If there ever was a chance to force LeBron James and the Lakers to lose their grip on the NBA Finals, it was right in front of the Heat in Game 4 on Tuesday night at Walt Disney World in Orlando. They were coming off a Game 3 victory that included only the third 40-point triple-double in Finals history by Jimmy Butler to cut the Lakers’ lead to 2-1.
As he left the court Sunday, Butler threw something James said to him earlier in Game 3 back into James’ face: "You’re in trouble."
Apparently, James agreed. When he woke up from his nap on Tuesday, James decided a call to arms was in order. He sent a text to his teammates telling them Game 4 was nothing short of a "must-win" contest.
"I felt that vibe, I felt that pressure," James explained after the Lakers let the Heat pull within two points with 3:39 left to play before pulling away for a 102-96 victory to take a 3-1 series lead going into Game 5 Friday night.
"I felt like this was one of the biggest games of my career. I just wanted to relay that message to my teammates, the type of zone I was in, the type of moment it was and the kind of team we were playing against.
"After that Game 3 win, that confidence [the Heat] had, the confidence they still have even after tonight’s loss. They are just a gritty, so damn-well-coached team. We’ve got to have that same grit and that same attitude. It was my mindset. I’m still in it."
Even though James has exchanged texts with the Lakers at other times this season, there was no mistaking the urgency of this particular message. Anthony Davis said this was the first time since the Lakers entered the NBA "bubble" three months ago that James had taken such a dramatic step. After describing the must-win nature of the game, Davis said James punctuated his text by adding, "That’s all I need to say."
Indeed, it was. "We felt bad after losing Game 3," said Davis, who played far below his superstar standard. "Guys were already on edge. We see the message from our leader saying this is a must-win . . . We knew coming in that we had to bring our ‘A’ game."
As much as James wants to cement his legacy by winning an NBA title with a third franchise, he recognized the danger of trying to do too much by himself. Coach Frank Vogel, Davis and James agreed before Game 4 that the 6-10 Davis would take over from James as the primary defender to get more size against the 6-7 Butler.
"His ability to guard one through five, guard anybody on the floor, not only guard on the perimeter, continue to protect the paint," James said of Davis’ defensive skills. "It’s hard to score on him. The guy can do everything defensively."
Butler still came close to a triple-double with 22 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, but after an 11-point opening period when he was 5-for-5 from the field, Butler shot 3-for-12 the rest of the way.
"We just wanted to give him a different look," Davis said of Butler. "I just told 'Bron, ‘I’ll take him. We want you to run the screen-and-roll, get in the paint, get fouled, find guys, get back, guard Jimmy.’ I’ll take some of that load off him, and I’ll guard him."
Davis had four blocked shots to go with his 22 points and nine rebounds, and James focused more on the offensive end on his way to 28 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. It was Davis, who capped a 10-3 fourth-quarter run with a three-pointer for a 100-91 lead with 39.6 seconds left.
"Big-time shot, big-time play for our team to be able to put the game away," James said of Davis’ clinching basket.
Now, every game is "must-win" for the Heat. They’re in trouble.