April 18, 2024

The victory wasn’t just a statement. The 21-point comeback against the Clippers was a warning to the entire Western Conference.

The Lakers should be feared.

How can they not be after what LeBron James did to the Clippers?

How can any team want to play the Lakers in the playoffs after James knocked down three after three after three?

The Lakers might not have the roster or the defense or the rebounding to win another championship, but they have a trump card that can deliver them a victory on any given night, as was the case Wednesday at Crypto.com Arena.

They have LeBron James.

Even at 39, when James goes into “sicko mode,” as Anthony Davis called it, there’s nothing his opponents can do.

The Memphis Grizzlies learned that in the playoffs last year.

The Clippers were reminded of that Wednesday.

The Lakers trailed the Clippers by 21 points with 11 minutes 45 seconds remaining in the game, but James gradually reduced the deficit by burying a series of three-pointers.

He made five threes in the fourth quarter, and outscored the Clippers on his own in the final period, 19-16. He finished with a game-high 34 points.

“He had the cape tucked under his seat on the bench, I guess,” coach Darvin Ham said. “It was time for him to whip it out. He definitely did that, put the cape on and just got aggressive and got in a good rhythm.”

The Lakers got back in the game because of his scoring, but they moved in front because of his passing. James registered four assists in the fourth quarter, including one on Rui Hachimura’s three that gave them a 109-106 edge with 3:10 remaining.

“Once they started scheming and trying to hit double teams late, he was able to pick them apart with the pass,” Ham said.

Except James did more than take over on offense. For the majority of the second half, he also guarded the Clippers’ best player, Kawhi Leonard. James’ hand was in Leonard’s face when Leonard missed a fallaway jumper that could have tied the score with five seconds left.

With Jarred Vanderbilt sidelined with a foot injury, James also guarded Kevin Durant for an extended period in the Lakers’ previous game, a loss to the Phoenix Suns.

James is 39. How often can he lead the offense and take on the most important defensive assignment?

“Until I can’t do it anymore,” James said.

James’ extraordinary efforts transformed the Lakers. With James taking care of the scoring, Anthony Davis was able to camp out under the basket and focus on rebounding. With James attracting multiple defenders, Hachimura and D’Angelo Russell were able to take uncontested shots.

“I think my guys know I’m going to make the right play no matter what,” James said. “So if I get doubled, they know I’m going to find the right play or find the right player.”

Hachimura finished with 17 points and Russell 18.

“It was reminiscent of what they did in the postseason last year, that Memphis series (in the first round), Golden State series (in the second),” Ham said. “Those guys are very capable and willing shooters in big moments. You saw it on display tonight in that stretch.”

Perhaps most important was that James’ fourth-quarter outburst convinced the Lakers they could win, which, in turn, made them more willing defenders. The Lakers forced only six turnovers in the first three quarters. They forced that many in the fourth quarter alone.

To be clear, the performance didn’t suddenly transform the Lakers into championship contenders.

The Clippers played without Paul George and Ivica Zubac and completely dominated them through three quarters.

The Lakers are mediocre rebounders and defenders. They have an uneven roster. They have a number of injury-prone players, including James and Davis.

There’s a reason they can’t win more than a couple of games in a row. There’s a reason they remain in ninth place in the Western Conference.

None of this points to them adding to their collection of banners at Crypto.com Arena.

But they have James, and as long as they have him, they’ll have a chance to knock out almost every higher-seeded team — provided, of course, they reach the postseason.

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