It felt like a certainty — two of the NBA’s most exciting players set for a showdown — and a moment that deserved someone to deliver the hype.
Wrestling icon Ric Flair — the stylin’, profilin, limousine-riding, jet-flying, kiss-stealing, wheelin’ n’ dealin’ son of gun — stood at center court before the Lakers hosted the Pelicans on Tuesday night, with a microphone in his hand.
“Los Angeles,” he shouted, “home of the greatest franchise in sports, the L.A. Lakers, and the home of the greatest athlete in the world today, LeBron James, the King. Woooo. Woooo.”
This was one of professional wrestling’s greatest barkers adding gasoline to a game that didn’t need any because on one side of the court there was James. And on the other, for the first time, there was Zion Williamson.
During a week when the people of Los Angeles celebrated the relationship between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, when memories of a teenage Bryant going right at the league’s best have been refreshed, people were ready for the next logical chapter.
And if it was pro wrestling, the game would’ve delivered, with James and Williamson scripted to fight for 48 minutes for the first time. But things don’t always work like that, and Tuesday, they didn’t work like that.
Because while almost every player James’ size and age has evolved into a more physical player as they age — the kind best suited to bump and muscle with a kid like Williamson — James has, in some ways, gone the other direction.
While still physically capable of doing all the banging that playing in the paint requires, the Lakers’ roster combined with James’ skills have him doing more away from the basket. And the better he is at that, the better the Lakers have been.
“It’s always been the same for most defenders,” Lakers guard Danny Green said. “You guard him the best you can and hope he misses.”
James hit five threes in the Lakers’ 118-109 win, including one on the only real memorable time Williamson lined up in front of him on defense. It’s a reminder that while teams still want James away from the basket, he’s more comfortable than ever to make them pay for that strategy.
This season, when James hits four or more three-point shots, the Lakers are 13-0. Since he joined the Miami Heat in 2010, his teams are 59-12 when he makes at least four from deep.
Inside the Pelicans’ locker room after the game, James’ deep shooting was met with a bit of a shrug. Despite being 35, James is still more feared going to the basket and getting into the paint.
“You’ve got to take something away, right?” New Orleans guard Jrue Holiday said. “I try the best I can to keep him out of the paint and for him not to pass. Obviously, he’s way too good at passing the ball and getting other people involved. You try to make it hard on him.
“I feel like the three, even though he’s shooting it better, what else can you do?”
For the third straight season, James will make more three-point shots per game than ever before, with him attempting more per game this year than in any previous season. His 6.3 three-point attempts per game is a more than 250% increase from his 2.4 attempts his first championship season in 2011.
Part of it represents an NBA-wide trend to let more shots fly from deep, but part of it is a sign of James’ increased comfort from beyond the three-point line.
“It’s a shot we’re encouraging with him,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “I call him the best deep shooter on our team. I think it’s an important shot for him to take and to make from a standpoint of defenses honoring that. You’ve got to make them pay if they’re to play soft defense on you, you’ve got to be able to beat them over the top.”
Tuesday, James still provided some “Woooo” moments at the basket — acrobatic tip-ins and soaring dunks. He also bullied Holiday in the post. But it was his assault from three-point range that rounded out his 40-point game, a Ric Flair-worthy steel-chair shot to the New Orleans defensive game plan.
“He’s been doing this for a long time,” Vogel said. “He’s continued to grow that part of the game and he’s got the ultimate green light to punish defenses when they’re not honoring him out there.”