His face was full of disbelief as he fell to the floor. His arms went out in a question to the referees. LeBron James couldn’t imagine this happening, couldn’t imagine not being on the floor in the crucial final minutes of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday night.
It’s not something that happens to James every day. In fact, it was the first time he had fouled out of a game as a member of the Miami Heat, the first time he had fouled out of a playoff game in his career, and only the fourth time he had fouled out of an NBA game. After the game, James said he couldn’t recall the last time it had happened. The answer was April 2, 2008.
And it happened on a play on which he didn’t think he committed a foul.
“I fouled out,’’ James said of what was going through his head as the referee made the call with 1:51 left in overtime. “I don’t foul out. I don’t foul out. If I’m going to foul out, that sixth foul, I wish I’d have earned it, it would actually have been a foul on me.’’
He had already played the hero, his 3-pointer forcing overtime in the first place, a bit of an answer to those who continue to doubt his ability to perform in the clutch. James got an assist from a Celtics defense that left him wide open.
‘If I’m going to foul out, that sixth foul, I wish I’d have earned it . . .’LeBron James
That basket was his final one of the night.
James ended the game with 29 points for the Heat, who didn’t get nearly the support they required from his partner in crime, Dwyane Wade. He was again on a bit of an island, providing offense for a Miami team that lost, 93-91, to even the series at 2-2.
For the rest of overtime, James could only sit and watch, forlorn on the bench.
“It’s very tough,’’ he said. “I don’t know. I got a foul coming off a pen-down where I got cut off. They called an offensive foul on [Mickael] Pietrus. I got a double foul in the paint and then I got another foul posting up in transition.
“It’s very difficult because I know how to play the game of basketball, and I don’t need an advantage of holding somebody or pushing somebody down, but whatever, we lost.’’
Miami had the last possession of overtime, down by 2. It was left to Wade and other teammates less heralded than the MVP.
“He don’t normally foul out,’’ Wade said. “It was unfortunate he fouled out on that play, but we had to keep going.’’
The Heat kept going, but they couldn’t come through, Wade’s last-second 3-point attempt bouncing off the rim. James put his head in his hands in disappointment. He couldn’t do anything to help. He could only mourn the ending.
James, who also had three assists and six rebounds, represented a large part of the Heat offense. He kept them going when no one else was offering anything offensively, though he also committed seven turnovers.
But ultimately, the Heat need James on the floor at the end of games. They need his ability to make a shot. And on Sunday night, they didn’t have him.
“The biggest thing was one of our scorers [was out],’’ guard Mario Chalmers said. “We had to switch up our lineup; we had to go a little smaller than we like to. It’s something we have to figure out how to keep him out of foul trouble.’’
Celtics captain Paul Pierce, who fouled out in the opening minute of overtime, called it a “cut, scratch, grab, hold, elbow type of game.’’
That certainly showed in the foul totals, with the teams combining for 58.
James was called for his fifth foul with 5:32 left in the fourth quarter, far, far too much time for the Heat to feel comfortable keeping him on the floor. So coach Erik Spoelstra took him out, hoping to keep the game close without his best player for a few minutes.
“At that point, you just have to roll the dice and cross your fingers,’’ Spoelstra said. “We had a couple of guys in foul trouble. That proved to be costly at the end. That’s a shame. You hope that both teams have their guys and may the best team win.’’