LOS ANGELES — Anyone that has paid attention to LeBron James‘ career — whether he was dishing to Donyell Marshall when he was with the Cleveland Cavaliers, or Udonis Haslem when he was with the Miami Heat — should not have been surprised Sunday when, with less than 20 seconds left and the Los Angeles Lakers down by two, James passed it to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for an open 3-pointer to try to win it.
“I always got a chance at a shot,” James said of his positioning — two feet in the paint with seemingly an angle to sneak a layup by Nikola Vucevic — when he chose to kick it out to Caldwell-Pope.
“That’s not even a question, but you attract so many eyes on defense, you know, I had a good shot but he had a great shot,” James said. “And you live with the results.”
The results, of course, were a miss by his less-talented teammate and a 108-104 loss for the Lakers, their second to the middling Orlando Magic in little more than a week.
This is how James approaches the game. This shouldn’t be a newsflash. To him, a player taking a good shot (no matter how great he is) isn’t as valuable as any player (no matter what his ability is) taking a great shot.
It did not matter that Caldwell-Pope was 1-for-5 in the game at the time — including a missed 3 from nearly the same spot on the court just about a minute earlier.
The “Is He More Michael or Magic?” debate is tired at this point. James will execute how he sees fit. And so, similarly, those taking issue with James taking a potential go-ahead 3 of his own on a step-back move prior to that Caldwell-Pope possession — wishing he would have put the ball on the floor against Aaron Gordon, who was saddled with five fouls and guarding him on the perimeter — there’s no video game controller that will allow fans to make James do what they want.
End-of-game situations are, by their nature, consequential. It is understandable that they are scrutinized and picked apart more than other sequences in the game. And seeing James buck his recent trend of struggling with clutch free throws when he went 2-for-2 from the line to tie it 104-104 with 2:24 remaining only served to make the Lakers going scoreless from there that much more disappointing. That’s understandable too.
But as Lakers coach Luke Walton aptly pointed out, focusing on the misses by James and Caldwell-Pope kind of misses the point.
“We’ll live with those,” Walton said. “Absolutely, we’ll live with those. KCP’s one of our best shooters, LeBron’s one of the best finishers our game’s ever had. We’ll take that. That’s not why we lost the game, because we missed those. You hit those and you can find a way to steal that game back, but it was the second and third quarter why we lost.”
L.A. was outscored 67-42 in those two quarters as the Lakers’ 12-point first quarter lead swung to a 16-point hole with a minute left in the third quarter. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the last time the Lakers led by double-digits after the first quarter and lost was Feb. 11, 2014, against the Jazz — a game that turned into a 96-79 drubbing.
It felt a little like deja vu after seeing the Lakers in Orlando on Nov. 17 when L.A. led 31-25 after the first quarter and then ended up losing 130-117. They let their guard down again.
And it also felt a little like Friday’s bizarre 90-83 win over the Utah Jazz when the Lakers coughed up a season-high 24 turnovers. They didn’t protect the ball again, racking up 18 turnovers against the Magic – six of them belonging to James.
“We’ve got to get back to valuing the basketball,” Walton said. “We’ve got to get our passing up again. The less we’re passing the ball, the more we’re turning it over, which shouldn’t be the case. But we’ll have to continue to clean that up as we move on.”
That’s the real consequence of Sunday’s game. Rather than learn their lesson in the Jazz win, the Lakers made the same mistakes in the Magic loss. It happens to young teams. And, as James pointed out, these turnovers are happening with Rajon Rondo, their veteran floor general, sidelined with a broken hand.
But there needs to be an urgency to get Los Angeles through this season considering at 11-8, they might be just 2 games back from first in the West, but they’re also only 2 1/2 games ahead of 13th.
As James’ 16-year career shows, the Lakers will be just fine relying on his judgment in late-game situations as the season draws out.
Of course, if the Lakers learn their lessons and manage games better than they did Sunday, those late-game minutes won’t be of any consequence because the victory will already be wrapped up.