LeBron leads Lakers back to West semifinals

The Sporting Tribune's Mark Medina explains how LeBron James helped lead the Lakers back to the Western Conference semifinals.

LOS ANGELES – The play seemed appropriate for a young prospect enjoying his time on the playground. Or perhaps a rising NBA star eager to demonstrate his arrival and long-term potential.

Instead, this was 38-year-old LeBron James showing once again that Father Time will have to wait. At least until after the playoffs end. James threw down a reverse dunk two days after appearing tired and describing his Game 5 performance with an expletive. That play, no matter how grand, symbolized something greater.

“Obviously as I get older, I play with much younger guys,” James said. “I think my boys keep me young.”

That’s because Bronny (senior) and Bryce (sophomore) have both starred as young prospects at Sierra Canyon. To prepare for his own game, James watched Grizzlies footage. But he also watched Bryce’s AAU game until 45 minutes before tipoff. James noted that routine “kind of inspired me.”

That did not result in James finishing as the Lakers’ leading scorer. That honor belonged to D’Angelo Russell, who finished with a team-leading 31 points while shooting 12-for-17 from the field and 5-for-9 from 3-point range. But since when does James need to score to have his imprint on the game?

He filled the box score, but his overall presence loomed greater than anything he did statistically. James looked fresh and energized. He sank his first two 3-point attempts. And, of course, James threw down his signature dunk.

With the Lakers holding a 57-42 lead late in the second quarter, Lakers guard Dennis Schroder found James open toward the top of the key. Once he caught the ball, James drove left past Memphis forward David Roddy. Once Grizzlies forward Santi Aldama rotated to help, James shifted direction and finished with a reverse dunk.

“I thought he was just going to do a regular dunk and he did that,” said Lakers forward Anthony Davis, shaking his head. “I thought, ‘Damn; that’s one of those moments where it’s like, it doesn’t affect him.”

It certainly didn’t. James appeared energized from a full capacity crowd he has missed in recent years. The Lakers won an NBA title in 2020, but they completed their whole playoff run in a campus bubble without any fans present as a safety measure during the beginning of the pandemic. James then competed in the 2020-21 season initially without any fans before appearing in a play-in tournament game (Golden State) and a first-round appearance (Phoenix) before limited crowds. Last season, the Lakers missed the playoffs entirely. In Game 6, though, James played in front of Jack Nicholson, Flea, Larry David, Dr. Dre and Kyrie Irving.

“Obviously this franchise is known for winning championships, winning big and playing in big games and being a part of the postseason and the fans coming out and having an opportunity to be a part of that,” James said. “Tonight is another moment I’ll always envision.”

James could not enjoy that same fan support in Game 5. Then, James hardly looked as lively before a hostile pro-Grizzlies crowd. He labored with 15 points while shooting 5-for-17 from the field and 1-for-9 from 3-point range along with five turnovers in 37 minutes. Only two days before that, James carried the Lakers to a Game 4 overtime win over the Grizzlies in LA with 22 points and a career-high 20 rebounds in 45 minutes.

So just imagine how James felt after arriving in LA early Thursday morning following the Lakers’ Game 5 loss. 

“All I was thinking about was trying to sleep as much as I could, rest as much as I could and make sure my body was getting the rest, treatment and rehab,” James said. “Staying off my feet as much as possible coming into tonight.”

Lakes coach Darvin Ham gave the team the day off on Thursday and an optional shootaround on Friday. No wonder James reported feeling “excellent” once he woke up on Friday morning. James then arrived to the arena over three hours before tipoff. Ham added that James worked with personal trainer Mike Mancias, or “Magic Mike” as Ham affectionally called him.

Neither party shared specifics. But James said earlier this season, “there’s no way I’ll be playing 20 seasons without him. It’s literally that simple. There’s no way I’d still be able to play at this level that I’m playing at without him.”

Still, the Lakers insisted James wouldn’t play at his current level if not for his own skillset and disciplined work ethic.

Ham said that James is “probably the best I’ve seen and been around in terms of what he has to do to recover.” That’s saying a lot since Ham worked as a Lakers assistant coach during the end of Kobe Bryant’s career (2011-2013). Ham also served as a Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach during part of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s time there (2018-2022). Yet, Ham observed that James remains diligent with his training and dieting both during the season and the offseason.

“That’s the only way he’s able to do what you see him doing,” Ham said. “It’s nothing short of amazing. But when you’re around him every day and you see how he prepares, it doesn’t surprise you.”

Expect James to become just as diligent before the Lakers’ next playoff series.

The Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings will have to play Game 7 on Sunday before the Lakers know who they will face in the second round beginning on Tuesday. That leaves the Lakers with a day off on Saturday and a film session on Sunday once they know their second-round opponent.

James predicted the upcoming schedule “will definitely be a challenge” considering the Lakers play two road games on Tuesday and Thursday before returning to LA the following Saturday and Monday. Should the Lakers play more than four games, they will continue to play every other day.

Still, that beats the itinerary James faced during the Lakers’ first-round series in Memphis. Though the Lakers spent four days in Memphis for Games 1 and 2, they then played every other day. That left the Lakers traveling on four-hour flights while changing two time zones.

If James can look as energetic as he did in Game 6 within that schedule, just imagine what he might look like with less travel against either Sacramento or Golden State. As Davis noted, “he leaves it out all out on the floor.” Perhaps, James will also throw down another reverse dunk. He’ll have plenty of rest and training to prepare for it. 

Mark Medina covers the NBA for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.