LOS ANGELES — LeBron James might have made the go-ahead turnaround jumper with 30.4 seconds left in the Los Angeles Lakers‘ 114-112 win over the Boston Celtics on Sunday, but he worked the defense the first 47½ minutes before that to get the shot.
“I had been setting him up all night with the back down, to the drop step, to the baseline, so I figured he would sit on it thinking I would try it again,” James said of Celtics forward Jaylen Brown guarding him. “So, went to my back down, gave a little ‘Dream Shake’ to the baseline and was able to open up middle and get my fadeaway.”
James might have referenced Houston Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon for his clutch shot, but the day was decidedly Lakers-Celtics. Former Lakers luminaries Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper, Robert Horry and A.C. Green were in the building, while Celtics cult heroes Kevin Garnett, Cedric Maxwell, Brian Scalabrine and the greatest winner in NBA history, Bill Russell, cheered on Boston.
Russell donned a white No. 24 Lakers uniform in honor of the late Kobe Bryant, putting aside the rivalry to salute the man who won two Finals MVP trophies that bear Russell’s name.
“Just respect. That’s all,” James said of Russell’s ode to Bryant. “That’s the first thing that went through my mind. At the end of the day, both teams throughout the years are going to battle, push, fight, scratch, curse each other out. At the end of the day, when you give it all to the floor, you have that mutual respect. That’s what it all boils down to.”
What Sunday’s game boiled down to was a baseline, out-of-bounds possession for the Lakers with 36.4 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter while trailing 110-109.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel drew up a play that would give James the ball in the pinch post, with the option to curl and look for Anthony Davis rolling to the basket. Boston employed a zone defense, however, that made the Davis wrinkle moot. James was able to draw Brown out of the zone to defend him one-on-one, and he was able to find his rhythm on a 15-foot fadeaway to give L.A. a late lead it never relinquished.
“It was no question that we were going to give it to him right there in his sweet spot,” Davis said. “He had the whole side of the floor.
“He got to his money shot, the shot he always makes, a shot he always takes in practice and in games, and he did what he does best and made the shot.”
The triumphant moment for James was preceded by a scary one earlier in the fourth quarter when he collapsed to the floor after a collision with Boston’s Daniel Theis. Play was stopped, and several teammates sprung from the bench to surround James as he lay down near the baseline, but it all looked worse than it actually was.
“I didn’t have much breath left,” James, who finished with 29 points, eight rebounds, nine assists and just two turnovers, explained afterward. “Got the wind knocked out of me; been a while since I felt that happen.”
And it might have been even longer since the Lakers-Celtics rivalry felt so alive. Vogel said games like Sunday’s will help his relatively new group, with players steeling themselves for their first playoff run together in the spring.
“The more that you’re in that environment of a close game, of an intense game like that, I think everybody just gets a chance to grow together,” Vogel said. “I mean, one of the weaknesses of our team is our continuity. We just haven’t been in a lot of those situations as a group … It’s all been put together this year.
“I’m super impressed with our guys’ ability to work together and still win games throughout the season. Each time we get into a close game like that, win or lose, you learn lessons, you get a better feel for each other that stuff is going to be beneficial for us in the playoffs.”
And while the Lakers’ win ended their regular-season series with Boston in a 1-1 tie, James allowed for the possibility of there being a postseason series awaiting the two foes.
“Just on the simple fact it’s two teams that have aspirations of holding that trophy up at the end of the season,” he said. “So we knew what we were getting ourselves into, they knew what they were getting themselves into and it was a great game for both of us.”