LOS ANGELES — LeBron James continues to redefine the standard for what a star is capable of at such a late stage of his career.
James, 37, scored 50 points for the second time in his past three games in lifting the Lakers to a much-needed 122-109 win over the Washington Wizards on Friday.
The win came six days after James scored 56 against the Golden State Warriors, which was also a victory for LA The rub, of course, is that while the Lakers are 2-0 since the All-Star break when James goes for 50-plus points, they’re 0-6 in the rest of their games and are still only No. 9 in the Western Conference at 29-37.
In a season when the Lakers haven’t given fans much of a reason to want to pay for tickets to see them, James received a rare “MVP! MVP!” song from a sellout crowd at Crypto.com Arena. He said he appreciated the reception, considering how often boos have been heard in the building.
“Listen, the Laker faithful knows when bad basketball is being played and they know when good basketball is being played. They have the right to have any response they want,” James said. “They’ve seen so many great teams, so many great individuals. … So for me, being a part of this franchise, I feel like I just try to give them an opportunity to have memorable nights as well.
“Try to give them something to cheer for, give them something to feel good about on a nightly basis, and I know it hasn’t been as great as they would like for it to be this year, but you take the small wins when they come.”
LA appeared to be heading toward another loss, down by nine early on in the third quarter, when James got red-hot. Midway through the period, in a stretch that took less than two minutes of gametime, he scored 12 straight points for the Lakers to give them control of the game and stir the crowd into a frenzy.
And he did it in a variety of ways, starting the flurry with an 18-foot fadeaway, followed by an and-one layup, then a pull-up 3 from 31 feet. There also was a floating bank shot that he double-clutched before flicking it perfectly off the glass, and finally a fastbreak dunk when he tried to pull the rim off its screws.
“The thing that stands out to me is, like, the league has never seen a player at this stage of his career do what he’s doing,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “I think that’s the biggest thing that needs to be recognized. It’s just unbelievable the level that he’s playing at.”
James finished the game shooting 18-for-25 from the field (72%), including 6-of-9 on 3-pointers, and 8-of-8 from the free throw line.
And he did it in a game when he started at center against a Washington team that had 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis manning the middle for the opening tip.
“Maybe after all these years, him playing center was really the best way to utilize him,” Vogel said. “Because that’s where he’s been doing it, by playing the center position with [Anthony Davis] out. Doing whatever the team needs to win games. And just an incredible, unbelievable, epic performance by LJ.”
It was the 14th 50-point game of James’ career, tying Rick Barry for the sixth most all time, and his teams have now won their past 12 games when he has gone for 50 or more. To underscore Vogel’s point about James doing this at 37 and in his 19th season, consider that James became the first player in NBA history over the age of 30 to score 50 in back-to-back home games.
He has now scored 20 or more in 30 straight games, lifting his scoring average from 29.3 points per game to 29.7 per game to edge past Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid for first place in the race for the league scoring title.
“Just always trying to stay present,” James said when asked what has been working for him offensively as of late. “And when gameday is here, I’m here five hours before the game and prepping — prepping on myself individually, prepping on what I need to do to help this team be victorious, prepping on everything I can possibly do in my power to try to help this team be as great as we can be that night. So, that’s what goes into it.”
James’ night overshadowed the main storyline going into Friday’s game — the offseason trade the Lakers made with the Wizards to acquire Russell Westbrook in exchange for Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and other pieces.
Westbrook had five points on 2-for-11 shooting with nine assists and one turnover. Vogel pulled him with 8 minutes, 37 seconds remaining and kept him on the bench the rest of the way. LA is now 3-1 this season when Vogel benches Westbrook late.
Vogel went with a closing lineup of James, Malik Monk (21 points), Talen Horton-Tucker (15 points), Austin Reaves (12 points) and Stanley Johnson that keyed a 29-20 run from the time Westbrook was subbed out until the final buzzer.
Kuzma, meanwhile, led Washington with 23 points and Caldwell-Pope chipped in four points, going 1-for-6 from the floor.
“It was just about having those guys in there to win,” Vogel said of his closing lineup. “It wasn’t any more than that.”
Horton-Tucker picked up the assist when James reached 50 on a 3-pointer with 1:41 remaining and let out a good-natured, celebratory scream in his old teammate Kuzma’s direction to bask in the moment.
“This is the second time he’s scored 50 this year and I was, ‘Damn.’ I looked up and I was like, ‘Damn, he’s got 50!'” Horton-Tucker said. “When he had 47, I knew he was going to get 50, so that’s why I went to try and get him the 3. So, just seeing that is, like, it’s motivation, like I always say.”
James, who scored 19 points in the third quarter and 33 total in the second half, said his hot shooting reminded him of the 1990s video game “NBA Jam,” in which players would be “on fire” after making three shots in a row , making their subsequent shots go in from virtually anywhere on the court.
“I was able to hit a hot streak at one point,” James said. “I just tried to stay in that zone as long as possible and hit a couple.”