He is at it again. Once more, Fox Sports 1’s Skip Bayless has been poking at flaws in the game of Lakers star LeBron James, something Bayless has been doing for, essentially, James’ entire NBA career. But on this one, Bayless might have a point.
On Tuesday, Bayless brought James’ fourth-quarter performances this year into focus, a day after the team blew a 19-point lead to the Warriors, the biggest blown led the Lakers have had in three years with James on the floor.
It was also the second time this year the Lakers lost a game they were leading to start the fourth quarter, something the team did not do at all last season — they went 57-0 when they had the lead at the end of the third in 2020-21.
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That brought the focus to James, who was just 1-for-5 with five points and three turnovers in the fourth quarter against the Warriors. Here’s what Bayless had to say to his partner, Shannon Sharpe:
I have got to tell you, we’re 15 games in … and your man LeBron James has become an early-season fourth-quarter disaster. And I don’t know why because he’s never been this bad. But I will insist to you what I insisted before the year started, your team still does not have a closer. Your team is really good and really powerful and fire-powerful, and if it jumps out on you and buries you, you are mostly buried. But if you can hang in, hang on and get this game down to the last four or five minutes, close, you got a real shot because the Lakers still don’t have that guy who says, ‘I got it, I’ll close it.’
— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) January 19, 2021
LeBron James’ Fourth-Quarter Numbers Are Lagging
That is, of course, pretty harsh. But is there some truth there?
As a whole, the Lakers have not been bad in the fourth quarter, making 45.4% of their shots and 37.5% of their 3-point shots. They outscore opponents by an average of 1.4 points in the fourth quarter, which is eighth in the NBA. They were better last season, though, when they were a plus-1.7, third in the league in the fourth quarter.
LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers had a 96% chance to win in the fourth quarter.https://t.co/fM82yfErNU
— Warriors Nation (@WarriorNationCP) January 19, 2021
James is a big part of the Lakers’ late-game slides. He scores 5.5 points per fourth quarter, with 1.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 0.9 turnovers. The problem has been his lack of scoring efficiency in the fourth quarter, when he is shooting only 36.2% from the field and 25.9% from the 3-point line.
He is the Lakers’ top fourth-quarter scorer, but Talen Horton-Tucker (34.6%) and Dennis Schroder (35.6%) are the only players who have gotten regular minutes in the fourth but have worse shooting percentages than James.
Last season, James led the Lakers with 7.7 points per fourth quarter, making 46.0% of his shots and 35.5% of his 3s. He averaged 2.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists. So calling James a “fourth-quarter disaster” might be a stretch, but it is not unreasonable to say he has been vastly underperforming his past results.
Fatigue Behind LeBron James’ Late-Game Struggles?
It is not clear why James has had these late-game woes. It is not typical of him to struggle in these situations and Bayless is wrong to suggest the Lakers don’t have a go-to closer. It’s James, and over his career, he has been a good crunch-time player.
Fatigue is, surely, the biggest factor. James is 36 and played in an NBA Finals that ended just 72 days before the 2020-21 season began because of the COVID-19 interruption and the league’s late return to play in the so-called bubble in Orlando. While some felt the Lakers should have a plan in place to rest James in the early season, he has not missed a single game through the team’s first 15 outings.
The team has dropped his minutes, down to 32.2 per game, fewest of his career. But that’s not enough. He should have some days off built into his schedule. James has spoken out against resting in the past, so he may be reluctant to do so. The Lakers need to put that aside, though, and staple him to the bench.
If fatigue is an issue, it will be made more acute by the turn the Lakers’ upcoming schedule takes. After a relatively soft early-season slate, the Lakers will go on a seven-game trip through the Eastern Conference, where they will play, among others, the Bucks, Sixers and Celtics, the East’s Top 3 teams.
Maybe James will begin to turn around his fourth-quarter productivity. But he might need a break first.