Column: LeBron James goes into attack mode, becoming Playoff LeBron in Game 3 win
Los Angeles, meet Playoff LeBron.
In his third playoff game in purple and gold, James has finally shown a city draped in purple and gold exactly what the fuss was all about.
When the games matter, he matters. When the stakes are high, he soars.
And when the dragging Lakers needed him in Game 3 against the resurgent Portland Trail Blazers, James went on the attack, charging and crushing and ultimately pushing them to a 116-108 victory to take a two-games-to-one lead.
This series is over. You know it is. The Trail Blazers are not going to win three of four against a team with LeBron James. You just know they’re not.
“It’s tough to stop,” said Anthony Davis of Playoff LeBron. “And it’s fun for us.”
LeBron James and Anthony Davis both came close to recording triple-doubles as the Lakers beat the Trail Blazers 116-108 to take a 2-1 lead in the first-round series.
On a night of many Lakers stars, Davis showed up late, and Alex Caruso came up huge, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope showed signs that he could be the Lakers’ third scorer they so desperately need in this postseason.
But this started and ended with James, who accounted for 38 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, four three-pointers and every bit of energy the Lakers needed during a lackluster start.
“Every game calls for different situations,” James said. “Tonight, I just tried to be aggressive, see if I could get to the paint, see if I could find my guys. ... I felt like I had a good rhythm, tried to make plays for myself and my teammates.”
His plays were so varied, yet so finely tuned, he actually compared himself to a sports car. The only thing crazier is, he was right.
“When I attacked, I was fast, slow, medium pace. It was like a stick shift. Sometimes I was gear one, sometimes I was in gear six,” James said. “Being able to just read and react depending on whether I was in a school zone, I was in a residential area, highway, or straightaway, being able to have a car that can go at different speeds, go in different zones, depending on what the traffic is, is very key. That was very important.”
While James had a statistically historic night in the series opener, that was a loss. When the Lakers won Game 2 by 23 points, he scored just 10. This was his biggest Lakers playoff game because it was the one they needed him most, and knew it.
Sunday would have been Kobe Bryant’s 42nd birthday. The Lakers honor him in the playoffs with his “leave a legacy” motto and more.
“I loved his game,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Look, he was in attack mode, he was living in the paint, living at the rim, seeking contact, trying to play the power game that he’s been so accustomed to.”
It was a charge the Lakers urgently needed. With the Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard gutting through a dislocated finger and teammate CJ McCollum scoring from everywhere, after two quarters the Blazers led 57-53, and it was amazing the Lakers were that close.
Davis had one basket. The Lakers had a dozen turnovers. They had missed 13 free throws. They were literally hanging on by a thread named LeBron James, who knew his teammates were dragging, and so he dragged them himself.
He had 16 points in his first 14 minutes. By halftime, he had 22 points and six rebounds and covered the court like three players.
James drove past two Trail Blazers for a layup. He drove past three for a layup. He grabbed an offensive rebound and scored. He stopped several steps beyond the three-point line and scored. The Trail Blazers had no answer for anything he did, even when he stumbled. He committed eight turnovers and missed five free throws and still stormed them.
“I knew after Game 1 he was going to shift his focus to being more assertive, looking to score the basketball. We definitely saw that tonight,” Vogel said. “He was just really efficient scoring the ball tonight.”
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James began the third quarter with a three-pointer, and the Trail Blazers began to stagger. James followed it a couple of minutes later with a bruising drive that resulted in a series of passes that put the ball in the hands of Caldwell-Pope, who hit a three pointer to give the Lakers their first lead since the opening moments.
The Lakers never faltered again, the stage set for a splendid second half by Davis, who starred for the rest of the way, finishing with 23 second-half points. If only the Lakers could be certain they could get that out of him for four quarters.
“He has that ability to turn it on with his aggressiveness,” said Vogel, and if only Davis would use it more.
On this night, Davis watched James, and felt like he had no choice.
“I told LeBron, I had to take the pressure off him,” Davis said. “I didn’t want him to have to carry the team the whole time.”
Caruso was also big, particularly handling the ball, especially in the wake of another stall for oft-injured Rajon Rondo, who was supposed to make his playoff debut but came down with pregame back spasms. Caruso had seven assists and took pressure off the Lakers’ big guys.
Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 35 points as Milwaukee beat Orlando for a 2-1 series lead, while Oklahoma City defeated Houston in overtime.
“[Caruso] allows LeBron to be off the ball some ... important to sustaining his freshness,” Vogel said. “Alex did a great job … setting up A.D.”
Of course, it was James who finished. He fought through two Blazers for a layup that gave them a 111-100 lead in the final minutes to clinch it. Then he hit a three-pointer to give them a 114-100 lead to clinch it again.
Appropriately, it was a night James passed Tim Duncan for second place on the NBA’s career playoff win list at 158, three behind leader Derek Fisher.
“Basically, he lived in the postseason,” James said of Duncan. “That was his address.”
That residence now belongs to James. For all of his new neighbors, Saturday night was one smashing open house.
Plaschke reported from Los Angeles.
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