LOS ANGELES — A collective gasp filled the air.
LeBron James raced from one end of the court to the other to block a shot. But then the Los Angeles Lakers’ forward nearly tripped over a row of fans
A collective cheer then permeated throughout the arena.
James not only avoided a scary fall or collision. He jumped over the row of fans. He landed on the concrete outside of the court. And to avoid a sudden jolt to his legs, James ran through a stairway that led himself further into the fan section.
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That sequence represented one of many moments in which James showcased his value in the Lakers’ 127-97 win over the Golden State Warriors in Game 3 of their second-round playoff series on Saturday at Crypto.com Arena.
But it also captured why it seems best for fans, media and the general public to relax over any concerns about James’ durability in his 20th season, if he scores enough in a game or anything else to nitpick. Though Father Time always eventually remains undefeated, James has clearly shown he maintains a sharp mind and body to still offer breath-taking performances when the Lakers need him the most.
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“Just try to make memorable moments, that’s all,” James said. “The postseason is the best time in our league. You have an opportunity to play in the playoffs, something you never forget about and something you never take for granted. The moments we get to play in front of our fans, we cherish those the rest of our lives.”
Lakers fans and James will surely cherish the moments James created that resulted in 21 points while shooting efficiently from the field (6-for-11), from deep (2-for-4) and from the free-throw line (7-for-8) along with eight assists and eight rebounds. Nothing both concerned and excited Lakers fans more than what James displayed with 3:51 left in the third quarter.
Warriors guard Stephen Curry stole the ball from Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell before racing down the court. Just as Curry approached halfcourt, he lofted the ball to Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins. James sprinted in time to deflect the pass away from Wiggins’ hands to disrupt a fast-break opportunity. The ball sailed out-of-bounds into the stands, and it appeared James might suffer the same fate before he made more critical in-game adjustments.
“LeBron is a guy that dominates the game in so many different aspects,” said Russell, who had 21 points while going 8-for-13 from the field and 5-for-8 from 3-point range. “A regular fan will recognize scoring or dunking and things that are loud like that. He still affects the game with passing and defense.”
That explains why the Lakers hardly fretted that James went scoreless without a field-goal attempt in the first quarter. Or that James didn’t take a shot until he missed a 19-foot pull-up jumper over Warriors guard Klay Thompson with 8:02 left in the second quarter. During that time, James still collected three assists and three rebounds. In that span, Russell scored 11 points while shooting 5-for-7 overall and 3-for-4 from deep.
“I’m never a force guy,” James said. “I’ve always been a guy to let the game come to me and make my imprint when needed.”
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James eventually made his imprint in the scoring column. He did so by drawing a foul on Curry after attacking the basket and making a pair of foul shots with 6:32 left in the second quarter.
“When you’re talking about guys in the league that have an ability to score and score in bulk, the best thing for them to do is to see the ball go through the rim,” James said. “It’s called free throws for a reason.”
James turned those free throws into momentum-changing plays.
- LeBron James playoff stats (career): 28.5 PPG, 9 RPG, 7.1 APG, 1.7 SPG, 1 BPG
Just over a minute after making his first pair of foul shots, James made his first basket with 5:22 left in the second quarter by performing a spin move on Warriors forward Draymond Green for a layup. Less than a minute later, James then drilled his first 3 with a 24-foot step back. Two minutes later, James then sank two more foul shots after Wiggins fouled him near the basket. In related news, the Lakers went on a 17-2 run during that stretch.
“He’s not going to be that guy that’s going to be selfish and force his way,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “Once he gets it going, that’s another story. That’s how he should approach it once he’s reeling off basket after basket. But to set the tone for us offensively, he’s great about allowing other guys to play and allowing other guys to have their moments. That, in turn, creates balance for our entire lineup and our scoring output. That’s the way he’s always played – just to try to make the right play.”
That’s not how James always played this season.
James took on a predominant scoring load before the trade deadline. Sure, James showed a bigger scoring mentality in the games leading up to when he surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. James conceded he tried to eclipse Abdul-Jabbar’s record on the night he broke it to ensure that family members and friends weren’t disappointed for attending the game in person.
Yet, James harbored that mindset mostly because of the Lakers’ faulty roster construction. Not only did Russell Westbrook remain a poor fit with his turnovers and poor shooting overshadowing his athleticism and durability. The Lakers lacked enough consistent shooting and spacing to ensure a balanced offense. Davis also struggled to stay healthy. So while the late Kobe Bryant once passed to teammates that couldn’t make shots to make a point about the team’s bad roster, James dominated in the scoring column to make a similar point that no one else on the team could score consistently.
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That all changed once the Lakers dealt Russell in a three-team trade to Utah that netted them a dependable scorer (Russell), shooter (Malik Beasley) and defender (Jarred Vanderbilt). In separate deals, the Lakers also upgraded their wing depth (Rui Hachimura) and rim protection (Mo Bamba). In the Lakers’ Game 3 win over the Warriors, Davis (25 points), Lonnie Walker IV (12), Dennis Schroder (12) and Austin Reaves (10) all cracked double figures.
“The guys we have around ‘Bron and AD give you confidence that he doesn’t have to throw up bad shots and attempt to get going,” Ham said. “I don’t want to say they wait their turn. But they can calmly insert themselves on that side of the ball. It’s a constant puzzle and process of trying to extract as much as we can from offensively and make their lives easier by having the level of talent that we have around them and also knowing when they need opportunities or need a touch.”
No doubt, James may face some challenges ahead.
During the playoffs, James has shot poorly from 3-point range against Golden State (30%) and Memphis (19.5%). The Lakers and the Warriors have played each other every other day. But the Lakers should feel comfortable that James has played the game with the mentality as a willing role player, while possessing the talent of a star. They should also feel comforted that James played only 33 minutes in Game 3 after appearing in just over a minute of the fourth quarter. Or that James has followed his own advice to teammates about using off days to rest and receive treatment, while staying away from social media and sports shows on television entirely.
After all, James remains motivated to stay in the NBA so that he and his son (Bronny) can eventually become teammates. James reiterated that goal after Bronny committed to play for USC next season.
“I’m still serious about it. Obviously, I have to continue to keep my body and my mind fresh,” James said. “I think my mind, most importantly. If my mind goes, my body will be like, ‘What are we doing?’ But at the end of the day, whether I am or if I’m not, I’ve done what I had to do in this league. My son is going to take his journey. However his journey plays out, he’s going to do what’s best for him. As his dad, we’ll support him with whatever he decides to do.”
For now, Lakers fans should trust that James will successfully delay Father Time for the remainder of his time here. James showed it with his recent play and his approach, both with how he handled his scoring role and a key hustle play in Game 3. Perhaps those qualities eventually lead to James winning his fifth NBA championship, including his second title with the Lakers in the past three years.
“I play the game the right way,” said James, who showed that with his scoring mentality and hustle when the Lakers most needed it.
Mark Medina is an NBA Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.