LOS ANGELES – LeBron James kept shaking his head. The Lakers star has never lacked confidence with four NBA championships, delivering clutch performances and delaying Father Time.
Eventually, however, even James appeared in disbelief. Shortly before the Lakers sealed a 122-109 victory over the Washington Wizards, James cemented a 50-point performance for the 14and time in his NBA career and the second time in less than a week. After drilling a 3-pointer on former Lakers teammate Kyle Kuzma, James moved his head clockwise. He then performed the crazy hand gesture towards his head, like he was playing a video game.
Much like what James did with “NBA Jam” as a kid over two decades ago.
“I would definitely try to get on fire,” James said of the popular video game. “Shooting from half court was like something unheard of back then, and now guys are really doing it.”
James liked to imagine himself catching fire in the two-man NBA Jam teams that included the former Seattle SuperSonics (Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp), Chicago Bulls (Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant), Dallas Mavericks (Jason Kidd, Jamal Mashburn) or the Golden State Warriors. (Tim Hardaway, Chris Mullin). So many years later, James felt like he was playing a video game again.
Unlike when he played NBA Jam, James didn’t attempt a half-court uprising against the Wizards. But he basically did everything else with an effective shooting line from the field (18 for 25), from 3 points (6 for 9) and from the free throw line (8 for 8). After scoring 56 points in last week’s win over the Golden State Warriors, James became the sixth player in NBA history to score at least 50 points in consecutive home games.
The Lakers needed every point. After suffering a two-game road losing streak this week in San Antonio (Monday) and Houston (Wednesday), the Lakers (29-37) trail the LA Clippers (35-34) by 4.5 games for eighth seeded and hold a 2.5 game cushion over the New Orleans Pelicans (27-40) for ninth place in the NBA Play-In Tournament.
“The league has never seen a player at this point in his career do what he does,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “That’s the most important thing that needs to be recognized. It’s amazing the level at which he plays.
Absolutely. In his 19and season, James, 37, currently leads the NBA in scoring (29.71 ppg) on Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (29.68 ppg) and Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (29, 66). James remains the only player in NBA history to have multiple 50-point performances past the age of 35. And James joined Kobe Bryant and Elgin Baylor as the only Lakers players to score more than 100 points in consecutive home games.
No wonder James showed a lot of emotion. After executing a spin move past Tomas Satoransky before laying the ball in the basket and taking a foul, James let loose with a loud roar. James then approached a handful of fans on the pitch to shout some more. It marks a stark contrast to when James argued with the fans two weeks ago in a loss to New Orleans.
“The Lakers faithful know when bad basketball is being played and they know when good basketball is being played. They have the right to have the answer they want,” James said. “They saw so many great teams, so many great individuals and so many great individual performances. There are so many great things about this building and over the course of this franchise.
“So for me, being part of this franchise, I try to give them the opportunity to have memorable nights and give them something to cheer for and give them something to feel good about every night. I know it hasn’t been as good as they would have liked this year. But you take the small wins when they come.
The Lakers’ “small win” wasn’t just about the result itself. They played Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma and guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for the first time since the Lakers included them as part of last summer’s trade for Russell Westbrook.
James hugged both players before and after the game. At the start of the first quarter, the Lakers released a video tribute to both players and highlighted their contributions as valuable role players on the Lakers’ 2020 NBA Championship team. Later in the fourth quarter, James faded over Kuzma before the two shared laughs and shook their heads in disbelief.
“It’s always a welcoming feeling when you see one of your teammates that you were in the burrow with to win a championship,” James said. “You know how much blood and sweat and tears and stuff to try to accomplish this.”
The Lakers are far from having achieved this goal. Even with James’ stellar play, the Lakers barely hovered around .500 amid overlapping injuries for Anthony Davis and various players. After his 56-point effort against Golden State, James missed Monday’s loss at San Antonio with left knee pain.
Yet the Lakers have discovered once again why they express endless optimism about their ability to solve their problems.
“I believe in our group, in our system and the habits that we form and build with our guys every day,” Vogel said. “But obviously the big part of the confidence comes from knowing he’s on our side.”
The Lakers will surely need James for Sunday’s game against the Phoenix Suns (53-14), who have the best record in the Western Conference. Maybe James is making history then too. Two assists remain before he becomes the first player in NBA history to record 30,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 10,000 assists.
It only seems possible to record such numbers in a video game. As James showed against the Wizards, he can mirror NBA Jam in real life.
“Being able to catch fire is something you would definitely try to do,” James said. “As soon as you hit that half-court line, you would drop it.”
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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can email him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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