LOS ANGELES — The powerful superstar moves like a smooth freight train when he attacks the basket. He competes on defense with both his effort and words.
LeBron James is still the complete package as he led the Lakers to a 95-80 victory over the Miami Heat on Friday night.
James, a month from his 35th birthday, remains well ahead of Father Time. So much that he has offered self deprecation by recently dubbing himself “The Washed King.” James joked that those that doubt his acumen should “meet me at the cleaners.”
“It’s just my personal motivation,” James said. “I’m extra motivated to put myself in a position where I know I belong. It’s my personal motivation every single night to be on the floor and be great.”
James could not always do that last season during his first year with the Lakers. He missed a combined 27 games after straining his left groin in a Christmas Day matchup against the Golden State Warriors. He mirrored his career averages in points (27.4) and shooting percentage (51.0) and topping his career numbers in rebounds (6.5) and assists (7.4) before and after his injury. Yet, James has admitted he did not ever feel the same following his ailment.
That only added concern that this might mark the beginning of many injuries James would face in his mid to late 30s. That usually marks the time when NBA players do not produce as they once did.
Therefore, James spent this summer intent on proving he could both train properly while also filming Space Jam 2. That required James to train beginning between 3:30-4 a.m. before arriving on set at 6:30 am for a shoot that lasted between 12 to 14 hours per day for three months.
“I know how much I put into my craft. I know what the main thing is,” James said. “Even when I was shooting the movie, I know what was most important. That was me getting ready for the fall. I always had that in the front of my mind. It’s my personal pressure I’m putting on myself. I don’t believe in pressure much. But I believe in myself and know that I’m capable of.”
What is James capable of? Not much other than becoming the first Lakers player in 31 years to log three consecutive triple doubles since Magic Johnson. Or completing his 1,000th career game with at least 20 points.
As Danny Green joked, “He’s old as hell, huh?” No matter. James joked he just drinks a lot of wine to ensure longevity because “it ages well”
“The guy is incredible. He’s giving it all to this team and really impacting both ends of the floor,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “The biggest impact probably is how he is setting a tone. He’s setting a tone for our group with how hard he is playing on defense, how willing he is to pass the basketball offensively and obviously he’s got the ability to make big shots in the clutch.”
Thankfully for the Lakers, they are not just leaning on James. They are also depending on Anthony Davis (26 points, eight rebounds). They are leaning on a defense that ranks fourth in the NBA in points allowed and defensive field-goal percentage after holding Miami to a combined 35 percent clip and 17.1 percent mark from 3-point range. Though they shot only 8-of-32 from 3 and are 27th in 3-point shooting (30.8%), the Lakers are offset that with hustle.
The Lakers have excelled in those areas partly because of James.
“I’ve been impressed with how well he’s moving. That’s one of the best qualities I admired about LeBron,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He puts so much into the game and into his craft. A large part of that is his body and physical well being. When you prepare yourself to play at that level all night for 82 games and beyond in the playoffs, that’s a commitment that most players are not willing to do. That’s what makes him uncommon.”
It seemed fitting that James faced the Heat on Friday after winning two of his three NBA titles there (2010-2014). It also seemed fitting that former teammate Dwyane Wade attended the game after once teaming up with James for two NBA titles in four Finals appearances.
James considered his partnership with Wade to be part of a “different time” than his current stint with Davis. Wade initially commanded the offense with James and Chris Bosh before eventually empowering James with a heavier workload. James orchestrates the Lakers offense and has averaged a career-high 11.1 assists, while ensuring that most of the plays run through Davis. Not only has that empowered Davis to score and defend consistently. He appeared comfortable enough to chastise James in the locker room for talking loudly during his post-game interview.
“We just try to lead together,” Davis said. “We’re one on the floor and talking to those guys. We communicate every timeout on what we want to do and what we see on the floor and go from there.”
With James demonstrating all of those qualities, hardly anyone actually sees him as washed. Instead, Spoelstra likely echoed the thoughts of many about the King. Said Spoelstra: “He’s the best player in the game.”
Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.