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Column: LeBron James shows up in crunch time to lead Lakers to the verge of an NBA championship

Lakers forward LeBron James tries to break up a pass from Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler during the fourth quarter.
Lakers forward LeBron James tries to break up a pass from Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler during the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ 102-96 win in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Where was LeBron?

For the first half of Game 4 of NBA Finals on Tuesday night, that was the question.

Expected to lead the Lakers in an early onslaught of the upstart Miami Heat, LeBron James had been terrible.

This was his chance to show that the Game 3 upset had been a fluke, that Jimmy Butler’s “You’re in trouble” comment was just empty smack. This was his opportunity to once again be the game’s greatest closer. And he was blowing it.

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In the game’s first 24 minutes James had three baskets and five turnovers. He spent as much time arguing with the referees as he did making plays. He missed awkward layups and made sloppy passes. He fumbled his dribble. He lost his composure.

Where was LeBron?

LeBron James scored 28 points while Anthony Davis scored 22 to lead the Lakers to a 102-96 win over the Miami Heat and go up 3-1 in the NBA Finals.

Soon enough, the Lakers and these Finals and all those in Los Angeles who were screaming at their televisions had their answer.

He was in crunch time. He was in winning time. He was in the biggest moments of the biggest game of the season. He was exactly where he’s always been.

The Lakers defeated the pesky Heat, 102-96, because James was there to carry them when it counted, dragging them through a hassled second half and carrying them in brilliant closing moments.

Two days after losing their minds, the Lakers can start dreaming about their rings after taking a three-games-to-one lead forged again by James’ seemingly unbreakable will.

Only one team in NBA history has come back from a similar deficit to win the Finals. Interestingly enough, that team — the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers — had LeBron James.

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The Heat do not. Start sewing that 17th championship banner. This sucker is over.

It was actually over earlier in the day when, for the first time in the bubble, James sent teammates a text calling this a “must-win game”

Highlights from the Lakers’ 102-96 win over the Miami Heat in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.

“When I woke up from my nap this morning after our team meeting, I just felt that,” James said. “I felt that vibe. I felt that pressure. I felt like for me personally this was one of the biggest games of my career. I just wanted to relay that message, the type of zone I was in, the type of moment it was, and the kind of team we were playing against.”

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The outmanned Heat is indeed scrappers. But James is in a completely different weight class.

“A ton of grit, a ton of fight,” the Lakers’ Alex Caruso said. “Good resiliency for us to come back and keep answering every time Miami threw a punch.”

A ton of LeBron, is what it was. When James walked into AdventHealth Arena before the game, he was wearing a white T-shirt adorned with a drawing of Kobe Bryant popping his jersey. It was a perfect fit. For long late stretches of face-melting basketball Tuesday, he was pure Kobe. In the postgame video conference, he even sounded like you-know-you.

“If we are going to be a championship ballclub, if we really want to be a championship team, then we’ve got to have that same grit and that same attitude,” James said of the Heat. “It was my mindset. I’m still in it. You can see my mind kind of working right now.”

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His second-half surge began with a distant three-pointer with 8:18 remaining in the third quarter to give the Lakers the lead. He scored more points in two minutes — nine — than in the entire first half.

At the quarter break, with the Lakers leading by five, Jared Dudley screamed on the bench, “Do not let them off the ropes!”

With great help from role players Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo, James did not, ending his fourth-quarter push with a series of plays that ended with an Anthony Davis three-pointer to give the Lakers a nine-point lead in the final minute.

The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat 102-96 in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Oct. 6, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. Here are the best photos from the game.

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At which point, James lifted his head and closed his eyes and screamed. And why not? Some 2,500 miles away, a city was screaming with him.

“You kind of know momentum plays and momentum shots,” James said.

With the score tied at 83-all earlier in the quarter, James had created that momentum by making the play of the game. He dribbled through two defenders, bullied past two more, then threw in a fallaway, one-handed layup. He was, of course, fouled. He made the free throw. The Lakers led by three and were never so much as tied again.

“To be able to think through the game and understand and see the adjustments and try to make plays before plays even seem like they are going to be possible, that’s the best part for me personally,” James said.

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The impossible play began a string of relentless, pressurized events that were typical LeBron.

He was hammered on a layup and made two free throws. He grabbed an offensive rebound and was fouled and made two more free throws. Then he set up the other Lakers to finish it.

He pulled down yet another rebound and found KCP for a three-pointer to give the Lakers a five-point lead. He found KCP again on a driving layup that increase the lead to seven. Rondo scored on a finger-roll layup. Davis swished that three. James howled as if he made the shot himself.

“At the end of the day, if you’re on the floor at crunch time, then I believe in you,” James said.

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Frank Vogel’s decision to have Lakers forward Anthony Davis defend Jimmy Butler pays off as he makes presence felt in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.

Fittingly, James sank the game’s final two free throws to end the Lakers score and essentially end the Heat Finals’ chances.

Look at his pressure numbers. In the second half he scored 20 points with nine rebounds and four assists. In the fourth quarter he scored 11 and made all seven of his free throws. To watch him put on that late show is to understand why these Lakers are a jaw-dropping 56-0 when taking a lead into the fourth quarter.

“LeBron obviously put his fingertips on that down the stretch,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They had a handful of offensive rebounds, second-chance opportunities where we really defended well and got that stop and they were able to get another opportunity from that.”

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That’s James. You defend him really well and he still beats you.

Now look at his stamina numbers. He has officially played all but two minutes of the fourth quarters of this series, and has played at least 38 minutes in the three Finals games that were in doubt, all at age 35.

“At this point in the season I don’t care about rest, I really don’t,” he said. “I don’t care about sleep … I can rest in a week, max.”

He finished with 28 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists and one step closer to history. If the Lakers can win just one of the next three games, James will become the first person to lead three franchises to NBA championships.

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If that doesn’t equate to Michael Jordan’s six titles in one place, what does?

If that’s not the best argument for LeBron James being the greatest player ever, what is?

Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.


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