Just a few yards past midcourt, Lakers forward LeBron James stood, frozen in front of a delirious crowd.
He had just sunk a three-point basket at the halftime buzzer, from 34 feet away against his once NBA Finals nemesis Golden State Warriors.
“Shot it like it was a free throw,” Lonzo Ball said. “LeBron James.”
James stared at the basket for a few moments. Magic Johnson, courtside, clenched his fists as he meandered onto the court, grinning.
Then James turned toward the crowd with a near-smile on his face, facing a still-roaring audience that was spotted with former players who won championships with the Lakers.
Yes, that halftime scene was just a moment in a meaningless exhibition game. But at that instant, though, nobody seemed to care.
The Lakers beat the defending NBA champion Warriors 123-113 on Wednesday night in the first of two exhibition games between the teams. It was the healthiest they’d been since the start of training camp, and the first time Ball got any playing time with his new teammates.
James played 17 minutes 37 seconds, all in the first half. He scored 15 points on five-for-eight shooting, grabbed 10 rebounds and had five assists, showing off his power as well as his vision throughout the first half.
Brandon Ingram led the Lakers with 26 points and the Warriors were led by Stephen Curry with 23 points. Kevin Durant fouled out after scoring 18 points and pulling down 12 rebounds in 24 minutes.
“It takes effort and commitment,” Lakers Coach Luke Walton said. “You have to want to play at that pace. We had a commitment from everyone on our team before training camp that that’s who we’re going to be. So obviously not every night’s going to look like that, but I think it was a good visual for the guys to see what we’re capable of.”
James was asked Wednesday morning how facing the Warriors in an exhibition game compared with facing them in the Finals.
“It’s exactly the same,” James said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Preseason game versus Finals game, it’s exactly the same.”
But as exhibition games go, this one was about as fraught with meaning as one can be.
It was James’ first game against the Warriors in a Lakers uniform. In each of his four seasons in Cleveland, James met the Warriors in the Finals. Before the game, he greeted some of his opponents, like Durant, whom he embraced and with whom he shared a laugh.
“No matter what jersey he’s got to put on there, same player, same feel for their game,” Durant said. “It’s pretty cool for Lakers fans and West Coast fans to see LeBron out here on the west side. Deep culture of basketball here, especially in L.A., up and down the coast, pretty fun as a fan.”
Ball had never even played on the same team as James in practices.
The second-year point guard showed some rust given that he hasn’t played organized basketball since March. Ball, who had arthroscopic knee surgery in July, entered the game with 9:47 remaining in the first quarter, replacing Rajon Rondo. He played 23:22 and had seven points, four rebounds, two assists and four steals.
There were moments when Ball and James connected. On one play, the two connected for an alley-oop from James to Ball. It’s a play the Lakers often run for Ball, but the first time James was part of it.
“It takes execution,” James said. “It took a great back screen by Kuz. It took Lance [Stephenson] doing what he needed to do on the slide going to the strong corner. When you got an athletic point guard like that it’s my job to put it up there for him to go get it. He was able to go do that.”
Now James has one last wish for the Lakers as they prepare for their final preseason game.