MIAMI – Two games in, LeBron James has led the Miami Heat in points, in rebounds and in assists both nights. He has done that 22 times in his postseason career, leading his team outright in all three categories, the most by any player in NBA history. Larry Bird is next — with 13.
James scored 10 points in the fourth quarter of Game 2 of Miami’s Eastern Conference semifinal series against Indiana and is averaging 8.6 points in the final period of the Heat’s seven playoff games this spring. He played all 24 minutes of the second half and just shy of 43 minutes in the game. He led all scorers with 28 points, outscoring the man guarding him, Indiana’s Danny Granger, by 17. He earned his way to the foul line like no one else Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena, taking more free throws (13) and making more (8).
He did it again. Or rather, didn’t do it.
James missed two free throws with 54.3 seconds left. Two free throws that could have put the Heat up 77-76 and shifted pressure onto the Pacers, who had led by as much as nine points earlier in the quarter.
James missed those free throws one possession after Indiana’s Paul George missed two, himself. But no one will talk about, dissect or maybe even remember George’s because of who he is. And almost everyone will do the above – and worse – to James’ because of who he is.
Mr. Fourth-Quarter, Playoff Game Choker. That’s the rep, anyway.
It’s unfair — that’s my view — but it sure makes for good sport. Never mind the games where James doesn’t choke down the stretch. Forget all James does over the first 36 or 42 minutes to put his team in position to even come up short in a close game. Overlook the failings of teammates, such as Dwyane Wade — who missed his final four shots Tuesday, including a layup to tie with 16.8 seconds left.
But no, it came down to James clanging at crunch time.
“Well, you go practice them and you go to the free-throw line and shoot them just the way you practice,” he said, going second-person when asked about them after Game 2. “You hope for them to go in. Those last two didn’t go for me. The game isn’t lost or won with those two free throws but I definitely want to come through for my teammates. But I’ll get another opportunity. I know I’ll be at line again in that situation.”
That makes it sound far more anecdotal than some big ominous incapability. And an ESPN.com breakdown of James’ play earlier this month revealed a player whose performance actually went up late in games in 2011-12. The stats study showed James, who led the NBA with a 30.8 PER rating, actually boosted that to efficiency measure to 33.1 in fourth quarters. The Clippers’ Chris Paul (38.7) was the only player in the league who was better over the final 12 minutes.
Granted, thriving in fourth quarters from December through April isn’t the same as doing it in the closing minutes of tight postseason games.
There is one possible explanation for James’ struggles late in playoff games. Think about it: They come at the end of a long season and, if a game is close, those crucial moments of success or failure come near the end of a long night. One reason that seemed to emerge for James’ strong play late in games this season was a Miami rotation that had the MVP getting more rest in the second half, keeping him fresh for those hero opportunities.
So what did we see in Game 2 against Indiana? James played the entire second half. And when it came to the foul line in the fourth, he made 2-of-2 early in the period, went 1-of-2 at 5:33 and 4:30, then maybe was short on oomph on the two he missed in the final minute.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra sure made it sound like fatigue was to blame rather than choking. “He’ll never make an excuse,” Spoelstra said. “I wish I could have gotten him a minute or two [of rest] in the fourth quarter but because of the hole we dug there was no way to do it.”
So which is it: Tight or tired? Gagged or gassed? Discuss.