LeBron James had just hit his fifth three-pointer of the fourth quarter when San Antonio Spurs center Jakob Poeltl ran into him and knocked him to the floor.
No whistle blew, and James held up his arms in disbelief as he sat in front of the courtside seats. At a stoppage in play, his teammates rushed over from the Lakers’ bench to pick him up, and as they did so, the group dissolved into a mosh pit of laughter and hip bumps and shoulder slaps.
“That’s what we [are] all about, our team,” James said. “Anytime anyone’s having success in the game, we cheer like it’s our own. So having that camaraderie, having that brotherhood, even when they’re beating you up, that’s a pretty cool feeling.”
A little bit of normalcy returned to Staples Center in Tuesday night’s game between the Lakers and Spurs.
The Lakers’ bench celebrated, their fans chanted “Taco Tuesday” at James, their stars dominated, and singer Lionel Richie sat courtside. James scored 36 points and added nine assists and seven rebounds in leading the Lakers to a commanding 129-102 win. James finished six for nine on three-pointers. The Lakers improved to 38-11, and the Spurs dropped to 22-28.
There were still reminders of the loss the Lakers franchise experienced Jan.26, when former star Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas.
“He was like a superhero that was actually human,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of Bryant before the game. “There weren’t any superheroes that were really human. But we kind of thought of him as one of those kinds of people. ... When somebody is sick for a long time and you kind of expect it, you deal with that. When someone is taken the way he and his daughter and other people were taken, that makes it a tragedy. More painful in some ways.”
Outside the arena, signs requested that fans wishing to honor Kobe Bryant make donations to the Mamba Sports Foundation in lieu of leaving mementos or flowers. Inside Staples Center, the fans chanted “Ko-be” with Anthony Davis at the foul line, and again with James shooting free throws, instead of chanting “M-V-P.”
And the decals honoring Bryant remained on the court for the Lakers’ second home game since his death.
Davis and Kyle Kuzma each added 18 points for the Lakers, and Dwight Howard contributed a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
“I felt like the start of the game did not feel normal,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “It was extra quiet in there, almost like we didn’t really know how to act. But I think when the flow of the game started and started going, once the ball is in play, our guys and our coaches, we lock into what we’re doing. And then it’s just about competing and doing the job, going out and trying to win the game.
“It’s certainly going to take time, and it’s always going to feel different. But it did feel more normal once the game got going.”
The Lakers held the Spurs to 19 points in the first quarter and took a 10-point lead into halftime. At that point, DeMar DeRozan was the game’s leading scorer with 12 points. He finished with 28 for the Spurs.
After three quarters, the Lakers led by 13. Then James got hot.
At first, he and Kuzma traded threes, hitting two each. Then James hit his third and fourth threes of the quarter. Then he stole the ball and hit his fifth of the quarter. It’s normally James who is looking for his teammates to give them the ball, but as that fourth quarter unfolded, they started looking for him.
“We was all saying, ‘Heat check! Give him the ball!’” Davis said. “And he was looking for it.”
When his teammates mobbed him, they did so with a burst of joy they hadn’t shown publicly since Jan.25.
“We’re going to continue to enjoy each other and celebrate each other’s accomplishments and have fun,” Vogel said. “It’s part of our identity, and that was a great stretch, especially coming off the week that we came off of, good to see guys enjoying the game the way we were.”
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the fans in the arena chanted “Ko-be” again, just as they had Friday night in the Lakers’ first game at Staples Center since Bryant’s death.
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