LOS ANGELES – In much more significant games that decided his NBA championship fortunes, LeBron James basked in his greatness by bathing in champagne. This time, James’ teammates dumped water on him.
James ensured the Lakers escaped with a 124-116 win over the Golden State Warriors on Sunday (PHT) by fulfilling a job description few in NBA history have done before. By finishing with a season-high 56 points while shooting 19-for-31 from the field including six from 3-point range and nearly perfect (12-for-13) from the free-throw line along with 10 rebounds, the 37-year-old James became the oldest player in NBA history to post 50-plus points and 10-plus rebounds in a game. He also became the fourth-oldest player to post a 50-point game.
So why shouldn’t James enjoy his teammates soaking him with water over something only Jamal Crawford, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant accomplished? After the on-court celebration, James was asked in the locker room how it felt to score so many points. His response?
“Right now, I don’t give a damn about the 56,” James said. “I’m just happy we got a win. We need pretty much all of them.”
The Lakers sure do.
Following a four-game losing streak after the All-Star break, the Lakers (28-35) finally collected a win against a Warriors team (43-21) that has lost four consecutive games and eight of their last 10 amid Draymond Green’s absence. With that win, the Lakers hold slim leads over the New Orleans Pelicans (27-36) and the Portland Trail Blazers (25-38) for ninth place in the Western Conference and the second-to-last spot in the Play-In Tournament next month.
Afterwards, the Lakers held out optimism they could finally cement a winning streak beginning with games against sub-.500 opponents in San Antonio on Tuesday (PHT) and in Houston on Thursday (PHT). But the Lakers have experienced too many disappointments this season to know better. They have remained inconsistent with their injuries and their play.
Hence, what James has accomplished so far during his 19th season at 37 years old has become a secondary storyline to the Lakers’ season-long issues. So at least for one night, James could find satisfaction that his dominance actually resulted in a rare win.
“There’s really no words for it,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “An incredible performance. One of the best to ever do it.”
James became the seventh Lakers player to post multiple 50-point performances. James remained only five points shy of his career-high 61-point output with Miami against Charlotte on March 3, 2014. And by posting his 13th career 50-point game, James ranks only behind Wilt Chamberlain (118), Michael Jordan (31), Kobe Bryant (25), James Harden (23), Elgin Baylor (17) and Rick Barry (14) for the most 50-point games in NBA history.
James (36,776 career points) will likely surpass Karl Malone (36,928) for second place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list at some point in the Lakers’ 19 remaining games. James remains on track to eclipse Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387) for No. 1 at some point next season.
No wonder James recently lamented on his self-produced show “The Shop” that “when they talk about the best scorers of all time, they never mention my name.” James then added, “it pisses me off.”
“It’s never been a No. 1 option for me,” James said. “I came into this league understanding what team basketball is all about, the importance of the pass and the importance of your teammates feeling comfortable out there on the floor and everyone trying to be in a rhythm.”
James formed that mindset when he played on his first rec-league basketball team with the Summit Lake Community Center Hornets. James, at nine years old, credited coach Frank Walker for “teaching us the right way to play the game of basketball.” James added that “the word, ‘ball hog,’ was something that we despised of and we never let it creep within our ball club.”
James refined that approach at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School and through 19 NBA seasons that spanned four championships in 10 Finals appearances. In related news, James ranks seventh on the NBA’s all-time assists list.
No wonder Carmelo Anthony jokingly refused to sympathize with James’ slight. Anthony, who ranks ninth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, joked that “he can’t get everything.
“I know the feeling,” Anthony said. “I can only imagine somebody who can be the all-time leading scorer in NBA history who don’t get the credit of being a scorer. But it is what it is, man. They got to talk about something. We know he can score the ball. But the difference is some people are pure scorers.”
Anthony listed himself and Kevin Durant as those types of scorers. As for James? Anthony said, “that’s not what he does; he just knows how to do it at a high clip.”
So much that James’ play this season has mirrored what he showed in his prime. By averaging 28.8 points on 51.9% shooting along with 8.0 rebounds and 6.2 assists, James also has recorded his highest-scoring season since his time with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2009-10 (29.7 points per game). Because of those strong numbers, James unofficially eclipsed Abdul-Jabbar for most combined regular-season and postseason points.
James made little of that milestone last month because it coincided with a Lakers’ previous loss to the Warriors. After beating the Warriors this time, James became more reflective.
Both achievements did not just capture how James has become an elite scorer with a pass-first mentality. It also highlights how James has evolved his game since entering the NBA in 2003. First, James played in a game he described as “paint dominant” with big men scoring in the post. Then, James became used to playing a game that relied more on passing, cutting and pick-and-rolls. With the Warriors winning three of their NBA titles at James’ expense, James observed that Stephen Curry’s presence alone spurred an influx of 3-point shooting around the NBA.
“You got to be able to adjust. If you cannot have a growth mindset on how you can find ways to get better with the time, then you’ll get left behind,” James said. “I’m not saying that I’ve changed my game in any way. But I’ve always wanted to be able to have a game that fits any style of play or any era. I feel like my game will fit any era of basketball history from the time the great James Naismith created it. So as long as I’m in this league and the game changes again, then hopefully I’ll have that growth mindset and I’ll continue to adapt.”
How has James adapted?
In recent seasons, he has prioritized sleeping, icing and cold-tub treatment. He also reported he arrives to games five hours before tipoff. As James put it, “trying to stay above the curve and always try to be proactive and not reactive.”
James believes he has no choice. He missed 27 games last season after suffering a high-ankle sprain, an injury that also limited him in the Lakers’ first-round exit to the Phoenix Suns. James has missed a combined 10 games this season because of a sore right ankle and a strained abdominal muscle.
“I don’t think about it too much,” James said. “I feel it from time to time. Not from time to time. I feel it. But at the end of the day, if I’m on the floor, I have a job to do. If it gets to a point where I feel like it’s hurting me in the long run, then I shouldn’t be out there. But if I’m suiting up, then I have to do to go out there and be productive.”
James has also become productive by varying how he plays. He has shot at least 34% from deep in 10 of his last 11 NBA seasons.
“The biggest thing is what he’s done to transition his game at this stage of his career in terms of his shooting,” Vogel said. “It is just an example for every player to put the work into his craft.”
Those two elements played out in Sunday’s game against Golden State.
James finished with both a reverse dunk and a reverse layup on fast-break plays and pulled up from deep just before the halftime buzzer. James did the same thing on consecutive plays to give the Lakers a 100-97 lead with 7:53 left. On a drive-and-kick, James then set up Anthony for an open trey that gave the Lakers a 122-116 cushion with 34.3 seconds left.
“He’s locked in and playing at a level that not a lot of people don’t really stand to play at,” Lakers guard Russell Westbrook said. “To see it first hand is something that I can learn as I continue to get older in this league and continue to find ways to be effective. He’s one of the best of all time. He shows exactly why and continues to prove other people wrong.”
For far too often, James has finished with MVP-type numbers only for the Lakers to lose. That almost happened again against Golden State amid nine ties and nine lead changes. Though Westbrook had 20 points on 9-for-17 shooting, he also finished with five turnovers and five fouls. Two of those turnovers happened in the final 2:37. James, himself, was charged with an eight-second violation at the 2:16 mark.
This time, though, James ultimately prevailed against a Warriors team that missed Green’s defense and playmaking as well as Klay Thompson’s usually reliable shooting stroke (seven points on 3-for-13 shooting). But James also prevailed because he has remained the best version of himself.
“When he has it going like that,” Westbrook said, “there’s nobody on their team that can do anything.”
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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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