(LeBron James) passed it off, I guess he felt like there was too much pressure on him. —Jazz small forward Josh Howard
SALT LAKE CITY — With the game on the line and the ball in the hands of the NBA's best player this year, the NBA's best team was in perfect position to break the hearts of the Utah Jazz, who had led the Miami Heat for nearly the entire game Friday night at EnergySolutions Arena.
As the final seconds ticked down, LeBron James, who had already scored 35 points and made 8 of 9 shots in the fourth quarter alone, took the ball at the top of the key and . . . passed the ball to Udonis Haslem, a reserve who had taken only four shots all night.
Haslem's 15-footer bounded off the back of the rim and the Jazz and their sold-out crowd breathed a sigh of relief, then celebrated like they hadn't all season.
The question everyone had afterward was, why didn't "King James" take the final shot?
It was reminiscent of the NBA All-Star Game just five days earlier when James did the same thing in the waning seconds and his team trailing. Instead of taking the possible winning shot, he tried to pass it crosscourt only to have it intercepted. He was criticized for not wanting to take the shot, as he will be for not doing it again against the Jazz Friday.
"He passed it off, I guess he felt like there was too much pressure on him," said Utah's Josh Howard, who had the defensive assignment on James most of the night. Howard was probably talking about the defensive pressure he and Paul Millsap put on James, but it could also refer to James' unwillingness to take the big shot at the end of a game.
When James was asked about his decision to pass rather than shoot, he said, "Josh Howard stayed on my right hand and forced me down and Millsap was at the elbow. Knowing the percentages of what (Haslem) shoots from the free throw line, he got a good look at it."
James acknowledged that Haslem "might not have felt comfortable taking it." because he hadn't taken many shots all night. But he also said, "We got a good look, it just didn't go."
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra wasn't about to criticize his superstar for the decision, saying "we got an open shot" and James "made the right play."
James had been lights out in the final quarter and brought back bad memories to some Jazz fans of Michael Jordan, who once led his team back from a 20-point deficit in the final half by seemingly making every shot he tried.
That's what James did, as he nearly singlehandedly led Miami back from a 17-point second-half deficit by making six straight shots before Howard finally blocked one. Then he added two more baskets, a 3-pointer with 1:06 left and an off-balance shot with his foot on the 3-point line with 26 seconds left to put the Heat up three.
James said he knows he'll probably be criticized for not being more selfish and taking the final shot
"I just try to make the right plays and do what it takes to win basketball games," he said. "At the end of the day, games are not lost on one shot at the end or me not taking the shot, but I know the chatter will begin. I wanted that game as bad as anyone else on that floor."