LeBron James posed in front of a tower of golden thrones, diamonds around his neck, his wrist and even between his teeth. He wore a black leather jacket and a wild snarl across his face, celebrating with a lit cigar and a plan in the form of a Juelz Santana lyric.
“Rumble Young Man,” he posted on Instagram on the night of his birthday, “Rumble.”
“I don’t feel like I’ve been in the league for 19 years,” he said, his mind focused on staying young in a “young man’s game.”
In his first professional basketball game as a 37-year-old, James definitely rumbled, the Portland Trail Blazers destructed in his wake, leading the Lakers to a 139-106 win behind his 43 points, his seventh straight game with 30 points or more.
James made it look as easy as ever, the years on his legs as invisible as Portland’s chances of slowing him down. He made his first four shots before missing his next three — all layups on a single possession. Shortly after, he was scoring again.
In the fourth quarter, James sidestepped the defense and floated a three-pointer toward the rim, holding his hand and wrist high as it swished through the net for his 39th, 40th and 41st points of the night — celebrating the achievement by quickly slapping his hands together.
Age, just like the Trail Blazers, couldn’t stop him — at least not on Friday — as he delivered his best performance of the season on New Year’s Eve at Crypto.com Arena.
No player 37 years old had ever had a 43-point, 14-rebound game before, and James wouldn’t have either had he actually played the final six minutes of the fourth.
Instead, James sat on the bench, ice on his knees, as he celebrated his team pushing its lead to 30 on a made Trevor Ariza three-pointer.
It’s the seventh straight game with at least 30 points for James, the first time he has done that since 2013 and just the fifth time in his career.
“I want to be efficient every single night,” James said.
Right now he is — seven straight games shooting at least 50% from the field.
Alongside him was Russell Westbrook with his fourth consecutive triple-double — 15 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists while being a team-leading plus-29.
It was the Lakers at their most dominant, capitalizing on a bit of a rudderless Portland team playing with its coach, Chauncey Billups, in COVID-19 protocols, and Damian Lillard’s co-star, CJ McCollum, coming back from a collapsed lung.
It was also the Lakers at their most whole in quite some time with a handful of players, and probably most importantly, they got their head coach back.
Frank Vogel missed the six previous games because of an escalating case of COVID-19. After initially testing positive in Chicago, he said he felt completely fine. Within days, he had developed a serious enough cough and headaches.
“It never reached a point where I was feeling like I was going to be hospitalized or in danger or anything like that, but to me, my individual case, it definitely was not mild symptoms,” Vogel said. “I got pretty sick. And you fight through it, you kinda hope it goes away, but it lingers. So thankfully I’m on the mend, I’m feeling a lot better.”
Vogel’s return to the bench was not the only one, the Lakers inching back to being whole after an outbreak ran through the team’s traveling party.
Ariza, Austin Reaves and Kent Bazemore also returned from the health and safety protocols. James called the players who have come back the Lakers’ “dirty work” and “glue guys.”
And with Vogel back, the Lakers could be a little more normal.
“To miss six [games] was challenging — obviously physically challenging with what I was going through, but mentally challenging as well, being in isolation, trying to help your team and your staff as much as you can remotely, giving input but also trying to empower them to coach the team and use their judgment and their instincts,” Vogel said. “The whole thing was challenging, and I’m happy to be back.”
The Lakers aren’t a finished product. The team is close to finalizing a trade to send Cleveland veteran guard Rajon Rondo for Denzel Valentine. The Lakers, according to sources with knowledge of the deal, would then waive Valentine to save money in the luxury tax while creating an open roster spot.
One option for that spot, former Santa Ana Mater Dei High star Stanley Johnson, continued to play well, joining James in the starting lineup and scoring 10 points before fouling out.
“He’s picked up our system really fast,” James said. “ … And he brought in some toughness.”
He’s a young man willing to rumble — with a 37-year-old teammate right there, setting the tone the loudest.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.