For a game that pitted the NBA’s worst team against its most disappointing, there was a fair amount of buzz at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon.
Even on a dysfunctional team like the Lakers, LeBron James remains a popular ticket here. This makes sense; James, who lovingly refers to the Garden as “his favorite playground,” has had some great moments in New York.
Sunday’s 33-point performance was not one of them. James missed three straight shots in the final minute — his potential game-winning driving runner was blocked by Mario Hezonja with 2.3 seconds left — as the Knicks beat the Lakers, 124-123, and ended their losing streak at eight games.
The Knicks outscored the Lakers 13-1 after James’ jumper with 3:45 remaining gave Los Angeles a 122-111 lead.
Hezonja, who hadn’t played since Feb. 13 because of a bruised right leg, was instrumental in holding James to 4-for-15 shooting in the fourth quarter. On the final play, James let the clock tick down before having his 13-foot runner stuffed by Hezonja, who was mobbed by his teammates on the court as the Knicks won for the first time since Feb. 26.
“He’s one of the most unguardable guys in the world and one of the greatest players of all time. So it’s tough,” Hezonja said when asked about his approach on the last play. “But when we’re on the court, who cares? . . . I was just trying to play as hard as I can and try to stop him.”
Said James: “We tried to get a good look, and great ‘D’ by Mario. That’s it.”
The Lakers (31-39) have lost eight of nine and were swept by the Knicks (14-56) in their two-game season series. One-seventh of the Knicks’ wins are against them.
Emmanuel Mudiay, who hit two free throws with 22.3 seconds left to put the Knicks in front 124-123, had 28 points and eight assists. Damyean Dotson scored 25 points, Kevin Knox 19 and Hezonja 17. DeAndre Jordan added 15 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists.
“Mudiay was in go mode,” coach David Fizdale said. “I thought the way he finished that game was great. He kept our pace up and he was in the mix on rebounds for us. He was making every right play for us.”
James shot 11-for-26 and had eight assists and six rebounds. Entering Sunday’s game, he had averaged 28.3 points, 7.5 assists and 6.9 rebounds in 26 games at the Garden. The loss was his first at the Garden since Jan. 9, 2014, ending a nine-game winning streak for his teams. He is 19-8 at MSG.
“We had all the chances in the world to win the game, but they made the shots and plays down the stretch to win the game,” James said.
This was James’ first visit to the Garden in 14 seasons with a team that is not going to make the playoffs. At times, it appears as if he would rather be anywhere but on a Lakers squad mired in injury and controversy. James repeatedly has questioned his teammates’ motivation as the team has dropped in the standings.
James was criticized during Sunday’s game by Knicks announcer Walt Frazier after he did not join coach Luke Walton’s huddle in the first half, sitting apart from his teammates during a timeout. Frazier noted that it seems as if James “doesn’t really care.”
Judging by the Knicks’ reaction after Hezonja’s block, they still do.