So this is what LeBron James meant.
He said he’d be different. He said he had no choice, and neither did his teammates.
He said his intensity had been activated earlier in the season than it usually has to be.
James meant he’d do everything he could. He’d find his teammates in unseen corners. He’d wrestle for rebounds under the basket. He’d stand underneath the basket and take a charge for James Harden’s sixth foul and send the Houston Rockets into a frustrated rage as the game’s final seconds ticked off.
The Lakers defeated the Rockets 111-106 on Thursday night at Staples Center to even their record at 29-29.
It was their first opportunity after the All-Star break to show that they really had changed their intensity and that they could make the push they needed to achieve the difficult feat of making it to the playoffs despite entering the break with a losing record.
“I’m just an all-around basketball player,” James said. “Can’t give me a position, I’m just a ballplayer. Put me on the floor, I’m going to make plays, offensively and defensively. I sacrifice my body, sacrifice for my team, being able to get into the lane, kick to [Reggie Bullock] for a three in the right corner. Then take a charge when Bull pressed up on James [Harden]. But also get some defensive rebounds to try to help us win ballgames. It’s all about whatever it takes to help us win.”
Harden scored 30 points, reaching that level for the 32nd straight game, notching his final two points moments before he fouled out. Chris Paul had 23 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists before he also fouled out in the final seconds.
The Rockets had a 19-point lead in the third quarter that the Lakers slowly chipped into. After three quarters, the Rockets led 90-83.
“We did find it tonight, and found a way even when we weren’t making shots and the game was sloppy, for us to stay close enough and give us a chance,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said.
James was on the bench near the end of the third and to start the fourth quarter.
As he sat on his elevated seat, he took a moment for himself to regulate his breathing and reset his mind.
With their deficit cut to four in the fourth quarter and 8:58 left in the game, James strolled back onto the court, the weight of the Lakers’ playoff hopes with him.
On that first possession, James found Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as the buzzer sounded on the shot clock and the scoreboard showed the Lakers down 92-91. Harden missed two three-pointers, but Eric Gordon hit from beyond the arc.
James was credited for a three-pointer with 7:22 left in the fourth quarter. As it went through the net, he pirouetted with his right hand up right where he’d left it at the end of the shot.
Instead of being up by one, L.A. faced a three-point deficit, but the Lakers, and James in particular, didn’t relent.
A thundering, one-handed dunk with 5:17 left in the game left no doubt about James’ intentions. He banked in a floater a few minutes later. And Bullock’s three-pointer with 1:31 left in the game sealed a critical Lakers win.
“We just showed that grit and that grind to be able to get some defensive stops, to be able to get out on the break,” James said. “Be able to play good, Laker basketball. Hopefully we can continue that on the road. We got a two-game road trip [to New Orleans and Memphis].”
They’ll take momentum with them when they leave Los Angeles.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli