The Los Angeles Lakers’ 132-123 win over the Houston Rockets meant quite a lot to LeBron James.
Apart from snapping a five-game losing streak, the victory came as James became the third player in NBA history to reach 36,000 points. It was quite fitting that he did so after recording his third triple-double of the season with his game-high 32 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists.
On the season, this was LeBron’s fifth consecutive game of 30 points and the 17th (out of 23) games where he has played at least 35 minutes. Indeed, heavy is the head that wears the crown so one has to wonder how long James, who turns 37 this week, can carry the heavy burden on his shoulders.
It goes without saying that LeBron needs help, and injuries and largely inconsistent play have led to the shoddy results and the greater usage on James’ part. His Herculean efforts this season are quite extraordinary when you remember he’s in Year 19, but for a player perennially chasing championships, the long game seems to be the better road to take. Players of LeBron’s age and stature are normally given leeway to help them navigate through long and grueling seasons, but that has taken a backseat in favor of trying to get the Lakers out of below .500 territory.
As compared to previous nights, he had some friends to help him get Los Angeles out of their dry spell.
Aside from James, three other Laker players scored at least 24 points, with Russell Westbrook earning his seventh triple-double of the season with his 24 points, 12 rebounds, and 12 assists. Malik Monk and Carmelo Anthony combined for seven 3-pointers and scored 25 and 24 points, respectively.
What largely worked in the win over the Rockets and should be the blueprint for Los Angeles for the rest of the season is to put their best players in a position to succeed. It’s a given that LeBron will produce night in and night out, but heavy reliance on him makes things easier for opponents. With all the minutes the likes of James, Westbrook, and Anthony have logged in their over-decade long careers, it’s better to be smart than persevering.
Westbrook’s aggression is a double-edged sword that can both reward and hurt the teams he plays for. His style of play is also more effective when it’s a two-man game rather than in isolation. Opposing teams will live with the occasional three and his bank shots given how this heightens his already at-times irrational confidence.
Westbrook at his best is when he exploits the defense by getting the ideal defensive matchup or drawing the defense enough to dish out a pass inside. LeBron and Westbrook have connected on a couple of pick-and-roll plays and it has produced some defensive breakdowns that a high-IQ player like James can exploit.
Deliberate setups off set screens can easily be telegraphed to the defense, which is why sometimes the awareness of reading the defense and knowing what spots to exploit is another way both LeBron and Westbrook have done their damage.
At this point in his career, Melo is more of a catch-and-shoot player rather than the dominant forward for much of the 2000s and early 2010s. Anthony had a blistering start to this season and was even thrust into the conversation of Sixth Man of the Year. He has since cooled off, but whether things have been on or off, you have to credit the 10-time All-Star for accepting his role and being ready regardless of the circumstances.
James has been a great help in getting Melo open looks, but what is also needed from Anthony is those spurts where he can produce vintage moments of scoring from the mid post or close to the basket. He may not be able to bully every defender he gets inside, but things could open up when his and the rest of his teammates’ outside shots are falling.
The next few games don’t get any easier for the Lakers and this collaborative approach should bode well for them if they can pull off repeat performances. Apart from the Utah Jazz, all of Los Angeles’ opponents in the coming days are either fighting for their spot or hoping to stave them off and keep them in play-in territory.
The question of how much help LeBron James needs, while rhetorical and comedic at first, can now be succinctly summed up with a definitive A LOT. Him passing NBA legends in the record books will always be a laudable feat, but the reality of the situation is that he is at the point of his career where quality is greater than quantity and the Los Angeles Lakers should not take that for granted.