If Los Angeles ever becomes LeBron James’ city, it will be because there are more nights like Wednesday night, nights when he imposes his physicality and intellect with such force that he demolishes any notion there is an active player his equal.
What James did in the Lakers’ 126-117 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in Staples Center, only James could do.
He was everywhere. He did everything.
In his most electrifying performance in a Lakers uniform, James finished with a season-high 44 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists.
“My jumper was very comfortable,” James said. “My three-ball was feeling pretty good.”
James made 13 of 19 shots, including five of six three-point shots.
Of the lessons James has imparted on his less-experienced teammates this season, none were as important as what he demonstrated to them on this night.
When he’s required to take over a game, he still can.
That’s what he did in a tour-de-force third quarter, in which he scored 16 points and essentially decided the outcome of the game.
“He definitely seemed to be a little more aggressive,” coach Luke Walton said. “It’s something we’ve talked about as the season has gone on, constantly finding that balance between being aggressive … and letting some of the other guys still contribute, playmake and take big shots.”
The 12-minute period included one particular sequence that encapsulated his dominance, as he made a two-handed block on a dunk attempt by Nik Stauskas on one end of the court and spun around Al-Farouq Aminu on the way to a layup on the other end.
“That play right there,” Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “That was just impressive.”
The block was one of three for James and prompted the crowd to leap to its feet.
That was no small accomplishment. When the game started, the arena was packed but curiously silent, almost as if the audience didn’t know what to make of this Lakers team.
Before it was over, the same fans were serenading James with chants of “M-V-P!” They raised their phones to record the free throw that ended a temporary stalemate with Wilt Chamberlain for fifth place on the all-time scoring list. And they groaned when Lonzo Ball passed on an open three-point shot late in the game that could have given James his 10th assist.
It was as if Kobe Bryant was back on the court.
“As we all know, he’s a very special basketball player,” Walton said.
The victory was crucial for a young team still discovering its identity.
The Lakers have won six of their last seven games, with two of the victories coming against the second-place Trail Blazers.
The Lakers were down 33-26 after the first quarter. They trailed by as many as 13 points in the second. But with James making four of four three-point shots and scoring 16 points in the first half, they went into the intermission with a 59-55 advantage. The Lakers limited the Trail Blazers to 22 points in the second quarter. James was a part of the defensive effort.
“I think Tyson [Chandler] has enhanced what we’ve done, but I think more importantly, even before Tyson’s arrival, we were starting to find our niche defensively, understanding how we need to play, what’s the key to success for us and that’s rebounding and limiting three-point shots,” James said.
The confirmation that James still has games like this left in his 33-year-old body should reassure the Lakers as they make their way through the ups and downs of an 82-game season. If they are in trouble, they know James will be there.
“I try to do a little bit of everything,” James said. “That’s just who I am. I am a basketball player more than anything. I don’t have a position. You can put me on the floor with anybody and I feel I can make the right play for my teammates and instill confidence in my teammates to do that.”
The next potential crisis is already here, as Walton said after the game Rajon Rondo would be sidelined for the next few weeks because of a broken hand.
And James provided a first-hand example of how improvements can be made. Before the game, he was critical of his own free-throw shooting. He promised to do better and did, making 13 of 15 free throws on this night.
James continued to preach patience.
“I’m not one to put a cap on how many games we need to see where we are,” James said. “I think we want to just try to get better each and every month. I believe we’re better here in November than we were in October. If we continue on this trend, we will be where we want to be after the New Year.”