|Fourth quarter. LeBron James. Again. (Getty Images)|
Posted by Ben Golliver
ORLANDO -- Another big stage, and another big mistake. This one doesn't really count, but don't try telling LeBron James that.
The Miami Heat's prodigiously talented forward began Sunday night by dancing during playing introductions, shimmying with a wide smile for a global television audience. He ended it looking away from the camera, struggling both to maintain eye contact and to keep his head up.
That transformation is one we've seen before, and it was brought on by an all too familiar set of circumstances: the ball was in his hands, the game's outcome was in the balance and the fourth quarter clock was ticking towards zero. Given the opportunity to win or tie the 2012 All-Star Game, James chose to do what he so often did during the 2011 Finals: He passed. Twice.
With the East trailing the West, 151-149, James handled the ball out of an inbounds play, opting to find New Jersey Nets guard Deron Williams, who popped open on a screen, rather than attack the basket. Wiliams launched a deep three, which rimmed off. After a scramble for the ball, James came up with possession with roughly five seconds remaining, and Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant hawking him near midcourt. James took a few dribbles to his right as New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony popped open to the top of the 3-point line, calling for the ball. Instead, James looked off Anthony and attempted to fire a pass through traffic to Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who was cutting in from the left corner.
The pass never had a chance, as Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin stepped over to easily intercept it. The East was forced to foul immediately to stop the clock, and the West went on to win, 152-149.
"I'll get over with it," a dejected looking James said during a post-game interview on TNT. "I can't turn the ball over like that, let my teammates down like that."
Later, in a post-game press conference, a somber James explained what was going through his head on the final possession.
"I seen my teammate open for a split-second, I told him I seen him open the first time and I didn't release the ball," he said. "When I tried to throw it late -- that's what usually happens and it results in a turnover. Definitely wish I could have that one back."
Here's video of James' late turnover in the 2012 All-Star Game via YouTube user nbaus3030 and @Jose3030.
Williams told reporters that he was the "last option" on the designed play out of the timeout.
"Coach drew up a great play to give me a shot. There were a couple different options, I was the last option. We went through it and we missed our shot."
East coach Tom Thibodeau, whose Chicago Bulls were eliminated by the Heat during the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, said he considered calling another timeout after the loose ball but opted instead to let one of the league's best play-makers do his thing.
"He made a lot of big plays," Thibodeau said. "He made big shots, great reads. You have a scramble situation and an open floor, and you have a very dynamic scorer and a guy with great vision and good decision-making. You know, you can call a time-out and it allows the defense to get set, or you can trust his ability to make a play. Throughout his career, he's shown that he's capable of making big plays."
Given the overwhelming attention paid to James' late-game passivity against the Dallas Mavericks, how was this sequence of events anything but an absurd self-fulfilling prophecy?
James' reputation for late-game struggles added another chapter, and his turnover provided fuel for his critics while erasing an MVP-caliber performance. He finished with a team-high 36 points plus 7 assists, 6 rebounds and countless highlight reel dunks. James even shot 3-for-4 in the fourth quarter, including 2 3-pointers, helping the East dig out of a 21-point deficit. Those shots and plays will be lost in another wave of "He doesn't want to be The Man when it matters" shouting. All the game-dominating good things disappeared with his fourth and final turnover of the game.
In a twist sure to intensity the endless "Kobe vs. LeBron, LeBron vs. Kobe" debate, James admitted that Bryant, a 5-time champion who has fashioned a reputation for never being bashful about pulling the trigger in late-game situations, was egging him on to shoot.
"Yeah, he was telling me to shoot it," James said. "You have some of the best competitors out on the floor at the same time. Not only me and Kobe, but D. Wade and [Kevin] Durant and [Anthony] and [Chris Paul] and all the rest of the guys. We all wanted to win, and it came down to the last minute or last seconds."
In those final seconds, James took the loss. And his reaction made it clear, because of the circumstances and the recent history, that he took it harder than you might expect given that it won't show up in the standings. No one -- not even a "King" -- likes to repeat the same mistakes.