LEBRON’S MINDSET: EVERY GAME IS AN OPPORTUNITY TO BE GREAT
The end of his day at the office includes an 8 1/2-by-11 plain piece of paper, just like the average guy’s might. It’s a printout of the game boxscore. LeBron James drops it into the bucket of ice water at his feet, and the paper floats flatly at the surface. That way he can review the basics of his job performance—specifically how that performance helped his team and company succeed—while he sits and numbs those feet and ankles that rationally should be swollen from longtime workload.
This is how it was Wednesday night at Staples Center after James’ 66th game ever played for the Lakers, multi-tasking with that boxscore and icepacks taped to both knees (and doing postgame interviews while drinking his recovery shake) till he showered up and clocked out. Sixty-six games might sound like a decent amount until the context clues come out: James has played 1,448 total NBA games, so 66 is just a drop in that ice bucket.
He has been so superior for so long that no one in sports is easier to take for granted. The excellence is just assumed, and that is really the ultimate show of respect:
James has raised his game to stay so consistently high that it is simply meeting expectations to own a basketball game as completely as he did Wednesday in victory over Golden State.
The reality is that it is still an accomplishment every time he fares so well, even if it’s unreasonable that we stop to salute it every time. It isn’t breaking news or juicy gossip that James played basketball at the highest level—again—but the truth is that he is keeping his stated word that he understands everything he has and everything he does as a multi-platform global icon starts with basketball.
Whenever the time comes that he can’t dominate on the court quite the same, the crows will swoop in to peck at his off-court interests or cite the gray in his beard, you know that much. That time has not come, however—and we should celebrate that.
He might be more than an athlete, but what an athlete he remains.
Somewhere in every arena, every night, are some folks who’ve never seen James play in person. Those people see what he does through unclouded eyes, less jaded and not so desensitized, brimming with their own excitement.
If you watch with that open mind, it’s impossible to miss how much he is doing—and with what flair.
The opening tip-off, one dribble with eyes up, and an alley-oop pass from beyond midcourt for JaVale McGee to dunk. The behind-the-back pass in rhythm for Jared Dudley’s three-pointer. The step-back jumpers, over and over. That patented LeBron spin-move and driving layup. Another alley-oop, this time from way back inside his own three-point line, for Kyle Kuzma to catch in mid-stride and mid-air to lay in. What a spectacular block from behind to deny a dunk—after a simple hustle jump-shot contest on the previous play. The back-door cut and extra wind-up to punctuate the hammer dunk. The bounce passes, over and over, with the same precision as whatever machine cuts those letter-sized sheets of paper exactly at 8 1/2 by 11.
The aesthetic visuals of James’ game are undeniable: He is a huge man moving with uncommon agility, and most of his motion happens quite obviously is in tune with those of his teammates. But he has done it so well for so long that it is his routine.
Along the same lines that it took James’ injury absence last season to make him a little fonder of being on the court, it’s fair for observers every once in a while to need a reminder to appreciate him out there.
Co-star Anthony Davis missing this game against Golden State with a sore shoulder helps a little in clarifying James’ value on this night, the second game of a back-to-back set after the Lakers won in Phoenix on Tuesday. The Clippers, meanwhile, are deep in debate about Kawhi Leonard and Paul George staggering their health-maintenance days of a back-to-back set, in keeping with a league-wide trend. But James is not just in action; he’s performing at such a high level that Lakers coach Frank Vogel points out afterward that James historically is outstanding on the second nights of back-to-back sets.
Again, who knows which night someone might be seeing James play for the first time—and gauging whether the reality lives up to the hype. And James half-jokingly explains playing well despite having played the previous night is because he gets to sleep in without shoot-arounds on the second day of back-to-backs.
Yet as conducive as James’ game is to short answers or easy-to-digest highlights, as much as some kid somewhere on the other side of the globe just getting into basketball might be awed by the basic beauty and power, every LeBron game is packed with plays only the experienced eye can appreciate. He’s succeeding every night because he’s thinking through more than just about everyone in the building.
The subtle stuff is the real gold: the plays he’s calling, the ways he’s reading the defense’s moves two steps ahead, the logic he uses on passes calculating teammates’ size and speed in addition to the tendencies of younger defenders’ likelihood not to get all the way back in transition defense or keep their heads on a swivel to see the ball might be coming.
To basketball geeks, the play of the game Wednesday night is one that is wholly unspectacular. It comes early in the second half, when James replies to a Golden State dunk by calmly organizing the offense at the other end. He calls for two screens to dribble right. He knows Danny Green will be relocating from one corner to the other, moving along the baseline. Green will arrive in the right corner, his favorite spot, to receive the pass from James on the right wing. The pass is on time, per usual, and Green nails the shot.
Golden State calls timeout, down by 14 points. The Lakers wind up winning by 26, with James sitting out the entire fourth quarter, having earned the rest and enjoying the company of new teammates Davis, Green and DeMarcus Cousins.
Dudley, the 34-year-old veteran getting as much playing time as he does Wednesday night because Davis is out, is saying after his fine performance: “Body a little achy, but good thing A.D. will be back on Friday.”
And you think, “Wait a sec, isn’t Dudley younger than LeBron?”
He is. In fact, if you compare the total NBA minutes for the two vets, it’s jarring: Dudley is at 20,344. James is at 56,637. James might finish at three times as many minutes as Dudley—and that’s not even accounting for the heavy usage in those minutes.
Again for context: James’ 56,637 is 6,621 more minutes than what Shaquille O’Neal played in his entire career. It’s 7,997 more minutes than Vince Carter, who turns 43 in January and being so heralded for still going in his limited capacity.
However achy James might feel, he looks largely the same as ever. And that is allowing him to prioritize keeping the Lakers on course as a resurgent championship contender.
“With A.D. being out, I had to pick up the load a little bit offensively, but just trying to set the tone early in the game,” James said late Wednesday night. “See if my shot was going in, and it was. Just trying to be aggressive on that side.”
Seventy-eight seconds into the game, James sank a three-pointer, and the Lakers never trailed again. Of the Lakers’ first 26 points, James assisted on or scored 21 of them. The Lakers took an 11-point lead in that time, his strategy in snuffing out any early hope from the young Warriors believing they could pull an upset against a more weary Lakers team that just got in from Phoenix.
"Coming off the back-to-back, it’s very easy to go into the dull stage or feel a little tired, so I let the group that know I wasn’t,” James said. “See if they are going to feed off that, and they did.”
The words to remember from James on this night, though, were not any specific explanations of one game in November against a struggling Golden State team. As he soaked those feet in front of his locker and savored a job well done, James offered this reminder:
“No matter who you play, you have the opportunity to be great.”
Therein lies the foundation of James’ legend. The consistent results can only come from having that kind of consistent mindset.
When Kuzma spoke after the game about the recently dynastic Warriors having fallen on hard times lately, he made the blanket statement: “You can’t be great forever.”
There is no disputing that … for anyone. All James can do is keep pouring himself into his work. And in so doing, James—especially the year after he finally got taken down by serious injury—is pushing back against simple assumptions.
He can’t be great forever.
But right now he still looks like he will be.
Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
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