EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — As his NBA career approaches the dawn of its third decade, LeBron James plays almost exclusively alongside teammates who grew up watching him dominate their game.
He has played against the sons of his basketball contemporaries, and he has played against one of his own 18-year-old son’s former high school teammates. That son, Bronny, is headed to college at USC in the fall, an achievement that sparks a father’s proud smile whenever he mentions it.
Signs of time’s passage are all around the 38-year-old James, yet the new top scorer in NBA history is defying all conventional wisdom about growing older in his mercilessly athletic sport.
When he’s fully healthy — which is admittedly true less often than he would like — the third-oldest active player in the league still sprints, dunks, throws no-look passes and competes with the intensity that has kept him at the top for 20 punishing NBA seasons.
“I don’t take those moments for granted,” James said. “I don’t take anything that I’ve been able to accomplish for granted, and I’m always appreciative. To be a part of that class of 15 guys is still pretty cool, even at my age and where I’m at right now, Year 20. Just don’t take it for granted.
“Obviously, I’ve got bigger fish to fry. But those small moments, those small wins right there, is all part of the journey, all part of the legacy.”
The big fish is his fifth NBA championship, which is somehow just eight wins away from being caught at the close of a tumultuous Lakers season. Even getting this close to James’ 11th career NBA Finals appearance is incredible, considering these Lakers started the season 2-10 and sat at 26-32 in mid-February, shortly after James broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s league scoring record.
But after a 27-12 run through the past two months highlighted by knocking off second-seeded Memphis and the defending NBA champions, James’ Lakers open the conference finals at top-seeded Denver on Tuesday night. The Lakers haven’t lost back-to-back games since March 17, and they’ve lost just once at home since March 26.
To use the phrase frequently deployed by first-year Lakers coach Darvin Ham, James’ fingerprints are all over the Lakers’ success — particularly in their biggest games.
In the first round, James had the first 20-point, 20-rebound playoff game of his career during the Lakers’ Game 4 victory over Memphis — and he also hit the dramatic tying shot in the final second of regulation. In the second round, James racked up 30 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in the clinching Game 6 victory over defending champion Golden State, conjuring his first 30-point playoff outing since the 2020 season.
Ham was still a player in James’ first two NBA seasons. He calls LeBron’s Year 20 performance, particularly after a late-season injury, “unreal.”
“I’ve been around some elite, top-tier, top-5 talent in the NBA as a player and a coach,” Ham said. “Kobe was nothing short of amazing. Giannis (Antetokounmpo). (But) LeBron, I’ve never seen anything like it. … Top five, dead or alive, ever to play in the NBA.”
Indeed, no basketball player has ever stood on the sport’s biggest stages as often and as long as James, and he has repeatedly thrived under the spotlight of 16 NBA postseasons and three Olympics. The Lakers’ elimination of the Warriors was James’ 41st career playoff series victory, passing Derek Fisher for the most series wins by one player in NBA history.
He has played in a league-record 278 postseason games, and his 7,912 career playoff points are nearly 2,000 more than Michael Jordan (5,987) atop the NBA’s career playoff scoring list. He’s even the fourth-leading rebounder in NBA playoff history with 2,511 boards — that’s a whopping 1,120 more than the next-highest active player, Draymond Green.
The Lakers’ achievements are even more impressive because James missed a full month down the regular-season stretch due to a right foot injury that still limits his explosiveness. Los Angeles went 8-5 without him and then went 6-2 after he returned in late March.
One play-in victory and two commanding playoff series wins later, the seventh-seeded Lakers are four wins away from another Finals for the four-time championship series MVP.
“That’s been us since we made acquisitions with our new guys,” James said. “We’ve been able to be very resilient in games. Like I said, we’ve been playing lot of basketball for about 2 1/2 months now, just trying to punch our clock and to be able to play the right way in the postseason.”
Indeed, James and Davis realize they wouldn’t be in this position without an impressive midseason reconfiguration of the roster around them. D’Angelo Russell was the Lakers’ centerpiece addition at the trade deadline, and the well-traveled guard soon learned something he didn’t know about the hard work behind James’ transcendence.
“Bron’s niche has always been preparedness,” Russell said. “A lot of guys’ niches is shooting the ball, working hard, outworking guys. LeBron is a film junkie, a basketball junkie, a leadership junkie. To be able to watch it all from the front row, it’s almost like a cheat code.”