The Los Angeles Lakers’ star seemingly did anything he wanted when he attacked the rim and shot from deep. Therefore, it only seemed natural that LeBron James would have the ball on the final play.
That play did not end with James taking the final shot, though. Instead, the play ended with James passing to Danny Green before missing an open 3-pointer and Markief Morris throwing an erratic pass that went out of bounds.
Moments later, the Lakers finished with a 111-108 loss to the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the NBA Finals on Friday. Not only did that extend the series to a Game 6 on Sunday. Not only did that deny the Lakers a chance to cement their 17th NBA title and their first in 10 years. And not only did the outcome dampen James’ masterpiece that included 40 points while shooting 15-of-21 from the field and 6-of-9 from 3-point range along with 13 rebounds, seven assists and three steals.
The ending also brought up both an equally tired and unfair criticism pertaining to when James declines to take the final shot even if he remains the team’s best player.
“I've always played the game the same way since I was a kid and I've had success doing it,” James said. “I won't let a play here or a play there change my outlook on the game and how I play the game.”
James caught flak for making a similar play in Game 1 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals between Cleveland and the Detroit Pistons. Then, James drove to the basket with the Cavs trailing by two with 12 seconds left. He met a double team. So he dished the ball to a wide-open Donyell Marshall behind the 3-point line. Marshall missed, but James made the right play because he found the open man.
LeBron James scored 40 points for the Lakers, but it wasn't enough to close out Jimmy Butler and the Heat. (Photo: Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images)
Nearly 13 years and three NBA titles later, James did the same thing. He first received Green’s inbounds pass near halfcourt with the Lakers trailing, 109-108, with 16.3 seconds left. After Green set a screen on Jimmy Butler, James drove to his right. But Butler stayed with James just as Duncan Robinson switched.
James still charged toward the basket, only for Bam Adebayo to greet him while Butler leaped in the air. So while facing a near triple team, James zipped the ball to Green. After bobbling the pass, Green’s shot fell short. Morris grabbed the rebound, but his poor pass to Anthony Davis inside went out of bounds with 2.2 seconds left.
“It's one of the best shots that we could have gotten, I feel, in that fourth quarter, especially down the stretch with two guys on me,” James said. “It just didn't go down. I know he wishes he can have it again. But I wish I could make a better pass.”
Still, James rightfully does not wish he had taken the shot instead because it would have been much harder to make through a triple team. For those who contend that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant would have still taken the shot because they were more dominant scorers who lived for these moments? They sound idiotic because both of those players operated in the NBA Finals the same way James did in Game 5 against Miami.
With the Bulls leading by two with under a minute left in Game 5 of the 1991 NBA Finals against the Lakers, Jordan drove the lane, met a double team and found an open John Paxson to drill what was essentially a game-sealing jumper. Six years later, Jordan did it again. With the Bulls tied with the Utah Jazz with 11 seconds left in Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals, Jordan met a double team and found Steve Kerr to drill the game-winner above the free-throw line to win the series.
Bryant took a similar approach. With the Lakers and Orlando Magic tied in Game 4 of the 2009 NBA Finals with 34.1 seconds left in overtime, Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson double teamed Bryant in the post. So Bryant whipped the ball to Derek Fisher for the go-ahead 3-pointer. In Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics, Bryant navigated a double team and found an open Ron Artest for a 3-pointer that gave the Lakers a six-point lead with a minute remaining.
Therefore, it makes absolutely zero sense to praise Jordan and Bryant with trusting their teammates while criticizing James for trusting his.
“He was ready to take on the whole team,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of James. “He had two guys on him. A third defender came. So with three guys on you, he made the right play. Danny is one of our best shooters, he had a great look, and we live with the results.”
Besides, the Lakers have to live with the results for reasons that have nothing to do with the final play.
Butler remained unstoppable with 35 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists. The Lakers disputed Davis’ foul that rewarded Butler a pair of foul shots that gave the Lakers a 107-106 lead with 46.7 seconds left. Though Davis still had 28 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, three steals and three blocks, he looked hobbled while nursing an aggravated right heel. Morris, Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo combined for 0-of-7 from deep. The Lakers committed 21 fouls, while Dwight Howard inexplicably committed a Flagrant Foul 1 on Butler.
And yes, Green and Morris screwed up on the final play. But don’t blame James for trusting them. Blame Green and Morris for not living up to the moment the way Paxson, Kerr, Fisher and Artest did.
“They’re vets. I don't think too much needs to be said to them,” James said. “I believe they will be much better and I'm not saying they even played bad tonight. Everybody in the lineup tonight that got minutes gave the effort. We just had some mental breakdowns at times.”
One thing is clear: James’ pass on the final play was not a mental breakdown whatsoever. It captured James’ intent to play the right way, which put the Lakers in a position to begin with to cement an NBA title. They will try again in Game 6 on Sunday.
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