LOS ANGELES – The NBA released its annual general managers survey in October and the answers were fairly predictable. Asked which player they most wanted to take a game-deciding shot, all but three of the 26 GMs polled selected Kobe Bryant.
He didn't get a single vote.
That says something about both Bryant and James. So did Sunday afternoon.
The NBA matched its two leading scorers and brightest stars against each other, nervously weathered a 10-minute rain delay then got the very type of thrilling finish a national stage deserves. Forty-one points for James, 33 for Bryant and a spirited, successful fourth-quarter comeback for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Funny thing about those game-deciding shots: They don't matter much if you don't take them.
The clock had already expired on the Cavaliers' 98-95 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers as Bryant watched the ball leave his fingertips for the last time Sunday. With two defenders collapsing on him, Bryant had passed to Luke Walton behind the three-point line only to watch his teammate fumble the ball before hurriedly shuffling it back to him as the final second ticked away. Bryant's shot was worthless as soon as he released it.
"Nobody wanted to shoot," Cavs guard Larry Hughes said.
Eight months ago everyone said the same about James. With Cleveland trailing Detroit by two late in last season's Eastern Conference finals opener, James drove into the lane and fired a pass to Donyell Marshall in the corner. Marshall's three-point attempt missed, the Cavaliers lost and James was criticized for not taking the shot himself. When Cleveland lost the next game after James shot – and missed – the criticism grew.
James' shaky free-throw shooting last season also contributed to the belief that he couldn't play well under pressure. He was too eager to pass, his critics said, too eager to give up the responsibility of deciding the game's outcome.
James went a long way toward retiring that tag with his 48-point performance in Game 5 of those same conference finals. After spending the offseason improving his jump shot, he looks even more comfortable with the ball in his hands and the clock ticking down. As for fourth-quarter production: Sunday was Cleveland's league-high 17th victory when trailing by at least nine points with less than eight minutes left.
James likely has had something to do with a few of those wins. Against the Lakers, he scored six of his 14 fourth-quarter points in the final 76 seconds, driving for a layup, sticking a 22-footer over Bryant then coolly making both his free throws after Bryant intentionally fouled him with nine seconds left. Bryant, meanwhile, missed six of his seven shots in the final quarter and, according to Lakers coach Phil Jackson, "looked tired" after playing all but 1 minute, 12 seconds of the second half. During the Lakers' loss in Cleveland last month, Bryant also missed two crucial shots in the final minutes with James chasing him.
That's not going to tarnish Bryant's reputation as the game's preeminent pressure performer. Nor should it. No player, not even James, is as adept at creating his own shot as Bryant. Nor can any player match Bryant's ruthlessness.
Need to win one game or even one playoff series? Take Bryant.
James, despite his improvement this season – and Bryant's 4-for-15 second half – isn't in Bryant's class as a shooter. Bryant also still has a higher ceiling for game-to-game greatness.
Because of that, though, James isn't prone to the same peak-to-valley dips. While Bryant still seems to play with an on-off switch, alternately debating whether to involve his teammates or impose himself on the game, James seems to merely play. Among current players, his court vision is rivaled only by Steve Nash and Jason Kidd.
James occasionally still settles for his jump shot, but he's at least shooting it with more balance now.
"If you look at the Game 5 (against Detroit), he took over the game shooting a lot of shots that if you had a seventh-grade team, you'd cover their eyes and say don't watch," Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. "But those are shots he makes, so those are shots we have to live with a lot."
The Cavaliers lived with it Sunday. Saying he benefited from a 12-minute break in the first quarter after officials halted the game to stop water from dripping onto the court from a leak in the Staples Center's roof, James played the entire second half. He watched as forward Anderson Varejao was carried off the court with a sprained ankle that figures to sideline him for a few weeks. Then James watched center Zydrunas Ilgauskas foul out with more than six minutes left.
The Cavaliers continued to put the ball in James' hands. He continued to make plays. So did Bryant, tasked with compensating for the loss of his promising young center, Andrew Bynum.
"Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest players we have in this world today, and I feel I am, too," James said. "So going against a guy like that just raises your game."
In the end, Bryant was left to walk off knowing he still had one bullet left in his gun.
Game-deciding shots? That one came 20 seconds earlier when James raised up over Bryant and fired.