Julius Randle steals the cheers from LeBron James by game’s end

As the Lakers tried to finish the Cleveland Cavaliers during the third quarter of Sunday night’s game, Lakers coach Luke Walton pulled aside the player he loves to antagonize, always with the best of intentions.

Walton told Julius Randle he is the best one-on-one defender in the NBA. A vote of confidence as Randle battled LeBron James on national television.

“I had the challenge of guarding the best player in the game,” Randle said after the Lakers’ 127-113 victory. “So you know I love to take that challenge and take it personal.”

That wasn’t Randle’s only contribution during the night. He helped the Lakers defensively, physically pushing around the Cavaliers. And he scored a career-high 36 points, with 14 rebounds. In doing all of that, Randle made a statement with James watching up close, with team executives Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka in attendance, four months before they’ll decide Randle’s future — a future that is tied to James in more than one way.


On Sunday night, though, Randle kept all of that out of his mind and played perhaps his best game as a Laker.

“It was something I always knew I could do,” Randle said. “Just take time to continue to learn the game, continue to grow and develop as a player. As a person. Something I knew I could do. I’m not surprised but it feels good I guess.”

Randle had the game’s best rating at plus-19, with Isaiah Thomas second. Thomas, whom the Cavaliers traded to the Lakers at the trade deadline, had a plus-18, and scored 20 points with nine assists.

For the third time this season, Lakers fans hosted a player they hope to get in free agency, and welcomed him warmly. James received the loudest cheer in introductions before the game, with much of the crowd standing for him.

They also cheered for former Laker Larry Nance Jr., who returned for the first time as a member of the opposing team. Nance and Jordan Clarkson were sent to Cleveland to help the Lakers clear enough salary cap space to entertain signing two players to maximum contracts.

When James hit his first three-pointer, over Lonzo Ball, the crowd cheered again. But before long, they were cheering for the home team exclusively.

In the first quarter, James made a layup to give the Cavaliers a 7-6 lead. When that lead disappeared it was gone forever. At halftime, the Lakers led 65-60.

In the third quarter, Cleveland tied the score at 76, but then the Lakers took off with a 22-6 run the rest of the quarter.

“We couldn’t get stops,” Nance said. “We were breaking down defensively. I think Julius got two or three and-ones in a row. That kind of broke the game open.”

At a timeout when the Lakers led the Cavaliers by 19, Johnson stopped by the baseline courtside seats of Rich Paul and Maverick Carter. Paul is James’ agent and Carter is his business manager. Paul also represents Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who scored 20 points for the Lakers on Sunday.

Randle had 10 points, a steal and seven rebounds during the third quarter.

“He was pretty special,” Walton said. “Showed a lot of what he can do. The crazy thing is, I still think he can be better.”

Walton has always been hard on Randle. He believes that is the best way to motivate the fourth-year player. He has seen Randle respond well to that, especially this season. Randle has worked through losing his starting spot and fighting for minutes to reach this point where he’s becoming a focal point for the Lakers.

What was once a foregone conclusion — that the Lakers would part ways with Randle to create the salary cap room to sign two players to max deals— perhaps even James — is now no longer such. Financially, the Lakers don’t have to relinquish Randle to create the salary cap space. If they are able to sign two stars this summer, they might have to get creative to keep Randle too.

Randle knows about that narrative. He nodded as it was recounted to him after the game. Then he insisted he didn’t think about it.

“It’s like, what, 16, 17 games left?” Randle said. “I’m just focusing on that. When the time comes in July for that, we’ll figure it out.”

By the time Randle checked out of the game with 1:05 left, part of the crowd stood up and cheered for him, perhaps hoping he wouldn’t be the next young Laker raised in the organization traded in pursuit of a star.

Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli