LeBron James Is All That Matters In Los Angeles
9:17 AM EST on February 8, 2023
On a night when history was made—yes, Russell Westbrook's 9,000th career assist—the Los Angeles Lakers performed the thing they do best. They hid the reality of the present behind a veneer of history.
Tuesday night was earmarked as the night that LeBron James was likeliest to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career scoring record, and the Lakers never screw up history. All the right LeBron-era celebrities were there (except Shaquille O'Neal, who was working the game from Atlanta as is his Tuesday duty), his family of course, and all the foot-deep flowery prose for them to walk upon. It was ordered and respectful and lasted just the right amount of time in keeping with the fact that there was still a game to win, which LeBron reminded us of at a few points at the end of the to-do.
And then the Lakers did what they do. They left him hanging.
James got his 36th and 38,388th point in the waning seconds of the third quarter on a fading midrange jumper rather than the more prosaic skyhook people speculated he might offer, and because he had to do the hardest work himself he created a workmanlike achievement people saw coming at least two years ago.
But they probably also saw this coming: The Lakers would lose despite their James-centric gameplan, because that's mostly what they do now. They lost at home to an equally mediocre Oklahoma City team that had been beaten by 27 the night before in San Francisco and by rights should have been both spent from the exertion and overwhelmed by the moment. LeBron got his record, the Lakers even tied the game at 106 early in the fourth quarter on the wings of his achievement, then gave up the next 12 points to remind everyone that in this case the 12th-place team has way more going for it than the 13th-place team. For all their care re: LeBron's legacy, the Lakers still allowed 133 points, committed 20 turnovers, and the final margin of three points was about 10 too generous. The Lakers' future is galactically more dire than Oklahoma City's, so their devotion to James's big night was proper, required, and symptomatic all at once.
Nobody would normally be concerned about an early February showdown between two non-play-in teams, and frankly, nobody really was last night, either. Even James, whose two-decade reputation was partially built on his willingness to distribute the ball to lesser players with better shots, knew what the audience wanted, and ended up with a season-low three assists because, well, nobody came to watch Rui Hachimura. The game itself was a prop, and in a season in which road teams barely win 40 percent of the time, the traveling Thunder took control midway through the second quarter and, other than the Laker rush at the end of the third quarter that resulted in James's record-breaker, maintained it. James is James, to be sure, and he was all the James a LeBronian acolyte could want, but the next four enjoyable watches of the evening were Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams, Josh Giddey and Isaiah Joe, all of them Thunder stars in the making.
Indeed, other than Westbrook, no Laker made a measurable imprint on a game that frankly they rather desperately needed. But nobody watches the Lakers for the Lakers any more, or even their postseason hopes; they have spent all but two of the season's 111 days outside the play-in circle. Before James's big moment the 2023 Lakers were most noted for neither trading Westbrook or getting Kyrie Irving, likely because in the first place nobody else is keen to have Westbrook and in the second Irving most wanted the deal and influenced scorned Brooklyn owner Joe Tsai to aggressively prevent.
This, then was the Lakers' big moment of the season—the record everyone knew would fall this year. And now that it's done, the matter of whether they can go from this point to better than the lowest third of the worst Western Conference of the century seems almost too embarrassing for anyone to list as a goal. The Lakers probably peaked last night not with a bang, but with another ceremony celebrating a line in a record book, and if that's your idea of a good season, well, you'll love the Dennis Schröder jersey retirement.