For Los Angeles, the 115th NBA Draft was an awkward shakedown in which the Lakers took Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a second-round draft pick who struggled mightily at Kentucky and whose workout finished last Wednesday, then shipped Kuzma and a second-round pick for Rajon Rondo, who makes zero sense. Perhaps more awkward was the arrival of James.
On Tuesday night, he took over and turned the Lakers’ matchup with his former team, the Celtics, into a rout. James scored 29 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and handed out six assists in a convincing 117-102 victory.
Afterward, James told reporters he felt like a kid again. He praised his teammates, the Boston fans and he made an offhand reference to Bill Russell, who led the Celtics to five championships in the 1970s. James’ start has become a black-eye for the NBA. But it’s been a welcome sight for Los Angeles, which is banking on James being as adroit a leader as he has been a scorer for the Cavaliers.
“I think it’s going great, man,” James said after the game. “I think at the end of the day, for me, it’s about working. I’m still in the work mode. I still have a lot of work to do, and it’s about learning from the greats. We have an all-time great going into the back pocket, so it’s nice to be able to lean on that and learn from all of it. And it’s only going to make me better and it’s only going to make our group better. So I’m excited about that.”
James wore a white Los Angeles Lakers jersey, and brought the crowd to its feet during a 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter, luring the Celtics in from the sideline.
“Sometimes we’re going to hit home runs, sometimes we’re going to do a lot of ducking,” said James. “That’s why I love this team. I love them embracing me so much and just letting me be me. I don’t have to do everything, because they’re doing everything. They’re the ones that are filling that backpocket. So I’m just going to run around, let them do it.”
Andrew Wiggins scored 24 points and Kyrie Irving paced the Celtics with 29.
The Celtics managed to cut a 21-point lead down to 13 early in the fourth quarter on a runner by Terry Rozier and then a 3-pointer by Marcus Smart, but this is a story about James:
Afterward, the Celtics’ coach, Brad Stevens, called James’ performance “outstanding.”
“When you come here and make an impact on this city and play in this city and be a part of something you’re really proud of, it’s a lot of reasons to be excited about it,” he said. “He did a great job.”
The Celtics already have gotten a lift from Gordon Hayward, who missed most of last season after suffering a gruesome ankle injury.
More impressively, Tuesday night was the sort of welcome-back situation that has become an all-too-familiar refrain for LeBron James over the years. On Tuesday, his Los Angeles Lakers are feeling good, and a Houston Rockets team that almost could not be bothered this season looks overmatched.
Sixty minutes before tipoff, James was still getting a feel for life with his new team, which faces a Celtics team loaded with draft picks from the acquisitions of Hayward and Jayson Tatum.
“We know this team, we know this coaching staff,” James said of Boston. “We know what to expect from them.”
But if anyone thought that a brief look at the Lakers would include the halting steps necessary for James to get into basketball shape, well, it was wrong.