LOS ANGELES — It started most mornings over the summer around 3:30 a.m.
No matter if he was at the gym he had built for himself on the set of Space Jam 2 at the Warner Bros. studio lot in Burbank, or at the Los Angeles Lakers practice facility in El Segundo, LeBron James was up early to work out. His first season in Los Angeles hadn’t been a good one, with injuries and insults derailing his and the Lakers’ hopes at reclaiming their place atop the NBA hierarchy.
He’d post those workouts on social media, for his own accountability as much as anything. But it was a statement to the rest of the league, too.
But James wasn’t giving up his place atop the league without a fight.
This weekend, James made his loudest statements yet, leading the Lakers to hard-fought wins over Antekounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday and Leonard’s Clippers on Sunday with stout defense on the two men who have made the most direct challenges to his throne in recent years.
“LeBron was unbelievable,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “This was his best weekend in a Lakers uniform. He really dominated both games and helped close them out.”
James finished with 28 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in Sunday’s 112-103 win over the Clippers, giving the Lakers a win over the only team in the league who has defeated them twice this season.
The Clippers threatened to rally against the Lakers in the fourth quarter, just as they had in their win on Christmas Day. But it was James’ defense and hustle plays that set the tone for the Lakers down the stretch.
With 2:21 remaining in the game, James dove on the floor and out-wrestled 240-pound LA center Montrezl Harrell for a rebound. Then, with 1:35 to go, he jumped in front of 218-pound LA power forward Marcus Morris Sr. and tried to draw a charge.
Neither play actually worked out in James’ favor (Avery Bradley turned the ball over after James dove on the ground, recovered the loose ball, and passed it to him; James was whistled for a blocking foul on Morris), but they made an impression on his teammates.
“He didn’t get rewarded for those plays, but for me, that didn’t go unnoticed,” Lakers backup point guard Rajon Rondo told ESPN. “He tried to take a charge, then he’s down on the court getting the loose ball.
“When you got the oldest guy on the team doing that, everybody else is going to follow. The plays he makes are contagious.”
At James’ behest, officials reviewed the blocking call on him, but there wasn’t video evidence to overturn the call. James continued to assert a charge should’ve been called, but then effectively overturned the points himself by driving past Morris and scoring the Lakers’ final five points on the next two possessions.
He drew a foul on a drive to the basket with 1:13 to go, sinking both free throws to extend the Lakers lead back to 109-100. Then James blew past Morris -whom the Clippers beat out the Lakers for in a trade deadline move with the New York Knicks – for a layup and foul shot with 40.8 seconds remaining.
James let out a growl and flexed his 35-year old arms at the Clippers home crowd after that final layup. Lakers fans who’d managed to procure tickets to the Clippers home game serenaded him with chants of “M-V-P” as he stepped to the line.
After James checked out of the game with the Lakers up 112-100 with 31.4 seconds remaining, forward Kyle Kuzma put his hands over James’ head and put a “crown” over his head.
“MVP, just MVP,” Kuzma said. “Everyone sees it.”
Whether or not James did enough this weekend to change the course of the MVP race, which Antetokounmpo is favored to win again, remains to be seen.
But James and the Lakers made some very loud statements this weekend. They beat the team with the best record in the league and the only team that had beaten them twice this season.
James won individual matchups with the reigning regular season MVP (Antetokoumpo) and reigning Finals MVP (Leonard). And they made those statements at the time of the year a team needs to start believing in its strengths, not dwelling on its weaknesses.
“That’s for you guys to talk about,” James said. “I prepare myself both in my body and my mind and to endure anything even at this stage in my career. I know what it takes for me to prepare mentally and physically and go out and perform on a high level, and it’s my responsibility to put this team in a position to be successful. They look at me as a leader. It’s my job not only on the floor to give guys opportunities, get them great looks, but inspire them as well and show them I’m not slowing down, even at this stage in my career.”