LeBron stalls again in the clutch

LeBron James missed four free throws in the final five minutes of regulation in the Heat's 95-89 OT loss to the Clippers

LOS ANGELES – Judgment comes in June for LeBron James. This never changes and never will until his arms are raised on the platform, and the commissioner is passing Pat Riley the trophy. Judgment comes in June, not January, but these fourth-quarter failures hang over James like no one else in the NBA. Sometimes, he tries to do too little. Sometimes, he tries to do too much. Almost always, it feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The mocking, the taunts, came cascading down in the Staples Center on Wednesday night, and this unrelenting saga turns a two-time MVP into a punch line. Twenty-four hours earlier, James refused to shoot in a loss to the Golden State Warriors, and now it was something else against the Los Angeles Clippers. With him, it’s always something else.

All alone on the free-throw line, James watched the ball bounce around the rim and out. It hit short and dropped. It pounded the backboard and iron, and careened away. Those late-game demons had come to dance between James' headband and a mind racing too fast, too scattered. Four missed free throws in the final five minutes, eight for the game.

“I need to concentrate a little more,” James said.

He wasn’t discouraged, just defeated. For all the belief that these Miami Heat could obliterate everyone across the regular season, they lost back-to-back nights to the Warriors and Clippers. This time, it was 95-89 in overtime. This time, it wasn't the humiliation of Nate Robinson tearing them up, but the genius of Chris Paul, who had 27 points, 11 assists and a single turnover. This wasn’t about the reborn Clippers and Lob City and the wretched old Donald Sterling prancing about the arena.

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When it mattered most, LeBron James failed, and that turned out to be the sweetest symphony at Staples Center. That’s his burden until he owns a championship, because there’s only vindication in the ultimate victory. James missed his free throws, missed five of his six shots in the fourth quarter and overtime. Somehow, he let Chauncey Billups bait him into a foul on a late 3-point shot, and those three free throws played an immense part in pushing the game into overtime. Somehow, James gave everyone the ammo in mid-January to revisit his failures in mid-June. He isn’t back on the brink, but he’s back on notice.

“Let’s not forget who the guy is,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s a two-time MVP. He doesn’t have to prove himself.”

Not in January, just June. The changes to James’ game have been sound, mature and ultimately will benefit him in these moments. James has moved his game inside the 3-point arc, nearer the rim, and pushed himself to be an attacker late in these games – not a drifter far out on the perimeter. “I was able to get back to attacking,” James said. “I found mismatches. I was able to get fouled and at least give us a chance to win the game.”

He’s never had serious free-throw issues late in games, but he did Wednesday in a game everyone wanted to watch, and that will drag with him to Denver on Friday and back to South Florida again.

James had hoped to slip past everyone in this regular season, throw up his triple-doubles, his 55 victories and make his move in the playoffs. In so many ways, the lockout played the part of a savior for James. As soon as the NBA Finals ended, this could’ve become a summer of beating up James, but Commissioner David Stern and the owners spared him. James stayed out of the line of fire in the lockout, let everyone else fight, and there was so little discussion of how he had completely collapsed in the Finals.

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Now, Miami struggles to close consecutive games, and everyone is asking: With a 17-point lead disintegrating, how can LeBron James fail to take a shot in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Warriors?

With the Clippers missing 12 of 17 shots in the fourth quarter, how do you miss four free throws to close out the game?

They don’t play close games every night, so it’s important for James to make the most of his pressure opportunities. Basketball is a game of habits, and doing it in the regular season does make it more probable you’ll do it in the playoffs. Yes, Paul was brilliant, Blake Griffin and Caron Butler were terrific, and the Clippers are a burgeoning NBA power. LeBron gave Paul the exit strategy to a bigger market, a bigger chance to win, and now one more of his buddies has gone to a team that can make LeBron pay with a loss for his mistakes.

“We’re great friends, and we’re going to have some great battles,” Paul said.

Perhaps so, but James’ greatest battle never changes and perhaps never will. It’s always the space between his headband and a mind racing too fast. These back-to-back performances would’ve been colossal a season ago, but LeBron and the Heat are no longer engaged in nightly referendums on the Big 3, on the James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh experiment. As Billups said, “They play off each other much better now,” and this was true late in the game, late in the loss, when it wasn’t passivity or hesitance which cost the Heat a victory.

It was simple, and it was maddening. It was LeBron on the line, alone with this thoughts, alone with a most unmistakable basketball burden. The taunts, the ridicule, come crashing down on him now, but make no mistake: His judgment comes in June, not January.

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