James' big night finishes with a miss
The Cleveland Cavaliers were down two with seconds remaining. Cavalier Nation -- this time nearly 1,000 miles from the action -- was in panic mode, thousands certainly afraid to look at their televisions, thousands more certainly on the brink of tears.
Mo Williams was standing out of bounds with the ball in his hands, zeroed in on King James and King James alone. And the dream season was a swish or a miss away from either salvation or, for all intents and purposes, the end.
But this time, it would be more difficult. The Orlando Magic had learned their lesson after letting LeBron James squirt free for a game-winning 3-pointer in Game 2. This time, they put two defenders on him. This time, it seemed like he wouldn't even get the ball.
He caught the pass from Williams, who was stationed beneath the Magic basket, in the backcourt with 3.2 seconds to play, and began racing toward the left sideline, eyeing the clock and preparing to fire.
But from the moment he let it go, he knew his 38-footer didn't contain a miracle, and, as the buzzer sounded, it hit the backboard, short and to the left.
This time, there would be no talk of history, no talk of exorcising demons of seasons past. This time, James could not save the Cavs.
"I always feel like I can make any shot that I take," James said. "But as it traveled, it didn't look good. It felt good leaving my hand but didn't look good in the air."
Now nothing looks good for the Cavs.
Orlando's 116-114 overtime victory gave the Magic a 3-1 lead in this best-of-seven Eastern Conference final, and if you think they'll come back and win the next three games, I've got a new pair of Nike Air Broussards to sell you for $350.
In the 62-year history of the NBA, 190 teams have taken a 3-1 lead in a playoff series, and 182 of them (or 95.6 percent) have won.
And that's not even to mention the Cavs' lousy history against this Magic team. In a nightmare matchup if there ever was one, Orlando has now beaten Cleveland 10 times in 14 meetings over the last three years.
"I'm up for the challenge," James said. "And I think my play, my leadership has spoke for that. So I will be ready, and I think our guys will be ready also."
How many of James' guys would be ready was the big question entering Game 4 on Tuesday night. Mo Williams, his trusty sidekick all season long, had struggled mightily over the first three games, shooting just 32 percent from the floor.
Williams, perhaps in an effort to boost his confidence, guaranteed a series victory on the eve of the game. And for three quarters, he backed up his words, scoring all 18 of his points in his best performance of the series.
But he disappeared, almost literally, after that, attempting just two shots in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Williams wasn't the only member of James' supporting cast to show up. Delonte West, averaging just 11 points for the series, was terrific, pouring in 17 while handing out seven assists and grabbing five rebounds. A fearless West drove right at Dwight Howard late in the fourth quarter to tie the game on a layup, erasing what had been an eight-point Magic lead just minutes earlier.
Even Daniel Gibson, dusted off after playing less than seven minutes through the first three games, came off the bench to score eight points, including two big 3-pointers in the second quarter.
The somewhat balanced attack was by design, as James and the Cavaliers purposely went away from the all-Bron, all-the-time scheme they had fallen into ever since the second quarter of Game 1. And after three quarters, they led 79-78.
But in the fourth quarter and overtime, the Cavs went almost exclusively to James, and he was both fabulous and frustrating. He scored 20 of his 44 points, but also committed seven of his eight turnovers.
"He's our money guy," Cavs coach Mike Brown said. "Come fourth-quarter time, everybody knows the ball is going to be in Bron's hands. We know that and they know that."
With the Cavs trailing 91-83 with 7:49 left in regulation, James scored eight points to spark a 15-6 run that put Cleveland ahead 98-97 with 1:05 to play.
But for the second time this series, Game 1 hero Rashard Lewis hit a dagger 3, giving Orlando a 100-98 lead with just 4.1 seconds remaining.
Inbounding from half court, the Cavs got the ball to James, of course, and he drove hard to his right and was tripped by Pietrus. Later, he was asked why he didn't go for the 3 and the win.
"If I was Rashard Lewis, we would have won," he said with a smile. "I would have took the 3. But me being who I am, I took the 2 and got fouled and went up there and made two free throws."
When James went to the line, it was so loud you could barely hear your neighbor. He sank the first one cleanly, then his second attempt hit the front of the rim, the back of the rim and the front again (falling about a third of the way out) before dropping through the net.
But that's where James' heroics would end. He did nail two big 3-pointers in scoring 10 points, but he also had three turnovers. Afterward, he knew his performance, while spectacular, was also up and down.
"The ball is in my hands a lot, and I may have a few turnovers," he said. "That happens. But I have to figure out how to not have eight. Eight is unacceptable for me. Some of them are just miscues, some are just trying to make the right play."
James is averaging 42.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists. Even in a series in which he has set a conference finals record for points scored through the first four games (with 169), he can't always make the right play or hit the huge shot.
Chris Broussard is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.