LOS ANGELES — When LeBron James finally finished the job Sunday, then punched the time clock and and went to the jubilant Lakers bench for good, Kyle Kuzma was waiting for him and couldn’t resist.
Kuz cupped his hands in a circle and then fitted them around LeBron’s head. Maybe it is madness in March to crown LeBron and, by extension, the Lakers so soon. And yet there’s no denying the man and the team just changed the NBA conversation, and perhaps the pecking order, in a whiplash-quick two-game span.
The sprint to the Kia MVP trophy and the jog to the NBA championship both gained some giddy-up when Giannis Antetokounmpo was conquered by the Lakers on Friday, and then the Clippers were quieted 112-103 on Sunday. If LeBron hauls in the hardware and then paints the town purple and gold in late June, then reflecting on this past weekend will reveal the flash point when he began to distance himself from the limited field in a pair of tight races.
We must pause to acknowledge what Lakers coach Frank Vogel said is largely and historically true: “We do keep these regular-season games in perspective and there’s a lot of factors that go into these games that don’t really matter come playoff time, whether you win or lose.”
But these weren’t your ordinary two-games-out-of-82. These pair of Lakers victories carried weight, and those who disagree only needed to see and hear LeBron’s reaction immediately after he iced the Clippers with a forceful layup in the final minute. He doesn’t punch his chest and then the air and screams after flicking aside, say, the Suns.
Of course not. Giannis and the Bucks came to L.A. with the league’s best record and cockiest strut. Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers also swaggered their way into Staples Center, flush with the knowledge that they’d beaten the Lakers twice in their only two previous meetings. But then, *poof* LeBron rewrote the script — and furiously so, outplaying the projected MVP front-runner Giannis and then closing out the Clippers with a dominant finish.
Doc Rivers, the Clippers coach, called LeBron “phenomenal” in his team’s loss, the term pretty much having defined LeBron’s entire weekend.
It would be naive to think LeBron wasn’t lasered on the task at hand and satisfied by the result. There was much to be gained by thwarting the unofficial Best Player In The Game (that would be Giannis) and then Biggest Threat To The Lakers (that would be the Clippers) because suddenly, this is all about LeBron yet again — his time, his opportunity, his twin trophies to lose.
There is suspense for the MVP because Giannis is gimpy. The Bucks announced he’ll miss the next two games with a knee sprain, suffered Friday. And only a fool would think the Bucks will risk further harm to Giannis in the final month of the regular season by throwing him in an intense MVP pursuit. He already won one last year. Since the Bucks are comfortably ahead of everyone in the East, they’ll sell him on the big picture and aim the pursuit toward something he hasn’t won: a championship.
Might’ve lost a step here or there but when your mind is sharp, it can compensate for those things.”
If LeBron finishes strong and the Lakers’ regular-season record is almost identical — they’re just three games behind Milwaukee — don’t you suspect the folks who vote on these things might get a bit sentimental?
LeBron is, after all, a 35-year-old whose debut season with the Lakers in 2019-20 was ruined by injury.
“I prepared by body and my mind to endure anything,” he said Sunday. “My responsibility was to put this team in position to win. It shows I’m not slowing down at this stage of my career. I put a lot of work into my game.”
LeBron added: “Might’ve lost a step here or there but when your mind is sharp, it can compensate for those things.”
He was too smart and too sharp for the Clippers. He attacked the rim, and when the defense sagged, he found the open man — essentially, the same approach as he’s had all season, just on the next level. LeBron left it to Anthony Davis (30 points, eight rebounds) to supply the punch for three quarters before becoming the closer with 12 points in the fourth.
The final tally for LeBron was 28 points, seven rebounds and nine assists … all of which came less than 72 hours after he dropped 37-8-8 on the Bucks.
Avery Bradley said: “LeBron just set the tone.”
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) March 8, 2020
Rivers explained: “He got to the rim. If you let him get to the basket, then he’s too good.”
Vogel gushed: “He just dominated both games in the stretch … his best weekend in a Laker uniform. He was just too much for them.”
The other encouraging sign for the Lakers was Davis, who took over the game for stretches, especially while LeBron rested. The Lakers assigned smaller players on Leonard and then when he attacked the basket, Davis was quick to bring the rotating double team. Leonard scored 27 points, but isn’t on LeBron’s level as a passer out of traps and it showed — Kawhi had as many assists Sunday as a dead man.
Paul George was trouble (31 points) much of the afternoon but scored only two points in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, the Lakers surprisingly won the battle of the supporting casts: Bradley (24 points) drilled six 3-pointers while Lou Williams and Pat Beverley, assigned to guard Bradley, were mainly dreadful on both ends (combining for 10 points).
“We have a lot of growth and we’re going to keep growing,” said Rivers optimistically. The Clippers, who’ve dealt with nagging injuries and missing players for much of the season, had better hope so.
Should they remain healthy and once they incorporate newcomer Marcus Morris into their system — he missed all nine of his shots against the Lakers — the Clippers will be the formidable team the Lakers expected to see Sunday, but didn’t. Davis, for one, says the basketball world will be a better one if it’s L.A. vs. LA at some point in the playoffs.
“Those games would be scrappy, defensive-minded, you coming out of games with scratches, just like this one,” he said.
He then threw a bit of shade toward the Clippers’ earlier two wins in the matchup: “The first two games we beat ourselves. This one, we played closer to our standards.”
Said Bradley: “We knew we could compete with those guys.”
There is no new and refreshing development in the Lakers’ matchup with the Clippers, nor their standing within the league, without LeBron declaring so. That’s what happened on Friday and Sunday, when a four-time former MVP exercised his will and rolled back his inner clock to remind everyone where he stood (in case anyone forgot).
And so James’ twin pursuit now begins in earnest: for a fifth MVP and also a fourth championship with his third team. Both are in sight and realistic for LeBron, and that double would be a feat for the aged.
Kuzma just put an imaginary crown on the man’s head. Was that premature? In the next few months, we’ll see if anyone is capable of knocking it off before the real one settles into place.
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