LOS ANGELES - A Tuesday night NBA game in the first week of December is typically not a notable event, even if it's on national television.
The NBA In-Season tournament court was on display and the Lakers donned the City edition jerseys; all things the league set up to help differentiate this from the rest of the regular season. But if the fans and players don't buy in, it's all a moot point.
They bought in.
The fans were seated well before the national anthem, the crowd was raucous from the jump, yelling during the first quarter like it was a final possession and cheering at every corner three like it was a Game 7 dagger.
"I love it," Ham said during his postgame presser. "It allows you to see early what you're made of and who can give you what at what moment. It's refreshing to come out on the right side of a game of this. This game, for it to be our 22nd game of the season, it had a ton of playoff intensity."
That intensity, paired with a home-court advantage, propelled Los Angeles to an early lead and control throughout the first half. However, the NBA is a game of runs, and with players like Kevin Durant and Devin Booker on the other side, the run was inevitable. Phoenix outscored Los Angeles 35-24 in the third quarter and we had ourselves a ballgame heading into the fourth.
It was LeBron time.
LeBron James didn't just take over the fourth quarter, he was the fourth quarter.
He started things off by converting on a pair of free throws, then fed Rui Hachimura a beautiful bounce pass that Hachumira dunked with one hand. The next possession was a bucket by James, followed by a layup, then a pullup jumper. All James points.
LeBron James delivered a CLUTCH performance to lead the Lakers to the NBA In-Season Tournament Semifinals— NBA (@NBA) December 6, 2023
8 REB pic.twitter.com/tMnrahslQW
He scored 15 of the team's 23 points in the final quarter and assisted in every other field goal the Lakers made in the fourth except for one Austin Reaves 3-pointer.
"No disrespect to anybody else: he's the best quarterback in the NBA. Bar none," Ham said postgame. "He understands those moments and what we're trying to get out of certain possessions, when we need to be aggressive going downhill, when we need to be more methodical, us collaborating on what actions to call and how to expose the opposing teams defense and put their lesser defenders in the action and try to get an advantage, forcing that team to help and have multiple bodies in the paint once we do collapse the paint and the ball touches the paint."
At age 38—yes, I'm mentioning his age— James played more minutes than any player on either team, clocking in at 40 of them along with his stat line of 31 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in the Lakers win.
With pressure from the crowd, the opposing team, and, as the Lakers have repeatedly pointed out, the financial incentive of a half-million-dollar purse per player on the line, James' shortcomings evaporated in this game.
Barring literally getting on his hands and knees and cleaning the hardwood, there was nothing more James could've done to lead this team to victory. The Lakers don't run an offense that would be defined as heliocentric, but regardless of how much he plays on the ball or how much movement occurs offensively, to borrow a phrase from a different James, LeBron James is the system.
Since he entered the league at 19, James has been the end-all-be-all of every team he's been a part of, and in Los Angeles, even in Year 21, this still rings true. Game on the line, James has the ball, he's making the decisions, and you live with the results. Usually, the outcome goes your way, and for the Lakers, that's exactly what happened on Tuesday.
Postgame, James was as cool and calm as ever. The kid from Akron looked like a kid from soccer practice. Sitting slightly to the side, eating orange slices from a ziplock bag.
Despite James' accomplishments being athletic in nature, it was the mental aspect he discussed postgame as being his biggest challenge and the key to 21 years of success.
LeBron James takes the court nearly four hours before tipoff to get up shots ahead of the Lakers-Suns in-season tournament quarterfinals game pic.twitter.com/UidqnSflMM— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) December 5, 2023
"I think it's definitely more mental than physical at this point in my career,” LeBron said. “Just mentally showing up hours and hours and hours before the actual game to start to prepare my mind, body and soul for however many minutes I'm going to play. Commanding the most out of my teammates commanding the most of myself. Holding everybody accountable including myself.
“The mental side is definitely more stressful than the actual body. Like I said, if I continue to keep my mind as fresh as possible and continue to put the work in then I give myself an opportunity to... I guess surprise myself still with what I'm able to do."
I could conclude this article by reminding you not to take James for granted. To enjoy him while he's here and regardless of your ranking of him in GOAT conversations to be a fan of the game and embrace what's left of his career.
But you've heard it all already.
Instead, I'll leave you with the final words Kobe Bryant tweeted to James and us all. "Continuing to move the game forward.”
James has done just that, moving the Lakers forward to uncharted waters even for him in the In-Season Tournament semi-finals.
He’s been carrying the NBA mantle for so long, it's hard to remember when his run truly began and while today was just another dot on the impressionist painting that is LeBron's career, it was another reminder of just how good he can be when the stakes rise even a little.
Even if it’s an early December game with entirely new stakes.
You can follow Edwin on Twitter at @ECreates88.