CHICAGO — It is the shot that everyone will remember. Only the shot. That’s how legends are built, how highlight reels are constructed, how our collective memory works. We’ll remember the shot.
LeBron James, taking the inbounds pass from Matthew Dellavedova in the corner, with 1.5 seconds left.
LeBron James, rising up and flicking the ball over Jimmy Butler’s left hand, through the United Center haze, following a perfect line to the net.
Roar. Buzzer. Gasp. Silence. Game.
A championship run was drifting away from the Cleveland Cavaliers, and they were seemingly too depleted, too gimpy, too off-kilter to do much about it. With one wrist flick, James changed everything, delivering an 86-84 victory and tying this second-round series with the Bulls at 2-2.
When it was over, James strutted toward the locker room, a yellow towel around his neck, looking like a prize fighter who had just knocked out his prey.
“YEAH! YEAH!” James whooped. “HUNH!!!”
It’s the shot we’ll remember, yes. But we should add a dozen footnotes to this particular chapter of the LeBron legend because, as with many such moments, it very nearly didn’t happen at all.
The final play, as initially drawn up by coach David Blatt, featured James as the inbounder.
James was hardly an attractive option, having missed 20 of his prior 29 shots on this afternoon.
James was hobbled, having turned his left ankle so badly in the third quarter that he stayed prone on the baseline for more than a minute, creating such concern that every last Cavaliers player, coach and staffer crossed the court to check on him.
In the span between that injury and the final buzzer, James missed a layup and a three-pointer, got called for traveling, shot an airball and was whistled for two offensive fouls, the last one with 14.3 seconds left and the Cavs leading 84-82.
James was the last line of defense as Derrick Rose—who won Friday’s game with a three-pointer at the buzzer—lofted a game-tying floater to knot the score at 84-84.
After that, James missed a driving layup, with the loose ball squirting away and out of bounds.
That forced a video review by the officials.
And that review gave the Cavaliers, who were out of timeouts, time to draw up a final play.
And that extra time gave James his chance to play hero.
No wonder then, as he assessed this dizzying afternoon, James’ voice conveyed more relief than joy.
“More than anything, I don’t like to let my teammates down, and I was happy I was able to make a play at the end to get it back,” he said.
It was that kind of game, and it’s been that kind of series, with the Cavaliers and Bulls trading missed shots and broken plays to see who will be the last Eastern power standing. It’s down to a best-of-three affair, with neither team having made a convincing case as the favorite.
The Cavaliers regained the home-court edge, but they remain a raggedy bunch, from the gimpy Kyrie Irving—a star reduced to playing “decoy” (his word)—to an erratic supporting cast. Iman Shumpert went 1-of-8 from the field on Sunday, while J.R. Smith went 1-of-6 through three quarters, before making all four of his shots in the fourth.
Before James could earn his vindication, his sidekicks had to earn theirs. Over a nine-minute span late in the game, Smith and Timofey Mozgov combined to score 19 of the Cavs’ 23 points, as they turned an 11-point deficit into a seven-point lead.
For much of this postseason, the fickleness of the surrounding cast has placed an undue burden on James, forcing him to shoot more, score more and expend more energy. For at least that nine-minute stretch, the Cavs gave him some relief.
“That’s our job,” Smith said. “Tristan (Thompson), myself, Shump, everybody else, we’ve gotta chip in some way, somehow, whether it’s shots, steals, rebounds, loose balls, whatever it takes. So much pressure is put on those guys' shoulders, we’ve gotta do whatever we can to lift it off a little bit.”
And even then, the game might easily have been lost on a single gaffe—by the coach.
After Rose’s game-tying layup with 9.4 seconds left, Blatt crossed the sideline and motioned for a timeout. The Cavaliers had none, having spent their last timeout moments earlier. Tyronn Lue, the associate head coach, quickly pulled Blatt back to the bench before the officials noticed.
Had the timeout been granted, the Bulls would have been awarded a technical foul free throw and possession.
“I almost blew it, to be honest with you,” Blatt said. “Good thing they caught it, my guys.”
Before the Cavaliers could claim victory, Blatt had to be corrected once more.
With 1.5 seconds left and the officials huddling around a television monitor to determine possession, Blatt drew up a final play. James, at that point shooting 9-of-29 in the game and 37 percent in the series, would be the inbounder.
Until he wasn’t.
“The play that was drawn up; I scratched it,” James said. “I told Coach, 'There’s no way I’m taking the ball out, unless I can shoot it over the backboard and it’ll go in.' I told him to have somebody else take the ball out, give me the ball and everybody get out the way.”
Blatt wisely deferred to his four-time MVP. So Dellavedova walked over to the baseline, shooed away some photographers, wiped his palms on the soles of his shoes, took the ball from referee Tom Washington, waited a second, then tossed a short pass to James in front of the Bulls bench.
James caught the ball and rose in one motion, sending it into the Chicago night. As the buzzer sounded, James jogged to midcourt, where he was gang-tackled by his joyous teammates.
“It was for those guys,” James said. “And that’s all that matters. To hit a shot like that for them, it means the world to me.”
For three days, this city had The Shot and The Shot II—Michael Jordan’s signature shots against the Cavaliers—playing on a near-constant loop on local television and on the arena scoreboard, as if to taunt Cleveland with every painful memory. On Friday night, Rose added another, a banked three-pointer at the final buzzer.
The Clutch Shot to Win a Crucial Playoff Game ledger may forever be in Chicago’s favor, but on Sunday afternoon, LeBron James put a large notch on Cleveland’s side of the board.
“I’m tired of those shots, good or bad,” Smith said, wryly. “Too much nerves going into it. It was a hell of a shot, though, especially in front of their bench.”
We’ll remember the shot. And in time, we’ll forget all of the chaos that preceded it.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.