With about 2:25 left in the fourth quarter Sunday and the Lakers leading by nine, LeBron James was somewhere we hadn’t spied him in a while — on the floor fighting for a rebound in a meaningful game.
True, we’re a month away from the playoffs, but some regular-season games matter more than others. If the Clippers win, the Lakers fall to 0-3 against their city rival and all of the momentum built from Friday’s win over the Milwaukee Bucks dissipates. Maybe some of those “M-V-P” chants, too.
Less than a minute later, the lead eight, James was again on the court, this time having been trucked by Marcus Morris in an attempt to draw an offensive foul. James was called for a block although his feet appeared set outside the restricted area. Morris, whom the Lakers eyed at the trade deadline, made one of two free throws, his only point of the day. Seconds later, while playing free safety near the free-throw line, James sprinted out to challenge a Paul George three-pointer.
At the 31.4-second mark, the game won, Lakers coach Frank Vogel subbed out James so he could receive the adulation he deserved from the away/home crowd.
He earned it, one floor burn at a time.
“It sends a very strong message to the rest of your team about how committed you are to winning,” ESPN announcer Jeff Van Gundy said about the rebound at the 2:25 mark.
“What helped is that I was already on the floor; that helped out a lot,” James joked when asked about the play. “Having a wingspan that’s pretty long, I was able to grab it before a Clipper guy got it and get up and get it to a teammate, so … it was a pretty big play for us.”
With all due respect, it wasn’t just a big play, it was the play of the afternoon. In a game the Lakers had to have, James gave everything he could to grab a loose ball they had to get. On Christmas Day against the Clippers, the Lakers coughed up a 15-point lead in the second half. On Sunday they were up 12 in the fourth quarter. Another collapse and one couldn’t help but wonder if their Western Conference-best record wasn’t purple and fool’s gold.
However, because of James’ renewed focus on defense, we’re asking a different question. George was the game’s highest scorer with 31. Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 30. But who besides James is most valuable?
James was not at his offensive best against the Clippers — his 7-for-17 shooting was little better than his 37% shooting in their two previous matchups — but on a floor that included three other top-10 MVP candidates, there was no doubt about the answer. As was the case when he locked down reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo on Friday night, it’s his defense that’s forcing the hand of MVP voters.
“People forget what he gets like after the All-Star break; he’s a different guy,” Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy said. “He’s preparing himself for that — that’s what you saw today and Milwaukee, you see him saying ‘Let me get myself and help my team in the right frame of mind.’ So for him diving on the floor for loose balls and taking the challenge defensively, that’s what you see.
“Last night I texted LeBron and asked him who he wanted to guard and he texted back, ‘I’m guarding Kawhi [Leonard].’ ”
The Lakers are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. That was the last season James was named to the all-defensive first team. It was also the last time he was in the top 10 for defensive win shares (he currently sits at 7th). For all of the chatter about him leading the league in assists, moving up the ranks in all-time scoring or icing Sunday’s matchup with the Clippers with a three-point play with 40 seconds left, James’ defense is the reason the Lakers emerged 2-0 this weekend.
It’s why he’s crowbarred himself into a tie with Giannis for MVP. (I don’t share my friend Charles Barkley’s view that it’s a one-player race.)
It’s why the purple and non-fool’s gold are the favorites to win it all. (I don’t share my boss’s view that it’s the Clippers’ title to lose.)
The James who is often criticized for not guarding the opponent’s best player or not doing it on both ends of the floor is last year’s news. That point is inarguable to one of the game’s most clear-eyed analysts.
“Every great scorer as they age has to pick and choose [when to play defense], but he was always in the right spot from a team defensive standpoint,” Van Gundy said. “You can’t play with as much offensive responsibilities as the great scorers have to play with and not take advantage of some chances where you can get some rest.
“But he’s coming up so big defensively in critical moments that it’s clear he’s as good on that side of the floor as he’s ever been.”
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