes late for their interview session Wednesday after watching extra film of the game, though they could have saved time by just fast-forwarding through James' no-show.
He scored only eight points, held in single digits for the first time in 90 career playoff games, and attempted only 11 shots. James said he criticized himself all night, taking solace that he had at least two more chances to turn things around for himself and his team.
"If it was the Super Bowl, I would be kicking myself in the foot. We have one game. That's it," James said. "The great thing about this, it's a series. No matter if you can have a bad game, you can always make an imprint on the next game. Game 5 is a huge game."
And the way this series is shaping up, probably a close one.
Three straight games have been decided by three points or fewer, the first time that's happened in the championship round since 1948, according to STATS, LLC. The Baltimore Bullets and Philadelphia Warriors played Games 2-4 within a three-point margin during those Basketball Association of America finals, a year before that league merged with the National Basketball League to become the NBA.
And while James has come under increased scrutiny for his passive play, Dirk Nowitzki is cementing his reputation by overcoming injury and illness to rally the Mavs to victories in two of the last three games.
"Really, are there two guys that get more compared to Superman than Dwyane Wade and LeBron James? Think about it," Mavs president Donnie Nelson said. "Then our guy was the superstar that never really was a superstar because he was from Europe, or he was soft, or he couldn't win the big game."
Not anymore. Not after Nowitzki made the go-ahead layup with a left hand that had a torn tendon in his middle finger with 3.6 seconds left in Game 2, and certainly not after fighting through a fever of 101 degrees to score 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4.
He felt better Wednesday morning, saying the fever had broke, though precautions were being made to make sure he didn't get anyone else sick. The microphone Nowitzki used for interviews was immediately replaced -- teammate Tyson Chandler followed him and joked to "burn that mic!" -- but the big German was already planning a workout later in the evening and thinking ahead to Thursday night.
"I think we have to be ready for anything," he said. "I think usually it's the team that loses that looks at the film and says, 'Hey, we have to do this.' Usually the team that loses has more of an edge, makes some adjustments with the coaches."
For the Heat, that means finding ways to make James more aggressive. Wade has been their best player in the series, Chris Bosh was hot right from the start in Game 4, and that left James appearing confused how to contribute as the No. 3 option.
He stayed too long around the perimeter and wasn't active in seeking the ball, content to rely on the help he was so eager to leave Cleveland to find.
"He will be more aggressive and have more of an attack mentality tomorrow night," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "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. I don't want him to necessarily overthink it. The aggressive mentality will be enough. We will do some things to help him, put him in positions to be aggressive."
The Heat largely dominated the first seven quarters of the series, appearing potent enough to sweep their way to a championship. Yet the Mavs have hung in, often controlled the fourth quarters -- James has been held to nine total points in them -- and their bravado seems to be growing.
Reserve guard Jason Terry wondered aloud if James could defend him for seven games. DeShawn Stevenson took things further Wednesday when he said James "checked out" late in Game 4.
The Heat's star power -- and the desire many have to see them lose following James' high-profile move last summer -- already made this a must-see series, and the tightness of the games has taken it a step further. Averaging 15.5 million viewers on ABC, it's drawing the most since 2004, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant's last year together with the Lakers.
Those superstars were humbled by Detroit. Now the Mavs are trying to hand James and Wade the same result.
"So in my opinion, it's interesting because it's kind of `The Little Train That Could,' that hasn't quite done it yet, and then you've got these known commodities, household names," Nelson said. "I think that's what has really brought this to a really cool clash and why it's brought the rest of the country in. It makes for interesting theater."