Lakers! As LeBron James plays through constant contact, Luke Walton sees echoes of Shaq

Kyle Kuzma, left, and LeBron James.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Hi, this is Tania Ganguli, Lakers beat writer for the L.A. Times, here with your weekly newsletter.

There was a moment during LeBron James’ post-game news conference Wednesday when the polished orator gave way to a man standing at his locker, with cameras, cellphones and recorders pointed at him, barely able to take some time to catch his breath before this was demanded of him: Explain what it means for you to pass Wilt Chamberlain as the fifth-leading scorer in NBA history while wearing a uniform.

James started to answer. Then he stopped.

“I don’t know how I feel right now,” he said.

Had James been asked to characterize how his body felt, and had he been honest, his answer might have been clearer. The Trail Blazers were physical with him, as a lot of teams are. Suns Coach Igor Kokoskov said a few weeks ago that you have to foul James, and foul him hard, because even then he barely feels it.

That’s not true, of course. James is strong, but he knows when he’s getting fouled. And while he does argue for calls with referees often, he doesn’t play for the foul. By that I mean, he pushes through the contact to score and then argues his case if he doesn’t get a foul call on top of it.

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“My little league coaches always told me, ‘Stop crying or complaining about a foul, just play through it,” James said. “‘Try to make the bucket and worry about – control what you can control.’ And my mind set was that at like age 9, 10 years old. Just kind of play through it, play through the contact. If there’s a, I get fouled a lot. Sometimes it’s called, sometimes it’s not but I gotta still maintain my focus because there’s so much more of the game to be played.”

It’s familiar to Lakers coach Luke Walton, though on a different scale.

“He takes a beating every time he drives, and you have to put hands on him,” Walton said. “You have to put elbows into him because of his size and strength. He probably – if you looked at video – he could probably shoot 100 free throws a game if everything was called, but it was the same when I played with [Shaquille O’Neal]. Shaq used to get fouled a lot and not get free throws but he does a great job of playing through that either way and making plays.”

Things have been going well for the Lakers in the past week. We’ll catch up on all that. But first…

Losing Rajon Rondo will hurt

At some point Wednesday night, Rajon Rondo broke his hand.

Walton thinks that happened in the fourth quarter when Rondo stole the ball from Portland center Jusuf Nurkic.

Rondo didn’t do much statistically for the Lakers on Wednesday, after having a really impactful game the last time the Lakers played the Trail Blazers. It made me wonder if his hand was bothering him before that play.

Since they became teammates, James has raved about Rondo’s understanding of the game. Walton often praises Rondo for his ability to direct traffic on offense. You’ll often see Rondo running over to the rest of his teammates while on the floor to share things he’s seen. He does it in the pre-game locker room too, where Rondo is almost always sitting at his locker watching film. Every once in a while he’ll call over a teammate to explain something to him.

With Rondo out, the Lakers will be much more reliant on Lonzo Ball. They’ll also need to get more creative with their point guard rotation. The Lakers’ third option at point guard is Brandon Ingram. When Ingram and Rondo were both suspended, Lance Stephenson became the Lakers’ backup point guard. You’ll probably also see Alex Caruso called up from the South Bay Lakers.

Since last we spoke…

--On his way to Europe on July 1, LeBron James’ phone rang with a FaceTime call. Whose face? Kyle Kuzma’s. I took a look at their relationship.

--Landing in Sacramento was a bit surreal. The most destructive wildfire in California’s history, the Camp fire, had ravaged part of the state north of the city and smoke flowed thickly through Sacramento from it. It lingered in the arena as well. There wasn’t any talk of postponing the game, and that was probably the right call, but James did say he had a headache that he assumed was from the smoke.

--As for the game, it’s the second night of a back-to-back that is supposed to be the ugliest, but the Lakers started with an aesthetically lacking game in Sacramento. This was a turning point for them though. Because of their defense, they were able to secure just their second blowout win of the season, and first against an opponent who’d had some success.

--Never fear, the adage held true this week. The second game of last weekend’s back-to-back was also ugly. But in the end, Tyson Chandler saved the Lakers with a game-winning block that set off a playoff-like celebration after a win over the Hawks.

--The last week has been a tough one in Los Angeles between the mass shooting in Thousand Oaks and the wildfires. In response to the shooting, the Lakers joined the Clippers, Bucks and Hawks in wearing shirts that said “Enough” along with the names of the 12 people shot by a gunman at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks. After the game, James spoke at length about how scary the proliferation of incidents like these is for him as a parent.

--Among the segment of Laker fans and observers who had reservations about James’ arrival were those who worried about his impact on Lonzo Ball. Ball’s start did nothing to assuage those fears, and I heard about it. This week, I took a look at what was going on for Ball. He’s figuring it out, but it’s been a process.

--Tyson Chandler has been so good for the Lakers that it’s kind of overshadowed the excellent play of JaVale McGee. McGee is still the Lakers starter, still playing well and still getting heavy minutes. But I checked in on whether this was causing any awkwardness between the two. Chandler, seven years deeper in the league than McGee, said he came in with pure intentions and made that known to McGee, whose play has made him proud.

--In the latest edition of our podcast, I interviewed McGee about life and I really enjoyed it. McGee and I spent some time talking about what it’s like to be so big, why he doesn’t tell strangers his name and how his greatest fear is being boring. Give it a listen if only to hear him imitate what he considers the stereotype of big men, which is that they wander around going, “Fee fo fum, hi, I’m tall.”

That’s all for today. Be back next week. As always thanks for reading, and pass along any feedback or questions you have.