LAS VEGAS — When it comes to meeting the moment, when understanding the importance of a single event on the floor, LeBron James is usually up to the task.
The NBA has invested so much into this in-season tournament, courting sponsors and prospective television partners over the past few weeks and next couple of days, it was going to need great cooperation from its biggest stars and the nonpareil supernova.
So there was LeBron, not begrudgingly but willingly saying, "I'll do it" — with another masterpiece of a performance following Tuesday night's win over the Phoenix Suns — making sure the crowd at T-Mobile Arena got their money's worth and making sure he'd be closer to that $500,000 bonus every member of the Los Angeles Lakers would receive for winning the IST.
Luckily for the Laker fans who made the trek, the New Orleans Pelicans obliged rather meekly, falling behind by 30 and relinquishing any chance of announcing to the world they would be a force.
It would’ve been better had the Lakers faced a more worthy opponent, the Sacramento Kings or even the good today, bad tomorrow Los Angeles Clippers. Even still it might not have mattered considering James’ concentration.
“I’m a simple guy, man, so I’ll stick to one word: extraordinary,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said, before relenting. “Extraordinary, otherworldly. One on one. That’s a phrase, that’s not a word. But he’s the ultimate tone-setter, man.”
Ham even brought up the vaunted letters that feels a little early to have a discussion on, if James should be in the conversation to win Most Valuable Player — which would have him surpass Karl Malone as the oldest MVP in history (Malone was 35 in the lockout-shortened 1999 season).
“Without question,” Ham said. “Without question, the way he impacts winning, what he's doing at this stage of his career without question that’s a no-brainer.”
It was James who was the force, yet again, with three straight triples in the second that broke the game open, and a celebration that gives the impression he’s 15 years younger. And three charges taken — two while the massive Zion Williamson was bearing down on him — that didn’t make you question his youth, but his sanity.
“I think you just have to try and lead by example,” he said afterward. “Make plays on the floor. Be unselfish. Trying to make the right plays.”
As for the charges, he made no bones about it.
“Listen, man, not for that 500 [thousand dollars], I ain’t,” he said when asked if he was too old to be taking all these charges.
He didn’t have to play the fourth because the Lakers actually took a 41-point lead in the third, but he made his point in 23 minutes and was still able to rest up for the IST final against the breakneck Indiana Pacers.
“You saw LeBron on full display,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “He understands these moments.”
His 30 points, eight assists and five rebounds did the trick in a 133-89 win that didn't feel that close. Who knows whether he went into a cryogenic chamber before the game or physically turned back the clock, but he took this entire enterprise quite seriously.
“I think we are starting to get a feel for who we need to become a team in order for us to win basketball games, be consistent,” James said. “You know, we know that defensively. We started to really, really tap into that. Like OK, we got to defend every single night. We defend, we’ll give ourselves a chance to win.”
If his basketball genius was on display Thursday, he was in full diplomat mode Wednesday. He applauded NBA commissioner Adam Silver, calling him a genius for implementing the in-season tournament, and commented on the mass shooting in Las Vegas that took place at UNLV hours before his media availability.
“I said before about guns in America. I think it’s such a longer conversation … we’ve been dealing with the same story, the same conversation every single time that happens and it just continues to happen,” he said Wednesday. “It makes no sense that we continue to lose innocent lives. You know, all campuses, on schools, shopping markets, and, you know, movie theaters and all that type of stuff. It’s just, it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous.”
What he said wasn’t revolutionary or rebellious, most would agree these tragic situations are preventable and ridiculous, as James stated. But he’s always asked about these instances, always queried about them in ways his peers are not.
And then for this, well, he’s here. The reigning Finals MVP and best player alive, Nikola Jokić, is not. Neither is the regular-season MVP, Joel Embiid. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum, all at home for one reason or another.
But for now, James is the ambassador remaining, in a tournament nobody was totally sure the players would fully invest in.
However, LeBron bought in. Whether because he wants to add another trophy and accolade to the fictional GOAT argument or merely because he realizes how important this tournament is to the league, he bought in.
And with that, he brought everyone along for the ride — the Lakers, the NBA and the public.
“It’s a whole new environment,” Anthony Davis said. “It’s the first time any of us have been in this. It’s exciting for our ballclub. On top of the incentives and things like that, but I think the excitement around it, the atmosphere, the energy, the competitiveness that it brings out to teams is gonna be fun.”
Who knows whether the television ratings will bear out to the NBA’s liking, but it has so far, in large part due to the stars pulling their weight and recognizing the opportunity that’s in front of them.
Now, James can’t do this every night or every other night. It’s hard to see him keeping this up for multiple playoff series with the rigors of the schedule.
But if the NBA playoffs were single elimination, it would be hard to bet against him. Because for a single night, for stretches of time with proper rest and preparation, he can make a game his.
For a 10-minute stretch or perhaps longer, he’ll put his force and finesse into a contest that will turn it into a coronation. And it’s not impressive for a soon-to-be 39-year-old, but for any NBA player, past or present.
It’s silly and reductive to turn every highlight or accomplishment into some argument about where he ranks against Michael Jordan, and annoying to be reminded that we should cherish this every time he performs greatness.
His greatness is required and expected, while also being properly appreciated. And sometimes it’s just fine to enjoy the moment.