The ending could be best described in three words that one never dreamed could be written about the likely future NBA champions.
The Lakers quit.
No, really, they literally quit.
With 10 seconds remaining in his team’s embarrassing 115-104 loss to the undermanned Miami Heat on Sunday night in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, LeBron James turned his back and walked off the court. A handful of teammates followed. Even though the clock still was ticking, there were soon only two Lakers left on the floor.
When there was a stoppage in play with about a second remaining, Lakers coach Frank Vogel had to insert three new players into the game just to finish it.
It was unsightly. It was humiliating. It was basically how the Lakers handled their business the entire night at the AdventHealth Arena near Orlando, Fla., surrendering the ball, acquiescing to Jimmy Butler, conceding to a team missing two of its best players but clearly not its fight.
“I just felt like they were quicker to the punch than we were,” the Lakers’ Markieff Morris said.
Quicker to the punch? How could that be? In a game so vital, how could a team so brilliantly gifted and so clearly superior complete the rare double-double of failing to show up and then leaving early?
“We just had a little hiccup tonight,” Morris said.
It sounded more like a sonic boom, with potential reverberations that could be deafening.
Two wins from a championship, the Lakers suddenly find themselves in a series, still leading the Heat two games to one but now facing the Game 4 return of one of the Heat’s missing stars. Don’t be surprised if sore-shouldered Bam Adebayo shows up Tuesday, and don’t be shocked if the Heat build on the momentum of Butler’s amazing 40-point triple-double, and maybe the other missing star, Goran Dragic, hobbles out later in the series and ... heck, did you see what happened in the final minutes of this debacle?
Butler hit a bank shot and shouted to James, “You’re in trouble!” Then 20-year-old Tyler Herro soared for a layup and curled his baby lip in a snarl.
Indeed, the Lakers may have let the Heat back in this thing. Anything can happen now. It’s on.
“We’re continuing to realize that we belong here,” Butler said.
One now no longer can be surprised by anything that happens to a Lakers team capable of 10 turnovers in one quarter, two baskets by Anthony Davis in one half, and 18 fewer points in the paint in a game played against a team half its size.
Although it is totally fair to be shocked that some of them walked out early. It was a terrible look on a national stage. The Lakers should be counting their blessings that the Finals TV ratings have been tanking.
“I think they thought the game was over,” Vogel said of James’ and the others’ early departures.
So I asked James, did he leave because of frustration or because he thought the game was over?
“Both,” he said.
James scored 25 points and finished two assists shy of a triple-double but, in the end, he was as bad as the rest of his inattentive and uninspired teammates. He had only one more basket (nine) than he had turnovers (eight) and, after leading separate charges to overcome double-digit deficits twice, he eventually crumbled like the rest of them. After the Lakers took the lead on a Rajon Rondo layup with 8:56 remaining, James traveled twice and threw up a handful of desperately bad shots as the Lakers quickly and ultimately unraveled, ending the game with 20 turnovers and on the wrong end of 26-13 run.
Sure, make no mistake, none of this happens without the incredible Butler, who dominated the Lakers with aggressive shooting, brilliant passing and enviable, constant hustle.
“You got to empty the tank on every possession,” Butler said.
But the Lakers never even applied their foot to the gas, sputtering right from the start with a first quarter whose play-by-play reads like a stalled vehicle in the carpool lane.
Dwight Howard loses the ball … Danny Green steps out of bounds … James throws a pass into the darkness … you get the picture. Those 10 turnovers, one more than they committed in all of Game 2, gave the Heat all the belief they needed.
By halftime, their output was epitomized by the previously marvelous Davis, who had more turnovers (five) than baskets and rebounds combined. As he soon could learn, it’s hard to win the Finals most-valuable-player award when you occasionally suffer from bouts of invisibility. He finished with 15 points while going scoreless, with one shot, in the fourth quarter.
Davis blamed early foul trouble for a lack of aggressiveness but acknowledged, “Still got to be better and still got to find ways to affect the game on both ends of the floor.”
By the middle of the third quarter, the Lakers pretty much were stinking up all corners of the arena, so much that television commentator Mark Jackson felt compelled to describe them in a dreadfully obvious detail.
“They’re going through the motions,” he said.
In the final seconds, those motions regrettably took them right out the gym. Now that this is a series, they’d be well advised to stick around.
Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.