As he took the ball and eyed his path, the anticipation in the arena rose. Fans gasped at the sight of LeBron James dribbling close to midcourt, seeing nobody between him and the basket. Once James made up his mind to take off full speed, there was no doubting how that sequence would end.
Moments later, James rose in the air, descended as he got closer to the rim and slammed the ball through the net, making the whole apparatus shake. Then he unleashed a howl. Even in this most hostile arena, where the fans chanted “Beat L.A.” and jeered at James during his introduction, the crowd erupted.
This was LeBron James’ first official score as a Los Angeles Laker.
With the booming slam dunk, a new era began. With another one, on his next play, James made clear, this was the Lakers’ new reality.
“They were thunderous,” Josh Hart said.
“Glad he’s on our team,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “He’s pretty good at the game of basketball.”
In this new era, though, some things remained familiar. The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Lakers 128-119, extending their winning streak over the Lakers to 16 games. This was also the 18th consecutive home opener Portland has won, which is the longest streak in NBA history.
James finished with 26 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and six turnovers. Hart added 20 points for the Lakers. Damian Lillard scored 28 points for Portland, and Nik Stauskas added 24 off the bench on an efficient night in which he made seven of 11 shots, including his first six.
“I liked our fight to get back into the game when we were down double digits, I liked the way we competed at times, I liked the way we shared the ball as well,” James said. “Those were all positive. … There’s some things that we could do better. We can rebound a lot better, we had some turnovers, which I expected. Us just trying to get a feel for one another.”
Before the Lakers left Los Angeles for Portland on Wednesday, Walton stopped by co-owner Jeanie Buss’ office to check in with her. He shared with her that to him it felt like hardly any time had passed since July 1 when the Lakers first got a commitment from James.
To Buss, the months had seemed to pass slowly. Since the moment James chose the Lakers, she couldn’t wait to see him play for her team.
She wasn’t alone in feeling that.
Among the red-clad Portland fans filling the Moda Center were a smattering of Lakers fans — many of them dressed in James’ jersey.
As they found their seats, James sat at his locker before the game, wearing headphones and readying himself. In the empty locker beside him, a candle labeled “mahogany teakwood high intensity” burned. James bobbed his head sometimes and occasionally rapped aloud.
He wore a shirt with his own image on it, and the words, “It’s only a crazy dream until you do it.”
To play for the Lakers was once among James’ crazy dreams. As a fan of basketball, this franchise captured his imagination and he relished the opportunity to join its illustrious alumni. In the days leading up to his first real game as a Laker, though, James didn’t betray any extra excitement beyond that of simply starting the season, finally.
Walton started James and Brandon Ingram at forward, JaVale McGee at center, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at shooting guard and Rajon Rondo at point guard.
With the Lakers up 6-2 after scores by Rondo, McGee and Ingram, James stole the ball from Portland forward Jake Layman and dunked it at the other end of the court.
Lillard countered with a high-flying dunk down the middle of the paint. James answered immediately, scoring again with another powerful dunk.
The Lakers missed their first 15 three-point attempts but stayed close on the strength of their transition game. They scored 17 fastbreak points in the first half and were able to take advantage of a quick pace.
But defensively they struggled. Their passing and halfcourt offense was far from a finished product. All issues typical of a team that is still getting to know each other.
“I had one in the fourth quarter, I expected Kuz to pop, he rolled, I threw it out of bounds,” James said. “We talked about, those are things we get better at.”
Stauskas gave the Trail Blazers an edge early, one the Lakers weren’t expecting. Ultimately Portland’s star guards carried them to their first win against James’ Lakers. The Lakers cut Portland’s lead to one in the fourth quarter, but on the backs of their star guards, the Trail Blazers pulled away.