February 23, 2024

He is supposed to be getting old.

LeBron James raced down the court for a thundering layup to give the Lakers their first fourth-quarter lead.

He is supposed to be getting tired.

LeBron James grabbed a rebound, stole a pass and scored on two more rumbling layups to give the Lakers the fourth-quarter lead they never lost.

He was supposed to be on a minutes restriction.

That lasted all of one game.

Two nights into what could be the final hurrah of LeBron James’ career, the 38-year-old wonder played every second of the fourth quarter, totaled 35 minutes instead of the planned 30-or-fewer minutes, and, whew, good thing, because the Lakers needed his every breath in a 100-95 victory over the seriously short-handed Phoenix Suns on Thursday in their Crypto.com Arena home opener.

“It’s a great show to watch,” said wide-eyed newcomer guard Gabe Vincent.

It’s a fun show to watch. It’s an inspirational show to watch. But by the time this journey has traveled 82 games into the spring, it could be a painful show to watch.

The Lakers may have to run James into the ground because they feel they don’t have a choice. The Lakers may have to risk his health because they realize there’s no other way.

The Lakers and James entered this season with plans to put James on that minutes restriction in hopes of keeping him sound for the playoffs. But if Thursday is any indication, any long-term plans are completely fluid, putting James’ seasonally tortured body and the Lakers’ championship hopes at risk.

LeBron James tosses chalk powder into the air before Thursday's win over the Phoenix Suns at Crypto.com Arena.

LeBron James tosses chalk powder into the air before Thursday’s win over the Phoenix Suns at Crypto.com Arena.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

This disjointed victory over a one-man Kevin Durant team missing Devin Booker and Bradley Beal proved that even in the easiest of times, the Lakers may need James now as much as they will need him in April.

There is a decent chance that, despite all the offseason clamor over his strengthened supporting cast, they still can’t win without him doing a full night’s work.

And that’s not a good thing.

Anthony Davis and his $186-million contract extension were supposed to do the heavy lifting, remember? But Davis didn’t score in the second half in the opening loss in Denver and, despite scoring 30 with 12 rebounds Thursday night, he barely showed up and the Lakers fell behind by a dozen until James pushed him through that fourth quarter.

Austin Reaves and D’Angelo Russell were also supposed to help, right? But their teammates are having difficulty getting them the ball and they have combined to hit just 18 of 46 shots during a mostly ineffective opening two games.

No, sigh, the Lakers may not be able to afford to play James less than the 36 minutes he averaged last season, and maybe more, and that was both the awe-inspiring and awful truth of Tuesday night.

Good times now. Payment due later.

For one night, anyway, it was their only option.

In that fourth quarter alone, playing all 12 minutes with his team initially down by 12, James had 10 points, three rebounds, two assists, one steal and was a plus-17. More than that, he kept them from falling to 0-2 with memories of last year’s 2-10 start still vivid.

“It’s beautiful to watch and we needed every ounce of it,” said coach Darvin Ham of James’ save. “His activity was amazing.”

Lakers forward Anthony Davis blocks the shot by Phoenix Suns guard Eric Gordon in the fourth quarter.

Lakers forward Anthony Davis blocks the shot by Phoenix Suns guard Eric Gordon in the fourth quarter.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

When the quarter began, Ham asked James if he could exceed the informal minutes limits. Even though James has already agreed to the playing-time plan, he couldn’t say no. Will he ever say no?

“He asked me if I could go the quarter and I looked at the time and the score and what was going on in the game, and it was an easy answer for myself,” James said. “I know how much work I’ve put in to be able to play quarters or whatever the case may be. And I understand that we definitely have a system put in place, but tonight called for me to go outside the box today.”

James said he could go, and, with enough timeouts to keep James mildly rested, Ham wasn’t about to stop him.

“Coach Ham was cool with that,” said James. “He said he still had three timeouts and he was able to use those wisely, getting myself rest, getting the team rest. And I felt very fresh going down the stretch with not logging so many minutes beforehand before the fourth quarter. Coach trusted me and I had to go out and prove it.”

Oh, he proved it, all right, bringing the previously quiet crowd to its feet in a roaring encore to last spring, inspiration everywhere.

“My hats off to him, man,” said Ham. “He never ceases to amaze us. He cares. He cares. That’s why you see his type of stat line. He’s laying it all out for his team in Year 21 and I just hope a lot of these young pros out here are looking and seeing what he’s doing.”

Ham claimed that the minutes restriction wasn’t ditched, it was just temporarily modified for the evening, and should eventually become permanent as his teammates grow stronger together. In other words, he promises the Lakers won’t need to wear down James so much in the future. OK, coach. Can we hold you to that?

“There’s a degree of where we need to be conditioning wise, and that’s the early part of the year,” Ham said. “You’re going to go through that type of stuff once you get your game legs under you. But I think he’s in a great place, and once our other guys get caught up to speed and that continuity continues to build, he’ll be all right. He’ll be right back in his sweet spot, minutes-wise.”

Until then, Ham acknowledged that the minutes debate has now officially begun, and will surely rage across social media for the foreseeable future.

“It’s funny, man, you guys want everything, you want everything,” he said with a laugh. “I take him out, you go, ‘Why don’t you keep him in? You should keep him in. He is in a great rhythm.’ When I leave him in, ‘Why won’t you take him out? Do you just give in to everything he wants to do?’ ’’

Ham correctly surmised that these opinions will change night after night, depending on the score and the situation.

“You guys want a buffet, man,” he said, smiling. “Sometimes you just got to settle for one plate.”

When it comes to dishing up taxing minutes for the NBA’s oldest player — who also happens to be their best player — here’s hoping the Lakers’ eyes aren’t bigger than their stomachs.

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