ORLANDO, Fla. – With the way Kobe Bryant mercilessly rode LeBron James in those final minutes, the way Kobe demanded to defend LeBron, the Miami Heat's star had to shoot the ball. Dwyane Wade had broken Kobe's nose in the third quarter, and now it was James' turn to break his spirit in the fourth.
After all, this was an All-Star game, and ultimately the moment everyone had waited to witness. Game's on the line, Bryant on James. There's nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. Most of all, there's nothing to lose. Take the shot, live with the consequences.
And truth be told, there are no consequences for failing on a long 3-pointer in the final seconds of an All-Star game, no consequences for driving past Bryant and missing a runner or missing a pull-up jumper. No one would've remembered a missed shot down two points to the Western Conference, but a long, wayward, get-this-ball-out-of-my-hands pass lingers longer.
Six seconds left, the ball swung back to James, and he threw a long crosscourt pass that the West's Blake Griffin grabbed before it could ever reach Wade. The expressions on Bryant and Carmelo Anthony's faces – one an opponent and an enemy, one a teammate and a close friend – were unmistakable: Are you kidding me, LeBron?
That's what lingers over the NBA Finals for James. Every great player misses in great moments, every great player fails. But this sport wants to see James' willingness to take the chance. James had been brilliant with 36 points and six 3-pointers. He'd brought the Eastern Conference back with a ferocious fourth quarter, and, well, everyone was still waiting on him to complete the comeback and blister Bryant, and James couldn't get that ball out of his hands fast enough.
Here's the thing, too: James knows Bryant goes to great lengths to belittle his unwillingness to rise up in the final moments of his biggest games. Bryant has five titles to James' none, and had to bail James out in the fourth quarter of the gold-medal game of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Now Kobe was within inches, screaming into James' face, "Shoot the [expletive] ball!" And, still, LeBron's instincts weren't to take ball and deliver it down Bryant's throat. Score on Kobe, win the game and tell him to go to hell. Bryant would respect that.
So would Michael Jordan. Magic Johnson. Larry Bird. LeBron James is different. He's probably better than all of them, but nothing in his DNA demanded that he go after Bryant there, that he destroy him in that moment.
"Yeah, he was telling me to shoot it," James said. "I wish I could have that one back."
James will get it back again, perhaps in the NBA Finals, perhaps with Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant bearing down on him. And when Sunday night was over, when the West had beaten the East 152-149, it was clear James hadn't let go of his mistake, that it lingered, and no one should come out of an All-Star game feeling that way. No one should do that to themselves.
Wade walked away with the clearest of minds: 24 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and the blood of Kobe. "Kobe fouled me two times in a row," Wade would say later, and that was his way of saying, 'Hell yes, I fouled him hard.' "I obviously didn't want to draw no blood, but… "
It wasn't that obvious, but that's why Wade has the complete respect of his peers. Mess with him, and he'll hurt you. Had Kobe gotten into Wade in the final moments like he did to James, Wade would've gone at him with a vengeance. Every star on the floor – Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams – would've been ruthless in pursuit of the rim, the shot, the chance to shut Bryant up.
Bryant was still incredulous when James marched out of a timeout with 1.1 seconds left and was the East player designated to pass to someone else to try and make a tying 3-pointer. Think Kobe would've let West coach Scott Brooks use him in that role? Or Durant? No way. James had six 3-pointers, tying Mark Price's All-Star record, and wouldn't he want a chance at redemption there?
With the East down three, coach Tom Thibodeau had James throw the pass to Wade in the corner. Wade missed the shot, the buzzer sounded, and he shrugged and laughed. He had no fear of failure there and knows he'll shoot that again and again.
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As soon as Bryant left the floor on Sunday night, his fractured nose had him woozy. There was a CT scan awaiting him and an appointment with an ear, nose and throat specialist in Los Angeles on Monday. "Kobe is a scorer," Wade said. "He got 27. He's Kobe Bryant. He scores the ball."
That's Wade's way of saying: Just take a look at my 24 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists and LeBron's 36-7-7. Brilliant all-around games, brilliant performances. No, this wasn't the NBA Finals. This was the All-Star game, and no one would've remembered James missing that shot in the final seconds. Kobe misses them. Michael missed them.
Yet, the world was waiting for LeBron to make Kobe go silent, to stop the trash talk, the belittling, and end the game. So was Kobe. He was begging LeBron, but James wanted no part of that final shot the way he wanted no part of so many big shots in the Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
Sooner or later, this will end for James. He'll win his title and another and another, and he'll finally understand he has to take that shot, that he can live with the consequences of the miss. Only thing LeBron James couldn't do on Sunday was throw some crazy crosscourt pass while Kobe Bryant stood there in the final seconds pleading, begging – demanding – he come through him for the victory.
Take the shot, live with the consequences.
World's still watching, still waiting.
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