LeBron James had just gotten knocked to the floor by Zion Williamson, New Orleans’ door-frame-shaped power forward, when the refs blew the whistle and signaled for a first-quarter charge.
James sprang to his feet and sprinted — like, really sprinted — down the floor to the far corner where he was the first player back ready for the next possession.
It was a signal. The miles run on his tires hadn’t disrupted the treads. And he was going to show the young guys he still had plenty to give.
More than an hour later, the Lakers having ripped the New Orleans Pelicans to shreds, James walked to the same spot on the floor. He theatrically shook his head in disbelief. He put both of his index fingers to his head and circled them.
Cuckoo. Crazy. Total insanity.
What James and the Lakers did to New Orleans inside T-Mobile Arena, the home of UFC, had to make the the locals uncomfortable — usually they stop fights that are this one-sided.
The Lakers advanced to the NBA in-season tournament final in dominant fashion, blowing out the Pelicans 133-89.
James scored 30 points, dished out eight assists and finished a plus-36 — in less than 23 minutes. No one in the history of the league has ever had a game with those three numbers. No one in the history of the league has done anything like this at 38 years old.
The Lakers will play for the first NBA Cup on Saturday against Indiana, which beat the Milwaukee Bucks 128-119 earlier on Thursday.
Players from the winning team will each receive a $500,000 prize.
James opened the game by putting his defender, Herb Jones, one of the best in the NBA, on his hip for an and-one. With the Lakers down a point in the second quarter, James flipped the game, scoring a trio of threes on consecutive possessions. They never trailed again.
The Lakers outscored New Orleans 81-41 over the next two quarters, dominating every inch of the court with James orchestrating.
Anthony Davis had 16 points and 15 rebounds, controlling the defensive paint. D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves combined for 31 points on just 19 shots, high-level efficiency from the team’s two point guards. And Taurean Prince equaled a season high by canning five threes while he and Cam Reddish hounded the Pelican wings.
Davis played 31 minutes. No other Lakers player logged more than 23.
Brandon Ingram and C.J. McCollum both scored nine points for the Pelicans. They took a combined 27 shots.
As the horn sounded, James laughed and smiled with his teammates, the sweat long dried after he took the fourth quarter off.
After 21 years, James is a game away from winning the league’s first in-season tournament.
And there’s no doubt he’s playing like a player intent on getting it.
“He’s the ultimate tone setter,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said.
Saturday, he can add another jewel to the crown. And stopping him? That seems as hard as ever.