Home @ Capital One Arena Washington, DC2020 February 20th at 4:00pm
Home @ Little Caesars Arena Detroit, MI2020 February 20th at 4:00pm
LeBron James was excited. You could see it in the way he danced by the cameras capturing his pregame warmup, the way he seemed to bask in the appreciation from the Lakers fans that flooded into the arena early.
It was just a perfect storm — the energy in New York City, James’ love and respect for Madison Square Garden, his pursuit of Kobe Bryant on the all-time scoring list, the celebrities and friends sitting courtside. James seemed determined to make this night his own.
But a strange thing happened as James tore the Knicks’ defense apart and worked the crowd into a frenzy — his team didn’t play that well and went into halftime tied with the lowly Knicks.
James’ 19-point half on eight-for-10 shooting came with just one assist — only the second time that’s happened this season.
So James made a change for the second half.
His first touch, and assist, was barely that — a blink of a possession in which he immediately pushed the ball back to Avery Bradley for a jumper. Possession two? A pinpoint lob to JaVale McGee for an easy dunk. Possession three? A zipped lead pass to a breaking Danny Green. On his next touch, a lob attempt for Anthony Davis, who would’ve scored had he not been fouled.
In about 90 seconds, James redefined how he was going to attack the rest of the game, that he was going to dominate in a different way, that he was going to pass the Lakers to a win.
“Yeah, I was more of a facilitator in the second half,” he said after the game. “Tried to get AD going. He looked a little out of rhythm in the first half. It was a point of emphasis to me coming into the third quarter and the fourth quarter to get him going. So that was the difference.”
The two halves against the Knicks were an outlier for James, who has become one of the favorites for the most valuable player award because of how expertly he’s balanced his dual roles in the Lakers’ offense.
“He’s always a threat to score,” Davis said. “When everyone has their eyes on you, they’re looking for you to score, the defense, and we try to move around. While they’re ball watching, we’re trying to cut and get in his vision, where he’s going to make the pass. Obviously, he’s a willing passer. We know that. Sometimes, he’ll shoot it and it goes in. And then sometimes, we’ll cut and try to give him space in the post, knowing he’s going to make the right play.”
James is averaging a career-high 10.8 assists, which leads the NBA. If he stays there, he’ll be the third-oldest player to top that category behind two Steve Nash seasons. But it’s not only passing, it’s scoring too. If he ends the season with his current averages, he’ll join an exclusive club of players who have averaged at least 25 points and 10 assists.
Oscar Robertson did it five times. Russell Westbrook has done it twice. James Harden, Tiny Archibald and Michael Adams have done it once.
“It’s a great balance,” Davis said. “He knows when he needs to go score and he knows when he needs to pass. He’s just so aggressive, so dominant. He gets it in the paint, and he’s able to go to the middle of the floor or go baseline, and if they help, he’ll make the right plays. And it’s our job to make shots for him.”
The balance has benefited Davis and his teammates, and it’s given opposing coaches fits for years. With James’ passing ramped up this season — in part because he’s never had a target quite like Davis — the choices are even tougher.
“You always go back to what’s the best way to defend to LeBron,” Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson said. “Is it make him a scorer, make him score 50? Or do you really shut his scoring down? But the problem with that is he’s such a great passer. I remember our days in Atlanta in the playoffs, it was like, ‘OK, we’re going to make him a passer.’ And sure enough he passed, they made shots and they took us out pretty easily.
“It’s a real dilemma.”
For James it isn’t — passer, scorer, whatever.
“It doesn’t matter, to be honest,” James said. “Just to be able to suit up and play the game I love to play is what is very enjoyable to me. So if it’s me being a facilitator for this team, starting at the point guard position or it’s being at my natural [small forward] position … or just being out on the floor, that’s what’s enjoyable to me because I’m still playing the game that I love to play and doing it with a historical franchise.”
James will be celebrated when he passes Bryant, when he catches Karl Malone and, maybe, if he eventually eclipses Kareem Abdul-Jabbar because of the different ways he can put the ball in the basket. But it’s just a slice of who he is as a player — and maybe not even the most important one.
“At the end of the day, what’s going to be on his Hall of Fame plaque?” Atkinson asked. “He’s a point guard.”