LOS ANGELES — So, who you callin’ old?
It is easy, and probably intellectually lazy, to deduce that an opposing player’s suggestion that LeBron James is fading would be enough to push him to new heights. The Lakers’ 38-year-old star probably doesn’t need that artificial motivation.
And yet there was James before Game 3 against the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday, reminding brash youngster Dillon Brooks that, yes, his birthday was December 30, 1984. And there was James again, late in the overtime craziness of Game 4, going past Brooks for a layup to make it 113-108 with 29.4 seconds left, drawing a foul from Brooks to boot, and celebrating with the type of primal scream that you don’t normally see from him.
(Come to think of it, it was similar to the full-throttle emotion the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw displayed en route to his 200th pitching victory last week, another moment of a player who rarely expresses his emotions letting them all out for everyone to see. Memo to the world: The old guys have earned the right to emote, OK?)
But there were other LeBron vignettes during Monday’s eventual 117-111 Lakers victory that were instructive, as well, of how the twilight of one’s career can still be awfully bright.
It was LeBron’s first 20-point, 20-rebound game, as well as the first time he’d had 20 rebounds in an NBA game, period. He’d only had as many as 19 once, and that was in 2008. And according to the NBA, at 38 years and 113 days old he became the oldest player to have 20 points and 20 rebounds in a playoff game. The previous record-holder, Wilt Chamberlain, was 36 years, 262 days old when he scored 23 points and grabbed 21 rebounds on May 10, 1973, in the Lakers’ Game 5 finals loss to the Knicks.
LeBron James (38 years, 115 days old) becomes the oldest player in NBA history to record 20+ points and 20+ rebounds in a Playoff Game.
Wilt Chamberlain (36 years, 262 days old) set the previous record on May 10, 1973. #PLAYOFFMODE pic.twitter.com/3FO4jxSuTl
— NBA (@NBA) April 25, 2023
(That was, incidentally, Wilt’s last NBA game. He had 11 20-20 games that final season alone, but he was one of a kind and there will never be another like him.)
But there’s more. LeBron also had seven assists and two blocked shots against the Grizzlies on Friday night, and he drew at least two charging fouls, including a spectacular one of the stand-in-there-and-take-it variety just outside the restricted area when Ja Morant tried to leap over him on the way to the basket but made contact with 2:24 left in regulation and a 99-99 tie.
Oh, and there was the heave from the other side of the midcourt logo, following Anthony Davis’ blocked shot at the very end of regulation, that went in and would have won the game had he gotten it off in time.
All in a day’s work.
“I mean, that’s always been me, you know,” he said afterward. “Whatever it takes for the team to be successful, I’m just trying to be as great as I can be offensively, but even more importantly defensively. And that was kind of the mindset tonight. I was able to make the plays to help us be successful.
“You have to adjust to how the game’s being played and try to make plays. Defensive rebounding, offensive rebounding … when we’ve got an opportunity to get in there and get scrappy, versus this team, go and do it.”
But as for that flex and that primal scream …
“I mean, I just – you know how many plays I made,” he said. “And I’ve been a part of moments where, you know, you can kind of get like a kind of a dagger play or a kill shot. And I felt like that play right here, when I was able to make that and-one, kind of – I won’t say it closed the door, but there wasn’t as much light at the end (of) that particular (tunnel), for the rest of the game. So then the emotion come out.”
How is it to be a first-year head coach and to have LeBron on your side? Sometimes Darvin Ham sounds as awed as anyone else. Other times he reminds us all that he still has to coach LeBron, which means correcting him when necessary. After all, when Ham was hired last June one of the selling points was his ability to speak the NBA’s version of truth to power, the power in this case meaning superstar players.
“He understands that in order for all the other guys to make the right plays and sacrifice themselves, he has to be at the top of that list as well,” Ham said Monday night. “And that’s what those charges (he took) were in about. That put us in a position to succeed.”
Yes, Ham said, there are times that he gets dazzled watching some of the things LeBron does, not least the amount of preparation he undertakes to get ready to play. But there are other times, too.
“You can always get better,” Ham said. “And we break down our film, we see things at that point in the game (or) the clips we watch at halftime. He’s not perfect. Sometimes there are breakdowns, but at the end of the day, he’s gotta quickly recalibrate and not make the same mistake twice.
“Some of it’s fatigue. We’re pushing him hard (45 minutes Monday night) … but this is what the load management is about, for these guys to be able to exert themselves at a high level at this time of the year.
But, Ham added, “I don’t take it for granted, being in the position to coach him.”
Which brings up another factor. The Lakers – who had to win a play-in game to secure the No. 7 seed – now are in a position to knock the 51-win Grizzlies out of the playoffs on Wednesday night in Memphis. And it is true that the 43-win Lakers are a far different team now than they were for most of the first four months of the season, with different personnel and a different vibe.
But it has to be asked. Is it still foolish – let’s say, um, poking the bear – to consider a LeBron James team an underdog?
“No, we still are,” James said. “We didn’t play to our capabilities this year for an 82-game season, and that’s the reason why it is. But we don’t really talk about it.”
Better to do than to talk.
The King sends it to OT pic.twitter.com/EhmqQHLbrn
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) April 25, 2023
Year TWENTY! 👑 pic.twitter.com/OD7ZDMcDax
— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) April 25, 2023
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) April 25, 2023