As Los Angeles Lakers players, personnel, and fans gather around their Thanksgiving tables to discuss what they are thankful for, LeBron James will be at the top of their lists.
It’s been a difficult season for both the Lakers and their superstar who has missed more than half of the season to injury and a one-game suspension. You wouldn’t know it on Wednesday night, however, when the 36-year-old anchored the Lakers’ defense in the absence of Anthony Davis and hit clutch shot after clutch shot to lead the Lakers to a massive victory to close their road trip before the holiday.
James scored 39 points and dished out five assists to lead the overtime victory, hitting. After checking back in at the 5:23 mark of the fourth quarter, James scored 17 of 28 Lakers’ points, showcasing a dominant offensive ability to not only get into the paint and put pressure on the Pacers defense but to also hit several deep contested threes that served as backbreakers for Indiana.
▪️ 39 points (season-high)
▪️ 17 in 4th & OT
▪️ Back-to-back tough jumpers to seal it pic.twitter.com/z0y0t31pN3
— NBA (@NBA) November 25, 2021
But even more impressive than the near-40-point performance was James’ defensive work rate. James played as the effective center for nearly 17 of his 43 minutes on Wednesday, including the entire overtime period, minutes that the purple and gold won by 15 points in a hotly contested and back-and-forth matchup. LeBron’s work as the anchor in those lineups, calling out coverages, trapping ball handlers, and rotating to protect the rim was the key to making those small lineups work, giving the Lakers (who shot 50% from the field and hit seven of 13 3-point attempts in those 17 minutes) the spacing to spread out the Pacers defense and get consistent good looks offensively.
LeBron attributed the success of the small lineups to his ability to call out coverages from the center position and get his teammates in the right spots. There was a noticable uptick in the Lakers’ defensive abilities when James was the anchor both from an effort standpoint as well as quicker decision making and reactions that have not always been present for a team ranking in the bottom third of the league in defense.
The star also hinted at those lineups becoming a fixture for the Lakers even when Anthony Davis returns, saying “I think we can sense some of the things that we can do. I think there were a couple lineups out there that really worked for us and I believe will work for us in the future, in the immediate future.”
The Lakers have had very limited time this season using LeBron as a center so the sample size to truly evaluate it is very limited (and almost entirely from this win against the Pacers), even though it is, so far, yielding positive results. And while the Lakers needed a “performance for the ages” from James, as Frank Vogel described it, it’s clear that there are advantages created that could be useful for the remainder of the season.
Avery Bradley has now taken the role of the one who puts the crown on LeBron pic.twitter.com/JUFsQPjaMp
— Jacob Rude (@JacobRude) November 25, 2021
Will LeBron always be able to exert the energy necessary to play center in a lineup that is forced to rotate, help, and recover heavily to make up for their lack of size and still manage to run the offense on the other end? Probably not, but for limited minutes, the two-way excellence that James can still bring out this late in his career is a cheat code that few teams could find answers to.
As Malik Monk continuously put it after the win, LeBron is “everything” to the Lakers, even at this advanced stage of his career and with two other superstars assisting him. Monk himself was one of the major beneficiaries of the small lineups, becoming a key player on both ends of the floor as he competed defensively and was one of the guards setting the screens to force mismatches for James or open shots for himself that he knocked down en route to 17 points. His eight rebounds (along with contributions from the likes of Wayne Ellington, Russell Westbrook, and Carmelo Anthony) made playing a small lineup against a team that always features at least one of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis a viable strategy despite the obvious risks it presented.
With their backs against the wall and desperately needing a win to salvage some good results from a tough road trip, Vogel pulled out this ultimate trump card and went to it early in the fourth quarter to close out the game, relying on his superstar to take them home. James may have needed an extra push from some particularly unruly courtside fans but with criticisms and doubts surrounding both his ability and his team, yet again he showed he’s still That Guy.