LeBron James was flying down the court, a crowd full of Lakers fans ready to see him catch a lob from Rajon Rondo for a thundering slam dunk.
It’s the type of play you’d expect Rondo, a self-defined “pass-first” guard, to make. The defense thought he’d throw the lob. James, yeah, he wanted the lob too.
It’s why it was the perfect time to fake.
Rondo called his own number, put the highlight on hold, and went in for the easy two after the fake — only to see James come flying in after him, acting like he was about to block his teammate’s shot.
“He should have thrown the lob,” James said. “He hit me with a fake pass so I hit him with a fake block.”
“I’ve never seen that before,” teammate Anthony Davis said.
Sunday in Atlanta, the Lakers found new ways to keep themselves and the fans entertained, adding to their clip reel even when they weren’t their sharpest and beating the six-win Hawks 101-96.
James was in the center of it all — pretending to swat Rondo like it was the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals on one play, and leaving a perfect between-the-legs pass behind for Dwight Howard to dunk on another. And though his team was ice cold from deep, James was shooting from everywhere, making four of the Lakers’ five three-point shots. He also had a handful of highlight-quality dunks — no thanks to Rondo.
James finished with 32 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and three blocks, after the Lakers listed him as questionable with a sore right elbow.
James had hurt the elbow while scoring 28 points in Friday’s win at Miami, then flown to Ohio to watch son Bronny play a high school game Saturday night against his alma mater, before flying to Atlanta to prepare for the Hawks.
“He was spectacular. He had some all-time clips,” coach Frank Vogel said. “The drop pass to Dwight, there were a few of them. He was terrific.”
The Lakers weren’t burdened with their cold shooting — Sunday was just the eighth time this season a team made five or fewer three-pointers in a win. But while they normally would overcome that kind of brick-laying with suffocating defense or a tight focus on offense, neither happened Sunday.
Vogel said the Lakers “have to tighten some screws” on the defensive end despite holding the Hawks to 36% shooting. And the Lakers’ 22 turnovers were three more than they had Friday night in Miami.
The Lakers’ biggest lead Sunday was 11 points, though players acknowledged it felt like a bigger number for most of the night. While they moved up and down the court like it was the All-Star game, the Hawks never folded.
And despite trailing by eight with a little more than four minutes left in the game, Trae Young and Atlanta crawled almost the entire way back. Young scored 30 points, including seven in the fourth quarter to give the Hawks a chance to tie.
Down three, Vince Carter, likely playing against the Lakers for the final time, drove in the paint and attracted the attention of James and the defense, so much so that rookie Cam Reddish was left alone in the corner in front of the Lakers bench. Carter found him with the pass, but Reddish’s three-pointer missed.
“The way we played, we’re happy to get a win,” Vogel said.
Sunday, the Lakers seemed just plain happy.
The bench was alive with celebrations anytime James or one of the Lakers did something spectacular. After the game, James sounded like a bartender at last call when he joked with the media in the locker room that they didn’t have to go home, but they couldn’t stay there.
And then there was the fake blocked shot, a play that had everyone smiling long after it happened in the first half.
“It just keeps everybody engaged and just cheering for each other,” guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “We love each other. We love being around each other on and off the court. It just feels good to be around these guys and the brotherhood we have.”
The Lakers have won 14 straight games on the road, even if their “A” game didn’t come with them. Luckily, they have James to help lift everyone — and make them smile by playing defense on his own teammate.
“Highlights, sometimes they happen, sometimes they don’t,” he said. “But [it’s] just playing the game with a lot of joy, a lot of fun, a lot of intensity, trying to do whatever it takes to help my team win.
“And I was happy I was able to make a few plays tonight to help us do that.”