SALT LAKE CITY -- The reality of the world LeBron James lives in was almost suffocating him, his voice quieted to a near whisper.
“I can’t win,” James mumbled. “I can’t win for losing.”
Sitting to his left in the locker room were two teammates who had let the Miami Heat down in a one-point loss to the Utah Jazz. Dwyane Wade had committed two fouls that just crushed the Heat’s bid to win their 10th straight game and missed a free throw with 14 seconds left that was a direct reason the Jazz won. Udonis Haslem missed an open 16-foot jump shot at the buzzer. It was offline out of his hands, even though it was in the heart of his offensive comfort zone.
It was just a one-point loss on the second night of a back-to-back in Utah against a more rested Jazz team. This has happened hundreds of times in NBA history and will happen hundreds of times more. The Heat have been red hot lately and they didn’t have Chris Bosh, who was away after a death in the family. The game was in the first week of March. The players were going to be in Los Angeles in a few hours with an off day on Saturday. There was no real reason to act like it was elimination night.
So why was the entire room like a funeral parlor? Why did James go to his Twitter account 90 minutes after the game to talk about the sick feeling in his stomach when he might have had his two best games of the season the past two nights? Why were Wade and Haslem’s letdowns barely a topic of conversation?
Because this is just James’ reality. He passed to Haslem and did not attempt the final shot. Just like he didn’t attempt the final shot in last Sunday’s All-Star Game. Just like he’s passed on the final shot dozens of times dating back to his high school days.
It’s not just about a loss, it is about the perception of a loss. And the rewind to last year’s NBA Finals and the fast forward to this year’s playoffs.
“It’s just the way I’ve always played the game,” James said. “It always come to light when teammates don’t make the shot. When the teammates doesn’t make the shot it doesn’t matter much from a media perspective.”
Moments after James was as concerned about what was being said outside those locker room walls as he was about the loss. It was not a unique situation, his coach had the same feeling.
Over what would be written on this website. Over what Skip Bayless or Stephen A. Smith might say. Over what would be trending on Twitter. Over what would be the topic for the ABC pregame show before the Heat play the Lakers on Sunday afternoon.
“That is the thing about today’s age, there’s so many talking heads,” Erik Spoelstra said. “There will be opinions out there and none of those opinions matter in the locker room. He was brilliant in the second half. We’ve got his back. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of speculation. It’s not something we haven’t dealt with before.”
So why doesn’t James just take the shot? Even if it doesn’t go in. What does it matter in a game against Utah two months before the playoffs? If he’s so concerned with it then why not just shoot to shut everyone up?
“I was just trying to make the right play,” James said. “I know that at the end of the day games are not lost on one shot at the end, me not taking one shot at the end. But I wanted that game as bad as anyone else on that floor. I just didn’t make enough plays.”
His thinking is sound in a basketball vacuum, but that is not reality. Not just with the NBA consumer but with his own peers.
“I guess he felt there was too much pressure on him,” Jazz forward Josh Howard, who defended James on the final play, told the team’s television broadcast.
This is the reason the Heat, despite their wonderful few months of play, have their guard up constantly. It’s that reason that James, who is in the midst of an historic season, might not be able to win the most valuable player award.
With the ball in his hands with four seconds to go, James decided to pass to Haslem.
Haslem was, indeed, open after setting a screen for James.
James had two Jazz players near him but there was just one player between him and the hoop.
He had 17 points in the fourth quarter and had made 10 of his last 11 shots overall.
He had a chance to pull up from 18 feet or drive to the rim and attempt to get a foul, which the officials were likely to call after giving one to the Jazz at the other end a few moments before.
The pass was perfect, a bounce pass right to Haslem’s waist.
“He trusted me tonight to make the shot and I just didn’t make it,” Haslem said. “Everything was perfect.”
But it didn’t go it in and the eyes and the opinions magnetically zapped to James. He knew it within seconds. The Heat knew it within seconds. That is why they were so down and why James was the last man out of his uniform and why he was so devastated after the loss.
He had 35 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three blocks and no turnovers. He played point guard offensively and defensively down the stretch, leading the Heat’s comeback from 18 points down. The night before in Portland, he scored 38 points with 11 rebounds, six assists and five steals and no turnovers while playing center and power forward. It was the first time in his career he’s gone two straight games without committing a turnover. And he did it all playing an endless variety of roles as he tried to fill the gaps.
Sitting at his locker, James reluctantly turned on his cellphone and text messages starting flying in. He started returning some, later tweeting that Maverick Carter, his business manager, and Brandon Weems, an assistant on John Calipari’s staff at Kentucky, were there to talk him through it.
“I fell short again!” James tweeted from the bus as it rolled to the airport, with the exclamation point for emphasis.
Exactly what everyone else was thinking.