The Lakers lead the series 3-2 but LeBron James needs his teammates to step up in Game 6.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The confetti guns came out with 46.7 seconds left, not because anybody thought the Finals was over, but because everybody knew they might be over soon. LeBron James and Jimmy Butler had gone back and forth, one of the great players in history against a guy who expects to beat him, in the best game of the series, one of the best games you could ask to see, and they weren’t done yet.
James would finish Game 5 with 40 points for the Lakers, Butler with 35 for the Heat, and these were the most impressive kind of points, because they were both efficient and hard-earned. Butler also had 12 rebounds and 11 assists and five steals, and he still wasn’t the best player on the floor, because when James plays like this, the only comparable players are retired.
And so here they were, seesawing toward history. The Lakers led 106-105. Butler made two free throws. Anthony Davis scored for the Lakers. Butler made two more free throws. The Lakers had 16.8 seconds to score a bucket and win the Finals, and this is where we get to the heart of the story, and why there will be a Game 6 Sunday night:
“I was able to draw two defenders below the free throw line and find one of our shooters for a wide-open three at the top of the key to win a championship,” James said. “I trusted him. We trusted him. It just didn’t go.”
The shooter was Danny Green. He is battling a hip injury. James is a basketball genius; he made the right play, and he knew it, except that the Heat wanted that play. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, one of the best in the game, said, “At the end of the day, I like those decisions. I mean, we had everybody in the paint. LeBron just had a bunch of those possessions in the fourth quarter where he was just getting to the basket, offensive rebounding, everything at the rim, to the free throw line. So we needed to bring—not only a second defender there, but a third defender.”
Spoelstra coached James for four years. He knew that, no matter the circumstances, no matter what no-nothing critics might say, James would pass out of a triple-team. When teams played Kobe Bryant, they knew he would try to take the last shot. When they play James, they know he will try to make whatever he deems is the best play. He processes everything so quickly and trusts his ability to make that play. The difference this time was that the right play was also what the Heat wanted him to do. Spoelstra was practically begging for the Lakers to take an open three, because he knew that was his team’s best chance.
James and Davis made 24 of 36 shots Friday. The rest of the team shot 14 for 46. James’s final numbers—40 points (on 21 shots), 13 rebounds, seven assists, three steals—were amazing, and yet they don’t capture how much he did for the Lakers. They would have lost by 30 without him.
After the Lakers fell behind 93-82 in the fourth, they had 22 possessions, and James touched the ball on all 22. Not just touched—he either shot or found an open teammate on almost every one. He is an all-time great player. He can’t make his teammates make shots.
Butler carried his team. But James had to carry his teammates. There is a difference.
And look, Butler was phenomenal. He has been everything the Heat dreamed he could be in this postseason, but especially in this series. He is fearless, he played 47 minutes, he was wiped out but refused to leave the game, he hit all 12 of his free throws—he deserves a shower of superlatives. But as he said himself, “It’s not just me, Duncan had a hell of a game, K-Nunn came in and did what K-Nunn did. Bam had a huge one. All of us, all of us was the reason that we won this game, and it’s going to be the same way for the next two.”
Butler was playing so well that the Heat deferred to him; Bam Adebayo said afterward that if Butler keeps playing like that, he will happily be “the biggest cheerleader on the team.” But James did everything for the Lakers because he had no choice. He did not have Duncan Robinson hitting seven threes or Kendrick Nunn coming off the bench for 14 points. He does have Davis, of course, but Davis reaggravated a heel contusion and did not move like he normally does, and at some point, another Laker needs to, you know, hit some shots.
The Heat is not going away. Butler has a weird mixture of bravado and respect—even after one of the best games of his life, he said of James’s performance, “I mean, if you’re the best player in the world, you’re supposed to be able to do that.” Miami is well aware of what it is facing. It just isn’t intimidated.
The Lakers grumbled about officiating after the game, and that’s fine. They can grumble. Coach Frank Vogel referred to “bad calls” and James said of Davis’s last foul on Butler: “I thought AD made a heck of a play at the rim. I thought he was chest to chest with Jimmy.” They might be right. It doesn’t matter, and it won’t help them win Game 5.
The Lakers still lead this series 3-2, they still have their two superstars. But the Lakers need somebody to join the party.
Kyle Kuzma, who is supposed to be their third scorer, had a creatively atrocious game Friday—he missed 7 of 10 shots, committed dumb fouls and complained about them, and didn’t really defend or rebound. Rajon Rondo shot 1 for 7. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 16 empty points—he shot 6 for 15. Keep in mind: A lot of these were good shots, because James commanded so much attention and is such a masterful passer.
This is an ongoing problem for the Lakers. Green has taken some grief lately, but his hip appears to be bothering him—when the lower half of a long-range shooter’s body is injured, it can drastically affect the form. The Lakers are counting on him to be the Danny Green who won titles in San Antonio and Toronto, because the alternatives are not playing well enough.
So there they were, Lakers down one, James driving to the basket. As Vogel said, “he was ready to take on the whole team.” The Heat threw 60 percent of the team at him. James passed to an open shooter, and the shooter missed. It was one play. But it was the whole game, too.
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