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NEW YORK — LeBron James walked out onto the Madison Square Garden court about 90 minutes before his Los Angeles Lakers took on the New York Knicks to begin his pregame warm up. As he took shots from different spots on the floor, spectators in the stands and along the sidelines took out their phones to record his every move.
In a game between two teams out of the playoff picture playing out the final weeks of the regular season, James’ presence was the only thing to add some buzz to the Garden.
But it was the Knicks who came away with the win, and it was Mario Hezonja, who hadn’t played since Feb. 13, who came up with the biggest play of the game.
Hezonja blocked James’ shot attempt in the game’s final seconds, securing a 124-123 victory for the Knicks in a Sunday matinee.
James finished with 33 points, six rebounds and eight assists.
His best highlight came with about six minutes remaining in the game when he threw down a ferocious dunk, drawing a roar from the the strong Lakers support in the Garden crowd.
Emmanuel Mudiay led the Knicks with 28 points, while Damyean Dotson had 25.
The Knicks defeated the Lakers when the teams met at Staples Center in early January, but James missed that game while sidelined with a groin injury.
Since that game, the Knicks had won just three more games while the Lakers have fallen down the standings amid underwhelming performances, injuries and controversy stemming from the team’s pursuit of New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis.
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James needs help, but he’s not going to get it until the summer when the Lakers can ink another star in free agency to join him.
And it’s possible they could end up chasing some of the same players as the Knicks, who will have enough salary cap space to offer two max contracts.
In the meantime, James is in the middle of one of his most trying seasons.
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Sunday provided yet another difficult moment.
The Knicks got off to a good start, mostly courtesy of Dotson and Kevin Knox, each of whom scored 13 points in the first quarter.
But everything flipped in the second.
The Lakers scored 36 points in the period while holding the Knicks to 22 before carrying a 66-63 lead into halftime. The Knicks also were sloppy at times, committing 12 turnovers in the first half.
A bucket from James with 3:44 remaining put Los Angeles up by 11 points, but the Knicks made it close again.
A jumper from Dotson with less than two minutes remaining made it a five-point game before a pair of free throws from DeAndre Jordan brought the Knicks to within three.
After Jordan blocked a layup attempt from James, Dotson scored on the other end to make it 123-122 Lakers with 37 seconds left.
James then missed a jumper following a timeout. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope then fouled Mudiay, who made both foul shots to put the Knicks ahead.
James then dribbled the ball while holding for the last shot. He drove toward the basket with Hezonja on him.
Hezonja threw his arm up and knocked down James’ shot attempt as the final seconds fell off the clock.
Hezonja’s teammates swarmed him as the Knicks beat the Lakers for the second time this season.
Chris Iseman writes for NorthJersey.com, part of the USA TODAY Network.