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LeBron James And The Lakers Cheat Death For At Least One More Game

Los Angeles Lakers player LeBron James waving his hands on the court reacting to a ball going out of bounds and a ref's decision against the Denver Nuggets in Game 4 of the first round series in the NBA Playoffs.
Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

With just over nine minutes left and the Lakers up 95–80 over the Nuggets in Game 4 of their playoff series, Los Angeles found itself in a familiar position: desperately trying to hold onto their lead against the defending NBA champions. In every game of the series so far, Denver has had to claw back from a double-digit deficit to beat the Lakers, even relying on some last-second pyrotechnics from Jamal Murray

Perhaps this is the fever dream LeBron James had stuck in his head moments before his on-court temper tantrum. As time ticked down to the nine-minute mark, James swooped in for a steal on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the wing, and the ball popped free and out of bounds. Possession stayed with the Nuggets, which is when James went full rootin, tootin Yosemite Sam mode at Lakers coach Darvin Ham and the bench over not going for a coach's challenge. And that was exactly when Nikola Jokic caught Murray cutting to the basket for an easy bucket off the inbounds play. Never go full Yosemite Sam.

The Lakers held off an early exit, winning 119–108 largely thanks to 30 points and an otherwise dominating performance from James. Anthony Davis also turned in a strong game, putting up 25 points and 23 rebounds, contributing to 14 Lakers second-chance points. And D’Angelo Russell took corporeal form once again after going scoreless in Game 3, contributing 21 points and going 4-of-8 from three in the Game 4 win. 

But it’s hard to shake the image of James’s meltdown as one of the key moments from this series. The Lakers were up 15 and had been in control of the game; it would be hard to blame Ham for not wanting to waste a challenge that could come in handy at a more dire moment in the late stages of a game. Still, ESPN’s replay showed that James's instincts were right, Caldwell-Pope lost his handle and the Lakers should have gotten the ball. In this case being right is beside the point; it’s that LeBron knows the clock is rapidly running out on this version of the Lakers, and potentially his career. A Lakers fan will say it was about passion and high basketball IQ, but the tantrum, like most tantrums, was about desperation. Los Angeles knows it needs to win by any means necessary, a theme we should be familiar with from a team fond of complaining about calls this postseason.

For most of this series Denver has been shooting like garbage and playing through a haze imperceptible to most humans, only to come back to life in the second half of games and pull out a win. That’s lockdown defense when you need it, contributions from the starters and the bench, and, let’s be honest, some of Jokic’s temperament diffusing through the rest of the Nuggets roster. Even when they’re down they never seem to be all that worried about it. Or, as he put it in the most Jokic way possible after Saturday’s game: “I learned in horse racing, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

It is hard to finish strong when you allow 72 points in the paint like Denver did on Saturday. James and Davis were able to get the pick and roll going early, Austin Reaves was finding the lane, dishing to Davis and grabbing his own layups. News that will surely make futures traders unclench and the rest of us stare in disbelief: That’s right, Reaves back.

And yet, even on an off night the threat of the Nuggets loomed large over the Lakers. Jokic had a triple double with 33 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists. Murray had 22 points while shooting 0-for-3 behind the 3-point line. If Murray is connecting from three at his usual clip or Aaron Gordon is contributing more than seven points, it’s a different game. Consider this wild ass turnover-to-blind-touch-pass from Jokic in the third quarter, complete with the mid-stride shrug, and you can see why LeBron and the Lakers would be pressed to keep pace with this team on a good night. 

And this is where daylight begins to narrow for the Lakers. Coming back from losing three straight games to win a playoff series is almost impossible. But to LeBron’s lament: it takes more effort for the Lakers to hold off Denver—managing Davis and LeBron’s minutes early, getting worthwhile contributions from the likes of Rui Hachimura and Taurean Prince, fans withholding curses and pestilence on Darvin Ham—than it takes for the Nuggets to have a bad or even average night. 

Yes, all the usual caveats apply here. He remains LeBron James. He is a terrifying force of nature that can, and will, summon a chase-down block on Murray that will make you question quantum physics and give a second thought to Immanuel Kant’s notions of radical evil. But time is not on James's, or the Lakers', side here. 

Considering all of that, to say nothing of the unforgiving hands of fate and NBA contracts tensing up around your collarbone, if you were watching a ball slip out of bounds in spite of all your considerable strengths, you too would scream into the yawning void of your soul in the span of a ref’s whistle.

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