HOUSTON -- After putting up a do-everything stat line of 37 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks and 3 steals in a 105-103 overtime loss to the Houston Rockets but missing 20 of 35 field goal attempts and eight of 11 free throw attempts in the process, LeBron James was disgusted with himself as he sat in front of his locker late Sunday afternoon.
"I didn't come through for my teammates tonight," James said. "I tricked the game off at the free throw line. Guys put us in position to win the game and I didn't come through for them, so it won’t happen again."
One of James' misses from the floor was a 23-foot, step-back jumper with 1.9 seconds left in regulation. It would have won the game and capped off a furious 11-point, second-half comeback for the Cavs.
Two of his misses from the foul line came with 4.2 seconds left in overtime with Cleveland trailing by one. Miss one and there's still a good chance at double OT. Miss both and it's over.
James wasn't over the loss even after putting the onus on himself with reporters. He took to social media to chide his own shortcomings shortly thereafter:
Way to trick it off today Bron!
— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 2, 2015
Looking in the mirror tonight after a tough lost of my part like You're your biggest challenge, competition, drive, obstacle, motivation, etc so it's nothing u haven't seen before! Back in the lab tomorrow to continue the drive to striving to be the Greatest I've ever seen! #StriveForGreatness
A photo posted by LeBron James (@kingjames) on
“Trick” in this case was a PG substitute for a four-letter word, but James' teammates wouldn't have any of it. Blame James for this one? Trick that. On a day when he helped hold James Harden, his fellow league MVP candidate, to 1-for-4 from the field in the fourth quarter and overtime? No way. In a game in which the Cavs were playing on the road without Kyrie Irving and James had to split his duties as the starting small forward and backup point guard? No chance.
"He's a leader and it wasn't just him," said Kevin Love, who surely was thinking about the two open 3s he missed in the fourth quarter that could have turned the tide. "It takes all of us to win the game. A lot of guys chipped in and there were different shots or plays down the stretch that weren't on him that could have gone our way, so it's not just him. It's on all of us."
Just like Love's 21-point, six-rebound, three-assist effort wasn't ruined by those late misses from deep, neither was James' game a waste because he clanked a few freebies.
"You win as a team, you lose as a team," Tristan Thompson said. "The game was not determined on those two free throws. There were plenty of opportunities. If you want to do that, then when I missed the tip-in, one guy misses a shot, one guy has a turnover You win as a team, you lose as a team."
Indeed, even though Thompson finished with 14 points, 19 rebounds and two steals off the bench, two of those boards came on missed putback attempts with less than 30 seconds to go in the fourth quarter and the game tied.
The vibe in the Cavs' locker room at Toyota Center after the game was more frustrated than dejected, and that's an important distinction to make.
Cleveland didn't get the win they were after, but here's what they did get: a chance for James to turn a negative into motivation moving forward the way the great ones always do; a chance for guys such as Thompson, Love and Matthew Dellavedova -- with zero career playoff games between them -- to experience a dress rehearsal for the real thing; and a chance for a team so used to being carried by James to be the ones to pick James up.
"If we had anyone that was supposed to shoot free throws, it would be our leader and our general," Thompson said. "I'd want him going to the free throw line, so I'm fine with the result. He's going to knock it down next time."
And that's what the regular season is all about: experiencing the moments a team leans on when that next time comes in a playoff game.
"We know we had our chances tonight, but we competed," James Jones said. "Ultimately, that's what you want to see. You can win games and not compete, but that's a recipe for disaster. That's fool's gold. Sometimes, you can lose games competing and you set the habits that you need to be able to win games that are meaningful. Not saying that this game isn't meaningful, but our objectives are totally different.
"We're thinking about how we can be the best team at the end of the season and win a championship. We're not thinking about individual matchups. We're not thinking about this game being the end all, be all. We just want to use these tough games as a platform to get better and to test ourselves. Because you got to be real: If you're going to win a series in the playoffs, you're not going to get calls, you're going to miss free throws, you're going to turn the ball over. You just have to bounce back and you have to get repetition at that. You have to go down and get in those situations before you can learn how to get yourself out of them."
James wants the blame, but maybe he actually helped teach a lesson in the long run.