May 23, 2024

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 was again excellent, scoring 37 points and hitting the winning free throw with Anthony Davis on the bench having fouled out in a 105-104 win against Houston on Sunday night at Crypto.com Arena.

1

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 19: Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) loses the ball.

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.

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)

But 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.

And this time, 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.

Lakers star LeBron James drives to the basket between Houston Rockets forward Dillon Brooks and guard Fred VanVleet.

Lakers star LeBron James, center, drives to the basket between Houston Rockets forward Dillon Brooks, left, and guard Fred VanVleet during the second half Sunday at Crypto.com Arena.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Houston’s last chance, fittingly, was a half-court heave from Brooks that would’ve stolen the game. It missed wide.

Davis had 27 points, 10 rebounds and a block before fouling out. Austin 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.

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.

The Lakers can clinch a berth in the in-season tournament quarterfinals Tuesday night when they host Utah in their pool-play finale.

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