It appeared nothing could stop LeBron James.
Not a physical opponent. Not a whistle that he didn’t like. Not even Father Time.
But once he leaped in the air for an expected highlight reel, James showcased his basketball mortality, diminished athleticism and awkward timing. After jumping off his left foot, James carried the ball with his left hand before cradling it with both. Just as it appeared James would throw down a vicious two-handed dunk, he bobbled the ball and it went out-of-bounds.
Any accomplished NBA star can experience a gaffe. Even if the play will inevitably go viral and teammates will tease him afterwards about it, most stars can easily put that mistake behind him. Unfortunately for the Lakers, James could not.
In the Lakers’ 108-103 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals on Thursday, James competed from start to finish. He also both chuckled and patted himself on the chest following the second-quarter mishap, a gesture that shows he can both laugh at himself and hold himself accountable. But just like during that dunk, James struggled with ever having a firm grip on his game.
James finished with a near triple double in points (22), assists (10) and rebounds (nine). But he missed all six of his 3-point attempts. James added four steals and two blocks, but he committed just as many turnovers (three). James stood up on his own accord after twisting his left foot with 1:14 remaining, but it is fair to wonder if the cumulative toll has caught up to him. None of these developments seem promising for the Lakers, which face a 0-2 deficit against Denver entering game 3 on Saturday in Los Angeles.
James should never be judged just by how many points he makes. He has become one of the NBA’s best players ever because of how impacts the game in numerous ways, not just with how much he scores. James should be judged, however, by his recent 3-point shooting.
James has missed all 10 of his 3s during the Lakers’ first-two losses against Denver. In the Lakers’ six-game second-round series against Golden State, he went a combined 14-for-39 from deep (33.3%). In the Lakers’ six-game first-round series against Memphis, James shot only 8-for-41 from beyond the arc (19.5%). By this point, it appears fair to wonder if fatigue has limited James’ effectiveness. By this point, it seems fair to ask James to change his shot selection. Though James might remain justified with taking open shots, it appears the Nuggets want him to take those for a reason. Considering that dynamic, James could have become more effective by either driving to the basket or finding an open teammate.
James did not deserve the criticism he received throughout his 20-year NBA career about showing reluctance with taking the big shot in crunch time. He often made timely shots and passes, depending on how the defense played him. James certainly deserves criticism, though, for his late miscues in the Lakers’ Game 2 loss.
After stealing Jamal Murray’s cross-court pass, James raced down the court and drove baseline. He then missed a reverse layup while the Lakers trailed, 103-99, with 26.1 seconds left. Following Murray’s two made foul shots, James made a four-footer to close the gap to 105-101 with 21.2 seconds remaining. Then on the final play, James raced down the end of the court before Nuggets guard Bruce Brown swiped the ball out of his hands. Game over.
James warrants more praise than scrutiny for how he has played during the latter stages of his NBA career. He takes remarkable care of his body with disciplined training and dieting habits. He has stayed dominant as both a scorer and passer. And despite his decline in athleticism and speed, James still occasionally turns back the clock and often plays with more efficiency. Yet, it appears James has aged quickly throughout these playoffs, and in particular, against Denver.
James took on the challenge with defending Nuggets center Nikola Jokic in the third quarter. He did so, however, by relying on smarts, getting away with fouls and the two exchanging flops. James competed for 40 minutes. He took a long time, though, with tying his left shoe after his fall. James has become accustomed with managing the playoff grind. It appears to have weighed more on James, however, after each playoff game.
The Lakers may have absorbed James’ off night had Anthony Davis fared better than finishing with 18 points on 4-for-15 shooting and four turnovers. In Davis’ defense, though, his Game 2 effort did not reflect the usual trend with Davis playing either dominant or passive on offense every other game. Despite his shots not falling, Davis stayed aggressive enough to draw trips to the free-throw line (9-for-11) as well as to collect 14 rebounds and four blocks.
The Lakers may have stolen Game 2 had D’Angelo Russell (3-for-8) and Dennis Schroder (2-for-9) shot better. In fairness, though, the Lakers featured Austin Reaves (22 points) and Rui Hachimura (21) cracking double figures. Reaves also made a 3 to cut the Nuggets’ lead to 101-99 with 1:07 remaining and a two that reduced Denver’s cushion to 106-103 with 13.1 seconds left. Realistically, the Lakers can usually depend on one or two players to produce and nothing more.
That puts the onus on James to deliver even during his 20th season at 38-years-old. The Lakers expect James fulfill that role during their most critical games. He failed to live up to that responsibility, however, in the Lakers’ Game 2 loss to Denver. Though Lakers fans can trust that James will put forth the effort to heal his body, improve his rhythm and reduce his mistakes in Game 3, he showed in Game 2 that even his disciplined routine, skillset and intentions aren’t always enough.
Mark Medina covers the NBA for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.