In the first three quarters of James’s New York playoff debut, James was more outcast than most valuable player. He was ineffective on offense. On defense, he picked up his fourth foul with more than seven minutes remaining in the third quarter.
“I’m not a guy that’s in foul trouble a lot,” James said. “It was difficult for me to sit in the third.”
Before the fourth, James scored a modest 15 points, missing 6 of nine shots, and committed seven turnovers, more than double his season average.
As the crowd routinely and profanely serenaded him in the first half, James struggled, and a makeshift lineup gave the Heat fits.
At times, James looked the part of a professional wrestling character who needed to get slammed to the mat a few times, giving the crowd their money’s worth, before swiftly and unsurprisingly disposing of an underdog opponent.
In a game that featured strings of turnovers (five in a row at one point for the Heat) and three defensive three-second violations whistled on the Knicks, for James, the drama seemed embedded in the slugfest.
“Coaches like these kind of games, where you have to grind,” Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra said of James’s performance. “Things aren’t necessarily going well; he had some turnovers, he had some mistakes, but he was able to keep his head in it.
“He had foul trouble, a lot of things that could be an excuse for him not to find a way to impact the game in the second half. But he was able to keep his head in it. He was great in the huddles. He was great on the sidelines, staying engaged.”
When the final buzzer went off 12 minutes later, an engaged James had a team-leading: 32 points, 8 turnovers and 5 assists in an 87-70 victory.
James began his fourth-quarter reversal immediately and in style, sandwiching two straightaway 3-pointers around a putback layup in traffic. James’s 8-0 run gave the Heat their first double-digit lead.
When the Knicks cut the lead to 6 on two Carmelo Anthony free throws, James pushed it back to 9 with a three-point play off a driving layup.
James demurred when asked how he might remember his Garden playoff debut. “We won,” he said. “That’s all that matters to me.”
Then, one game away from a sweep, he described the Garden as a “hostile environment.”
James once scored 50 points at the Garden and has turned in many other memorable performances. But he has never eliminated the Knicks.
Part 2 of James’s New York playoff run on Sunday may be the last chapter of the Knicks’ season.