LeBron James barreled through the lane from left to right, fighting through contact to muscle the ball up and off the backboard and through the rim.
As his momentum carried him toward the corner of the Lakers’ bench, his teammates stood and cheered.
This wasn’t just any basket against any opponent. This was two points over Dillon Brooks. And that’s why James made sure to put his hand down near the court.
“Too small” was the message.
James has played 13 games this season, shooting 50% or better from the field in 12. Sunday, he made 14 of 19 shots, including nine of 11 in the second half.
“I don’t know,” James said when asked about the groove he’s in. “Show up. Show up, put the work in and then go out and trust it.”
Brooks — who instigated things with James last spring in the playoffs as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies — wasn’t going to back down.
As Brooks hit big shot after big shot in the fourth quarter to keep the Rockets close, he forced James to respond.
“He’s a great competitor. I like going against him,” James said. “And he was hooping tonight too, for sure. He was shooting the ball exceptionally well, kept them in the game. I think they were down seven at one point and he hit two big-time threes to keep them in the game in the fourth. So, that’s competition. Those young guys, they get me going. So, I need that.”
Sunday night, the buckets from the NBA’s all-time leading scorer did the talking.
A baseline turnaround to beat the shot clock and a catch-and-shoot three-pointer were the haymakers, but neither knocked out the Rockets. A 30-foot-three from Austin Reaves to put the Lakers up by three didn’t do the trick, either.
Instead, it took a James free throw coming after he already missed his first attempt, to finally be the difference-maker.
Houston’s last chance, fittingly, was a half-court heave from Brooks that would’ve stolen the game. It missed wide.
1. Lakers star LeBron James loses the ball while Houston Rockets forward Dillon Brooks defends during the second half Sunday. 2. Lakers star Anthony Davis looks to pass in front of Houston Rockets center Alperen Sengun in the first half. 3. Lakers forward Cam Reddish, left, and Houston Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr. battle for a rebound during the second half. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
“I don’t know what’s the beef between those two guys. But I know they’ve been doing it for a while now, especially last year in the playoffs. Yeah. Things going on,” Rui Hachimura said. “But for Bron, it’s nothing. It’s actually good for him. He needs that motivation. So it actually brings him more to the game. As you guys seen, whatever he’s doing, it doesn’t do anything to him. He actually scored more. He gets rebounds more. And we win. So those are things, Dillon Brooks, he just wants to be part of it — his legacy, I guess.”
Davis had 27 points, 10 rebounds and a block before fouling out. Reaves had 17 in only 25 minutes off the bench, grabbing six rebounds and dishing six assists. He did, though, miss a clutch late free throw — the only hiccup in a big night when he was terrific navigating his new role.
“I just try to take good shots. Hopefully make a lot more shots going forward,” Reaves said. “But just try to play the game the right way and take good shots. And do whatever I can do to help the team be successful.”
The Lakers again survived on a night when they were badly outshot on the perimeter, Houston hitting eight more threes than the Lakers on a night when they went six for 29 (20.7%).
Somehow, the Lakers are 3-0 this season when they’ve been worse than 22% from three. James has jokingly called his team the “Pittsburgh Steelers,” a team with a winning record despite being outgained and outscored.
“We’re getting good looks,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “We’ve just got to trust our work.”
The Lakers can clinch a berth in the in-season tournament quarterfinals Tuesday night when they host Utah, James and the Lakers having a chance to finish 4-0 in pool play.
“He’s always got energy. He’s the oldest player in the NBA but still acts like he’s 20 everyday. Just joking around, having fun,” Reaves said. “And I think he plays the game the same way, regardless of who he’s playing. And like Rui said, any time Bron has something that pushes him a little further, you see the results like you get tonight. Like last year in the playoffs. He just did more after all of that stuff started happening.”