At the end of the 2015-16 season, LeBron James walked through the tunnel at Oracle Arena with the NBA’s championship trophy tucked under his left arm, the Finals’ most valuable player award tucked under the other.
His face glistened, a combination of sweat and tears. A champagne drenching would soon commence.
This was possibly James’ best moment as a professional, helping finally bring Cleveland the NBA title he had promised, defeating the winningest team in NBA history to do it.
James and the Los Angeles Lakers will be in that very same locker room Tuesday, the one that stunk of cigar smoke, stale beer and flat champagne after James’ Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, walking down that same tunnel with a new team and a new set of challenges.
On Christmas Day, James and the Lakers won’t walk out with any hardware if they’re able to upset the Warriors. But a win would go a long way to establishing their credibility — and to making a cluttered Western Conference playoff field less defined.
The Lakers won’t assign too much meaning to their first game against the Warriors since landing James in free agency. Coach Luke Walton said too many fluky things can happen — maybe the Warriors get red hot and make 30 three-point shots. Maybe they miss a whole bunch.
“I never like to put too much importance on one game,” Walton said.
James was more blunt. The Lakers, he said, aren’t in the Warriors’ class.
“That’s a team that’s won three out of four championships the last four years. You can’t measure yourself versus them,” James said. “It’s not a measuring stick for us.”
That won’t stop people from using it as one if the Lakers get a win. They’re 3 1/2 games back from the pack at the top of the Western Conference, a group that includes the Warriors, Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Denver has played tremendous basketball with center Nikola Jokic continuing to prove that he’s one of the best centers in the NBA. Oklahoma City, energized by Paul George’s offseason decision to re-up with the Thunder and Russell Westbrook, has become an elite defensive team.
Neither team is at the Warriors’ level, even if the records say otherwise. The Warriors missed star guard Stephen Curry for 12 games as he recovered from a groin injury. With Curry sidelined, the Warriors struggled, losing seven times. A four-game losing streak during the stretch was the longest skid since Steve Kerr became coach in 2014.
Maybe even worse than the losing, a spat between All-Star forwards Kevin Durant and Draymond Green became very public during a timeout late in a game, threatening the harmony in the back-to-back champion’s locker room. The team suspended Green, and after some public apologizing, the issue faded.
Getting Curry back — and the 8-2 record since his return — has the Warriors primed to separate from the pack in the Western Conference — something some within their organization are sensing. They’re in the middle of a stretch in which they’ll play seven of 10 games at Oracle Arena in Oakland, with the road games being quick trips to Portland, Phoenix and Sacramento.
Around the time the Warriors will head back onto the road in mid-January, center DeMarcus Cousins could be returning, adding another All-Star to their already ridiculously rich roster.
A loss to the Lakers wouldn’t change any of those things for the Warriors. But a win for James and the Lakers might mean something different.
Though the Lakers are in a great spot in the West as teams near the halfway point this season — they’re currently tied for fourth with the Portland Trail Blazers and the Clippers despite being without Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo for stretches of games — they’re also just two games from being outside of playoff position, the conference contenders packed tighter than a carry-on suitcase.
After his team lost in overtime to Portland on Sunday, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle described the margin for error in the West as “invisible.”
But the Lakers have an advantage over all the teams with which they’re clustered. They have James.
Tuesday will be his 13th appearance in a Christmas Day game. He’s won eight times, including two victories over the Lakers and one against the Warriors. He’s averaging 26.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists in those games.
“It’s a special day. It’s Christmas. We get to play the game of basketball on Christmas. It’s my 13th appearance,” he said. “Obviously, I’d love to be home with my family. But if I had to do anything else, playing basketball is pretty cool.”
James is comfortable in the spotlight — and the Christmas games have become a signature day for the NBA, with the best teams squaring off in the most intriguing matchups. Even if the Lakers aren’t in the Warriors’ class today, James wants to get them there.
“We’re a team that’s trying to get better and better every week, better and better every month,” James said. “They’re a team trying to figure out how to win another championship. That’s their goal every night.
“That’s our ultimate goal, but there are some things we have to do in between to get to a point where we can start discussing championships. But we want to have championship habits.”
James knows what the end result can be. The Warriors do too. The trophies, the tears, the spray of champagne, the stench of cigar smoke — James experienced all of that in the visiting locker room at Oracle Arena.