When LeBron James woke up from his pregame nap, he sent his teammates a text.
It was hours before they took the floor against the Miami Heat for Game 4 of the NBA Finals and he wanted them to know how much this game meant to him.
He called it a “must-win,” a term he sparingly uses.
“I just felt that vibe,” James said. “I felt that pressure. I felt like for me, personally, this was one of the biggest games of my career and I just wanted to relay that message to my teammates, what type of zone I was in, what type of moment it was, because I just know how great of a team that we’re playing against.”
The Lakers went on to beat the Heat, 102-96, to take a 3-1 series lead. They’re one win away from their first championship since 2010.
James said he felt compelled to send that message after the Lakers’ lackluster performance in Game 3 when Jimmy Butler danced around their stagnant defense en route to a 40-point, 13-assist and 11-rebound performance in their 115-104 loss.
He knew the Heat was feeling confident.
And he wanted the Lakers to be ready.
They responded with a hard-fought, defense-first game in which there were nine lead changes, nine ties and neither team ever built a double-digit advantage.
The Lakers pulled ahead down the stretch.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made a three-pointer followed by a layup on consecutive possessions — both off of assists from James — to turn a two-point Lakers advantage to seven points, 95-88, with 2 minutes left.
Anthony Davis put the nail in the coffin with 39.5 seconds remaining after making a three-pointer to give the Lakers a nine-point lead, 100-91.
James said he didn’t hesitate to pass the ball to Caldwell-Pope with the game on the line.
“At the end of the day, if you’re on the floor at crunch time, then I believe in you,” James said.
As for Davis, he’s no longer impressed when he makes huge shots.
He expects it.
“He’s a big shot-maker late in the shot clock, early in the shot clock, fourth quarter, first quarter, everything in between,” James said.
After slow starts in which James and Davis had only eight points apiece in the first half, they finished strong. James had 28 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. Davis added 22 points and nine rebounds.
James scored 11 of those points in the fourth quarter, playing all 12 minutes of the final period for the third game in a row.
The 35-year-old, who is in his 17th season in the league, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“For me, I mean, at this point in the season, I don’t care about rest,” James said. “I really don’t. I don’t care about sleep. I don’t care about resting throughout the game. Obviously, I come out of the game. Coach has a rhythm and rotation that we live by and we go by. But I don’t care about resting because I can rest in a week, max, if it happens to go there.”
James has always led by example.
During the playoffs, he gets quieter. He stops joking. He stays up until 4:30 a.m. watching film.
And when he sent that text, his teammates had a visceral reaction.
“We see the message from our leader saying this is a must-win, and he just left it at that,” Davis said. “Guys knew coming in that we need to bring our A Game.”
Lakers coach Frank Vogel saw a marked difference on the defensive end.
“Game 2 and Game 3 were not good enough, quite frankly, to win in the NBA Finals, and we made some adjustments to our scheme, and the guys raised their level from a competitive spirit standpoint and alertness standpoint, and both were huge factors,” Vogel said.
James’ message worked.
After all, it’s not often that he does something like that.
“I think that might be the first time, for sure, here in the bubble,” Davis said. “Usually when we played bad, he’ll send a text or I’ll send a text and just tell guys we’re fine. You know, we’ll be okay. Things like that. But we usually talk more so in person after the game or in a meeting or something like that.”
After calling Game 4 a “must win,” James ended the text with one simple line.
“He said, ‘That’s all I need to say,'” Davis said.
He was right.