LeBron James made 74.3% of his shots in the restricted area during the regular season. He’s been right in line with that number for most of the postseason. Even now, two decades into his career and playing on an injured foot, James has made the majority of his layups. He might not get to the rim quite as easily as he once did, but once he’s there, he’s typically been a pretty safe bet.
It made his performance in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals that much more perplexing. The Los Angeles Lakers lost the game 108-103 to the Denver Nuggets to fall down 2-0 in the series. Yet James left six points on the board on three of the most bizarre misses of his career:
- With 8:57 remaining in the second quarter, James snuck by Jeff Green and Jamal Murray for a seemingly uncontested layup attempt, but wound up hitting the front of the rim and giving the ball back to Denver.
- With 7:46 left in the second quarter, James had a breakaway dunk opportunity, but fumbled the ball away during his wind up. It went out of bounds with possession reverting to Denver.
- With 26.1 seconds remaining and the Lakers trailing by four, James stole the ball from Jamal Murray and had a chance to cut Denver’s lead in half. He missed the layup, though it was the hardest of the three.
Obviously, it would be unfair to attribute the loss specifically to these misses. Putting aside the butterfly effect and the reality that the entire game changes if the scoreboard is altered at any point, James was great in a number of other areas. He defended Nikola Jokic admirably so that Anthony Davis wouldn’t have to as often. He racked up 10 assists, nine rebounds, four steals and two blocks. The Lakers won his minutes by four points and lost the minutes he rested by nine.
“Obviously it sucks that ball squirted out of my hand like that, maybe it hit my knee or whatever,” James told reporters after the game. “Unforced turnover by myself. Horrible, especially on the road.”
Scoring, at least relative to James’ typical self, has been a problem all postseason. James entered Game 2 having averaged 23.6 points per game in the playoffs, the second-lowest mark of his career behind the 2021 postseason in which he lost a single six-game series to Phoenix. James has missed all 10 of his 3-point attempts against Denver and his last 19 in the fourth quarter this postseason.
At this point, those 3-point struggles are to be expected. James entered Game 2 shooting 25% on 3’s in the playoffs. But James has never been an elite mid-range scorer. His points have, by and large, come at the basket for two decades. That’s what makes this loss sting so badly for the Lakers.
While James is far from the only player deserving of blame, the looks he missed came on plays he once made look easy. But given his age and health, there might not be anything easy for James anymore. The Lakers might have to live with the occasional miss like this. It could have cost them a tied series in this one.