Before he left the court after the game, LeBron James pulled Lonzo Ball close, one of the greatest NBA players ever meeting a rookie who grew up wanting to be just like him.
What they talked about might remain a mystery forever.
“Nothing,” Ball said, when asked what James told him.
“None of y’all business,” James said later.
The Lakers closed their four-game trip with a 121-112 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But as recruiting pitches go, this one wasn’t bad.
If the mission was to show James that the Lakers he could join in free agency next summer were a young group of talented players who cared about competing and had pride in their games and whom he could help take to the next level, they did that Thursday night.
Brandon Ingram caught fire early and scored 26 points through three quarters. Ball neared a triple-double with 13 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds, complete with at least one signature outlet pass and a steal from James. Rookies Josh Hart (11 points) and Kyle Kuzma (20 points) both reached double figures. They all pestered James and his elite band of Eastern Conference kings and even when the Cavaliers went on back-breaking runs, the Lakers didn’t fold.
“I think that we showed what our identity is going to be, we are just not all the way there yet,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “It is tough to do it for entire stretches of games.”
There was the stretch when the Cavaliers made three consecutive three-pointers. Ball answered with a step-back 23-footer. The Lakers cut a nine-point lead to three. They cut an 11-point lead to five. They got back within four of Cleveland despite a barrage of second-half turnovers. Kevin Love led the Cavaliers with 28 points.
“I think we shared the ball so well tonight, I think we fed it into the post more than we ever have, trusting our teammates running the floor, I think everybody contributed and did something tonight,” Ingram said. “The way we shared the basketball is something we want to continue to do as we go along these games, keep trusting each other on the offensive and defensive end.”
James began the day by avoiding the subject on everyone’s mind. He almost never shirks his duties to speak to reporters at some point before a game. James typically addresses reporters after shootaround, with some rare exceptions. He declined Thursday morning, and didn’t speak until after the game.
That only led to more speculation about what James’ silence could mean. But that kind of speculation is nothing new to James. It happened when he purchased a home in the Los Angeles area, when he and his wife toured schools in Sherman Oaks and when he sent a message on Twitter wishing Ball a happy birthday.
“[Ball has] said over and over since he was growing up who he modeled his game after, who was his favorite player,” James said. “It was me. I was humbled by that. Me wishing him happy birthday was kind of the salute back to him. I see all the stupid noise that happens. I can’t buy a place in L.A. I can’t live in L.A. It’s funny noise. But I don’t get involved in it.”
The Lakers’ interest has been obvious. They hoarded salary-cap space during free agency, willing to only sign one-year deals — big ones for the right player, but no more than one year. They used about $18 million of available money to sign Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, whose agent Rich Paul is James’ long-time agent and confidante.
If James leaves Cleveland, he’ll want to leave for a team where he knows he can win and compete for a championship. The Lakers have been clear they want to bring in two stars in free agency next year, and add them to what James saw as a talented young core.
That’s a reality not lost on the Lakers’ young players.
“Of course I’m aware of it, we all are,” Kuzma said. “But you know I think we as an organization can’t really bank on trying to get those guys. Other teams want them too. You never know how those guys feel. It’s really just us trying to develop and for us to get better. If we can do that, that’ll be fine, and that will attract people, too.”