There were four Heat players defending LeBron James when he drove toward the basket and reached the right block with 10 seconds left and the Lakers down a point in Game 5 of the 2020 NBA Finals:
1. Jae Crowder digging from his right.
2. Duncan Robinson directly on his hip.
3. Jimmy Butler trailing and preparing to challenge his shot
4. Bam Adebayo surging across the lane.
There were four Lakers players left unguarded. They were not just open; that’s too casual a description. They were alone, isolated, devoid of attention. James was aware of this, because awareness is what he does better than nearly anyone who ever has played the game. Thus did the man who has 9,436 career assists and 1,861 more in playoff games choose to pass the basketball.
It did not work. Danny Green could have grilled a ribeye in the time he had to shoot after James found him at the top of the key with an overhand pass. Green bounced the ball once and let fly a 3-pointer, but he did not get enough on the shot and it missed. And the Lakers, losers in this one by a 111-108 final, will need to use the second of their three shots to close out the Heat.
If this were any other player, he merely might have been asked to explain the decision, what he saw on the play.
This, however, was LeBron.
And so we are treated to this sort of inanity:
“Yes Danny Green was open but I don’t care what no one says … Bron needed to shoot that shot. PERIOD.”
Were this a text or a tweet, right here is where I would insert the facepalm emoji. This is a column, though, so instead I will present a short history lesson.
When the Chicago Bulls won their third championship of the 1990s, the great Michael Jordan advanced the ball with 12 seconds left and his team trailing by two in Game 6. He did not choose to attempt to win the game regardless of what the defense presented. He didn’t even dribble as far as the halfcourt line.
Jordan passed to superstar Scottie Pippen above the top of the key; Pippen then drove the right side of the lane. He did not shoot, either, instead dumping the ball to the team’s third-leading scorer, Horace Grant. And he passed, as well, to shooter John Paxson, who was every bit as open as Green was Friday night. Paxson, though, made a 3-pointer and forever will be known as an NBA Finals hero.
When the Bulls won their fifth title, they were tied with 28 seconds left in Game 6 against the Jazz. In a timeout huddle before Chicago’s final possession, Steve Kerr promised Jordan, “If he comes off, I’ll be ready.” With two defenders challenging him but playing softly to avoid fouling, Jordan could have forced a shot but instead found Kerr standing alone inside the foul circle. His catch-and-shoot jumper won the game.
The greatest players do not become the greatest players by attempting to demonstrate they are, above all, heroes. They become the greatest by routinely proving they are, above all, players.
“I’ve always played the game the same way, since I was a kid,” James told reporters as Friday turned to Saturday. “And I’ve had success doing it. I won’t let a play here or a play there change my outlook on the game or how I play the game.”
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Green has not been quite as accurate shooting the ball in these playoffs as in previous years, but including him on the final possession was not merely a wish by coach Frank Vogel. Green has produced nine consecutive seasons of 100 or more 3-pointers and ranks 52nd all time in made 3s. He is a career 40 percent shooter, which ranks 47th in NBA history. In the playoffs, he was 36 of 107 — 33.6 percent — and 2 of 4 in Game 5 when James’ pass arrived at his right hand.
Heat star Jimmy Butler understood what that meant. “Definitely, it was a little bit of luck that Danny Green missed that shot at the top of the key,” he told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols.
James finished the game with 40 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. He scored seven points in the final three minutes, including two essential free throws and a muscular 3-point play, as the teams traded baskets and the lead in what became an extraordinary game. If James had finished with eight assists, his work would be done, and the Lakers still would be celebrating.
If he’d tried to make it about himself instead of winning, Butler was in position to swat any shot attempt all the way to Space Mountain. James knew that. It’s what he does.
“If you just look at the play, I was able to draw two defenders below the free throw line and find one of our shooters at the top of the key for a wide-open 3 to win a championship,” James said. “I trusted him. We trusted him. It didn’t go. You live with that.”
Friday night, the Lakers didn’t win with it. That does not mean it wasn’t the winning play.
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