Late in the third quarter of a crucial game against the Mavericks, everything seemed to be clicking into place for the new-look Lakers.
In just the fourth game with the new corps following a total overhaul of their squad at the trade deadline, the Lakers were looking for their third straight win after trimming a 27-point deficit to just four. Poised to complete the comeback, LeBron James drove towards the basket, leading the charging Lakers towards their first lead since the first quarter when they held a 10-9 advantage.
Then, of course, this happened:
Not only did the audible “pop” trigger Laker fans’ collective memory of LeBron’s first significant injury in Los Angeles, but, given the caress of his foot and subsequent heroics, also the final blow to the franchise’s most memorable icon of this millennium.
Just like Kobe, LeBron refused to stay down, even remaining in the game through its dramatic conclusion — a historic Lakers victory. However, James’ heroics down the stretch may have overshadowed the severity of the injury, as the news that LeBron would miss several weeks only broke the next day.
In retrospect though, it probably shouldn’t have been surprising, considering how significantly the typically infallible LeBron was impacted by the malady once it occurred. In the three minutes and 16 seconds to close the third after going down, LeBron failed to scratch, turning the ball over three times in an uncharacteristically clunky fashion.
Even in the least glaring of the three times The King coughed it up, it was clear from his hobbled gait and inability to execute that something was seriously wrong.
It was subtle, but for the game’s superlative athlete in terms of both fluidity and explosiveness over the past two decades, LeBron’s sudden lack of coordination was striking.
When he lacked the lift to get his jumper to the rim (his injury is apparent by the weirdly truncated shuffles he takes to get to this one), and while his foot likely couldn’t withstand the pounding required for a full-speed stampede to lead a fast break, LeBron found a way to score a third of the Lakers’ points in the final frame. In the break between quarters, LeBron apparently made the necessary biomechanical recalibrations to account for a bum wheel, getting to the rim with pump fakes and spins when matched up against the Mavs’ smaller perimeter players after they sent all of their big ones to Brooklyn for Kyrie Irving.
Despite being one of the game’s greatest athletes, LeBron proved, yet again, that he is also one of its all-time craftsmen.
First, he baited both Tim Hardaway Jr. and Justin Holiday into contesting a jumper he didn’t take, parting the seas for a lefty layup.
Then he sold Reggie Bullock the same false bill of goods, earning another finish at the rim — this time, with the right.
On the very next offensive possession, he walked Bullock back into the post, spinning to his right, and making the Mavs pay for the size disadvantage to similar effect.
Finally, LeBron dragged Frank Ntilikina into the paint, spinning the other way and finishing as if to say, “Here’s two more for y’all.”
Reviewing the totality of the circumstances of LeBron’s performance highlights the reality that he is, simply put, the greatest ever. Most NBA players would fold from pain or failure to perform after suffering a similar injury, but LeBron showed us that he is, in fact, “built different.” Not only did he perform through pain, but when faced with a total impingement upon his usually still-awesome year-20 burst and balance, LeBron, on the fly, rerouted his way to greatness.
Considering the Lakers’ position in the game and in the Western Conference, along with the physical impediment he was fighting through, this winning stretch has to be one of LeBron’s most impressive. Without fighting through, LeBron’s Lakers would almost certainly have faltered (as they did in their very next game), falling to five games below .500 and losing ground to a tightly-packed group of teams fighting for a chance to make the playoffs. The team needed that win, and despite everything, their 38-year-old star got up and got it for them.
This wasn’t to the level of The Block, 25-straight in the ‘07 Eastern Conference Finals, or the time he “aimed for the middle one,” but LeBron’s one-legged closing quarter against the Mavs deserves to be remembered as one of his truly transcendent regular season performances. And if it marked the end of his 2022-23 season, it certainly will be.