LeBron James loses sometimes. Every player does. The world seems to forget that a lot of the time when it comes to the Heat's star forward. Every crunchtime pass gets taken as proof that James is afraid to take the big shot. Every bland quote is whipped up to create controversy.
But you knew this already.
The comments that seem to tell us the most about James, though, are not the ones that get played up in headlines as "Today's Reason To Hate LeBron." The most revealing comments are often the innocent asides, which seldom make it into game stories or, if they do, are glazed over.
The Heat dropped a 96-86 decision in overtime to the Chicago Bulls on Thursday. The Heat seemed in control of the potential Eastern Conference Finals preview, as Derrick Rose continued to shake off the rust from his groin injury. James, as he usually is, was the best player on the floor for more than three quarters, entering the final 12 minutes of regulation with 21 points on 8-for-17 shooting.
The Heat, who have won only one game against a playoff contender on the road in the last month (and it was against the now-reeling Philadelphia 76ers), appeared to finally have a big road win in hand on Thursday. Even with Rose at far less than 100 percent, the Bulls were still formidable enough for the Heat to claim they had legitimately beaten the team with the NBA's best record in its own building.
Then Bulls guard C.J. Watson hit a step-back 3-pointer to knot the score with 2.2 seconds left, and the Heat literally did not score another basket. Dwyane Wade front-rimmed a desperation fade-away at the buzzer and Miami shot 0-for-5 from the field in overtime.
The disappointment was evident on James' face after the loss, when he said this:
"We fought so hard to get back into this game, when C.J. hit that shot, it just kind of took it out of us."
To this we say: What?
Many close games feature shots that could be called "daggers." The 3-pointer in the closing minute that turns a two-point game into a five-point game, for instance, is usually the cue for the fat lady to warm up her vocal chords.
Watson's shot, clutch though it was, was no dagger. The Heat had time for the final possession, and barring a game-winning shot, they would have another five minutes of overtime to recover. Yet one shot by an undrafted, fifth-year veteran who had never started more than 18 games in a season before this one "took it out" of the star-studded Heat for the next 5 minutes and 2.2 seconds.
If anything, James was the one with the chance to take "it" out of the Bulls. He toed the free throw line with 11.4 seconds left, with Miami holding a two-point lead. Had James hit both free throws, the Bulls would have been effectively finished. James had a chance to insert the dagger. Instead, he split the two free throws, giving the Bulls another shot with only a three-point deficit.
A shot like Watson's is the type of setback that a championship-caliber team is supposed to be able to weather. In the Celtics' own overtime win over the Hawks on Wednesday, the Celtics endured Kevin Garnett and Greg Stiemsma fouling out in overtime, then stood incredulous after Paul Pierce was whistled for a questionable offensive foul on Boston's final possession. The Celtics managed to find enough of "it," whatever "it" was, to win the game.
If it is difficult to imagine the Celtics losing that game and Pierce saying, "When KG fouled out, all the fight went out of us," it is because Pierce would never say that. He would probably note that basketball is a game of runs, of ups and downs. There are made shots and missed shots, and there is no more than a few tenths of a second before players need to regroup and move on to the next play.
To be defeated is one thing. To be a defeatist is quite another. James, still the best basketball player on the planet (and I'll keep saying that, although with less conviction each time) was both on Thursday. Defeats will knock James and the Heat out of the postseason, but if James and the Heat treat any big shot by their opponent like an insurmountable obstacle, rather than merely a challenge to be overcome, they will have already lost.