SALT LAKE CITY—
After rallying the Miami Heat from an 18-point third-quarter deficit.
After shooting 8 of 9 in the fourth quarter.
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After Kobe Bryant got on LeBron James in a playful way for passing up a final, potentially game-winning shot at last Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game, one could only imagine what Bryant might have to say when his Los Angeles Lakers take on the Heat in Sunday afternoon’s nationally televised game at Staples Center.
Because this time, with something tangible at stake, off an inbounds play with 4.5 seconds to play Friday night against the Utah Jazz and the Heat down one, James again deferred. This time to power forward Udonis Haslem, who has been off with his shot almost all season.
Haslem missed the jumper just to the right of the foul line. The Heat lost 99-98. The nine-game winning streak is over.
And James, after an otherwise brilliant 35-point performance that included 10 rebounds and six assists, created another of what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra calls media-driven “storylines.”
“We got a good shot there at the end,” Spoelstra said. “[Haslem] had an open shot. He made the correct play.”
Spoelstra was asked a follow-up question and responded, “That is the thing about today’s age, there’s so many talking heads. 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.
That speculation began in the opposing locker room, with Jazz forward Josh Howard, who was defending James on the decisive play, saying, “I guess he felt like there was too much pressure on him.”
James said Howard defended him well on the play and when he saw Utah power forward Paul Millsap offering defensive help for Howard and Haslem standing alone, there was only one correct play.
“For me, I just try to make the right plays and do what it takes to win games,” James said while seated in front of his locker. “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.”
Actually, James made just about all of the plays in the Heat’s frantic comeback, converting 10 of his final 11 shots.
“It was a good look,” James said of Haslem’s shot. “Put the ball in my hands and either I make a play myself or make a play for my teammate. I was about to drive and I saw Millsap standing at the elbow and U.D. was wide open at the free-throw line for a jumper and he just didn’t make it.”
Even as James recounted those decisive seconds, he never second-guessed his decision, although it appeared there still might have been room to attack the rim and at least draw a foul, particularly since Jazz guard Devin Harris drew a foul call on minimal contact from Heat guard Dwyane Wade moments earlier.
“Josh Howard stayed on my right hand and Millsap stayed on the elbow,” James said. “Knowing the percentage of what [Haslem] shoots from that free-throw line, he got a good look at it. Him not being in rhythm all game and not getting as many looks, that might have played in to him not feeling comfortable taking it.”
Haslem closed 2 of 5 from the field.
“It’s a read-and-react game,” James said. “I don’t come out the timeout saying I’m going to make the pass to U.D. I come out of the timeout saying we need to get the best look.