The stage was set for another moment — the NBA’s all-time leading scorer on his 39th birthday squaring off with a surging Minnesota team led by one of the young stars in the league, Anthony Edwards.
And if that wasn’t enough drama, an illness kept LeBron James from attending morning shootaround and threatened his status for Saturday night’s game.
But when it came time for the Lakers to play, the game representing one of the final challenges before the team flips the calendar and gets some time at home, James was on the court, ready to go.
He defied age by flying to the rim, slamming home his signature, violent, one-handed dunk. He caught an alley-oop pass for a dunk and sped past the Minnesota defense for another slam.
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And with the Lakers needing a tying three in the final seconds, James sprinted down the court after a Minnesota miss and pulled up from 23 feet 9 inches, swishing the shot. But James’ foot appeared to officials to be on the line, the Lakers star coming up a toenail short of another memorable moment.
The Lakers had one last chance after Edwards split two free throws, down two with 1.4 seconds left, but James couldn’t get a last shot off, the Lakers falling 108-106.
“It’s obvious it’s a three,” James said. “My foot is behind the line. I mean, you can see the space in between the front of my foot and the three-point line. You can clearly a white [space]. The wood on the floor. There’s a space in between the front of my foot and the three-point line. … Stevie Wonder can see that, champ.”
After the game, officials said there wasn’t “clear and conclusive” evidence to overturn the ruling of a two-pointer.
James finished with 26 points, just the 11th player in league history to score 25 or more after turning 39.
Edwards was everything advertised in scoring 31, the former No. 1 pick blossoming as Minnesota’s leader. He smirked at Cam Reddish after hitting one three, got Anthony Davis to bite on two fakes before a mid-range jumper and stared at the Lakers bench after hitting another triple in the fourth.
And when James tried to answer after that last three, the ball bounced off the rim and perched on top of the basket, the 17th missed three for the Lakers against just six makes.
It was Davis, not James, who set the tone early. Being defended by perennial defensive-player-of-the-year candidate Rudy Gobert, Davis dominated every aspect of the game.
He had nine points and five rebounds in the first five minutes and finished the quarter with 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Davis was up to 20 points and 10 rebounds by halftime and finished with 33 and 18 to go with eight assists and four steals.
Davis’ dominance was good news for the Lakers — everyone else except James struggled.
Lakers forward Cam Reddish drives against Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert during the second half. (Matt Krohn / Associated Press)
Reddish, playing through a groin injury, and Jarred Vanderbilt couldn’t hit open corner threes. Neither could Austin Reaves, who couldn’t get any aspect of his offensive game going, missing nine of 11 shots (while banking in a half-court heave just after the buzzer in the third). And D’Angelo Russell was quiet in 20 minutes before leaving the game with a tailbone contusion he suffered drawing a charge at the end of the third.
That play, like so many for Minnesota, the West’s top team, was a head-scratcher — a slew of turnovers and fouls keeping the Lakers in the game into the fourth.
But the Timberwolves’ 19 turnovers were offset by a 15-point advantage behind the three-point line, a margin that could’ve been closer had James been an eyelash farther from the rim.
“On social media, you can look at the film, whatever, and you can see the space between his foot and the three-point line,” Davis said. “You can see the floor, which indicates his foot was behind the line. If it was on the line for a two, you wouldn’t be able to see the floor. It’s tough. Tough one for sure.”
The Lakers (17-16) play Sunday in New Orleans before returning to Los Angeles to play 11 of their next 12 games.
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.