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The reminders keep coming, in all sorts of forms, without interruption.
Some are subtle, their significance barely registering in real time, if not unnoticed, because this has all become so routine. Others are harder, often impossible, to ignore. They too are routine, but louder, so much louder. These are the moments that force reflection, the occasions in which we have to wonder whether this is really happening.
And it is.
This might sound like a cliche. It may come off even worse, perhaps closer to overthought, wishy-washy gobbledygook, the kind exclusively reserved for megastars ebbing further into their twilights. And hey, that might be true…once James is actually in his twilight.
A game in early January is by no means a referendum, especially for someone with such an extensive, airtight resume. During the Los Angeles Lakers‘ 129-114 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Friday night at American Airlines Center, though, James played like it was.
His final line: 35 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists on 14-of-25 shooting, including a 3-of-6 clip from beyond the arc.
On a night when the Lakers didn’t have Anthony Davis, LeBron left with not only a victory against a team supposedly fast-tracked toward contention but also (another) piece of history:
That this detonation came against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks is, for James, even sweeter.
Doncic’s struggles Friday night (1-of-5 from deep, 8-of-13 at the foul line) are meaningless in the grand scheme. These nights happen to everyone, particularly those who aren’t yet old enough for bottomless mimosas at Sunday brunch.
Remember: Doncic is supposed to be the face of the next generation, an heir apparent to LeBron or Giannis Antetokounmpo rather than their rival. He’s instead crashing the immediate MVP race, at the age of 20, and already gone toe-to-toe with James as an equal.
For James to out-duel him head-to-head, and for his Lakers to win the season series over the Mavericks (3-1), is a statement. It is not a defining achievement, but it carries weight:
And if James didn’t view this contest as a barometer of something, anything, then he fooled us. It would also be a first this year.
He has treated this entire season as a return, a renaissance, rather than more of the same. People had gradually started nominating others for the NBA’s “Best Player” office before, but there was a mass exodus of those who always defaulted to James at No. 1 after he missed a career-high 27 games and the Lakers failed to make the playoffs last season.
Full disclosure: Yours truly falls under that umbrella, having awarded the honor to Giannis Antetokounmpo this past fall. James checked in at No. 4. I wasn’t alone. ESPN crowned Antetokounmpo, with James coming in third. It was the same story at SI.com.
The owner of the NBA’s pole position is still up for debate. That it’s even a matter of discussion, with James in Year 17, is almost inconceivable.
James has interpreted this discourse not as a rite of time or even a slight but an assault on his standing. You know, #WashedKing an