LeBron James made his extravagantly hyped NBA debut with the Cleveland Cavaliers on Oct. 29, 2003, an 18-year-old just months out of high school. He showed no fear on the court that night: He scored 25 points, grabbed six rebounds, made four steals and earned nine assists in a loss at Sacramento’s Arco Arena. But his precociously assured performance concealed what he truly felt.
“I will never forget that moment, being in Arco and putting that Cavs uniform on, that wine and gold, for the first time and stepping on an NBA floor. It was just very unique,” he said. “Very unique — and I wish that moment on no other athlete, ever, because it was very nerve-racking, I’ll tell you that.”
Four NBA championships and exactly 18 years later — a lifetime later, really — James faced the Cavaliers on Friday at Staples Center. He made an emphatic return to the Lakers’ lineup after missing two games because of a sore right ankle, scoring 26 points over nearly 38 minutes in an occasionally uneven defensive effort that evolved into a satisfying 113-101 victory over Cleveland in the opener of a four-game homestand.
He was amused to learn that at age 36, with 1,314 regular-season games and 266 playoff games on his odometer, he had managed to outscore the debut performance of his 18-years-younger self.
“I’m just trying to up myself. I’m getting better. Getting better with age,” he said. “Just like wine.
“It’s just a treat. I mean, to be able to play the game for this long and play it at the level I’m able to play it at, it’s just an honor and a treat. And I don’t take it for granted.”
James injured his ankle last Sunday in the Lakers’ home victory over Memphis, their first win of the season after two losses. He missed their overtime win at San Antonio on Tuesday and their awful defensive effort while squandering a 26-point lead in a loss at Oklahoma City on Wednesday.
His return Friday wasn’t certain, and coach Frank Vogel called James a “true game-time decision” while speaking to reporters Friday morning and again before the game. James said he made the decision around 5:30 or a bit later, after undergoing some tests and getting approval from team medical personnel and feeling good enough to give it a go.
“I’m definitely feeling it a little bit right now but that’s just adrenaline wearing off,” he said. “But it feels a lot better postgame today than it did postgame Sunday, when we played Memphis.”
Losing James for even as brief a stretch as two games posed a problem for the Lakers, who are still figuring out each other’s tendencies and habits. Their defense, Vogel’s strength, has been patchy and disorganized and was completely awful against Oklahoma City. The more time they can work together and establish connections and communication, the sooner they should be able to climb out of the sludge they’re in.
On Friday they had some animated discussions about defensive play and taking care of the ball during timeouts. Vogel described the discussions as “spirited.” Whatever the word, they worked, and the Lakers held the Cavaliers to 16 points in the fourth quarter. “When we don’t turn the ball over, we’re a pretty good team,” James said. “When we turn the ball over, it definitely takes the sails out of us. [sic]”
They are far from where they should be, but they considered their effort a sign of progress despite committing 20 turnovers.
“It’s every day. It’s every day,” James said of the coaches’ focus on improving their defensive play. “We’ve got a lot of guys, a lot of new guys this year that came from different systems and have played defensively different ways. So we’re working every day.
“Our film sessions are probably the most important because we get an opportunity to watch them and clip them and watch in slo-mo and say, ‘OK, if we would had did that better,’ or, ‘This is how we’re going to play this specific action, this is what puts us in the best possible chance to get stop after stop after stop.’ And I think the film we watched of the OKC game in the second half, we were able to translate to [Friday] night and hold this team to 42% shooting, and that’s fantastic.”
James had only three rebounds against the Cavaliers but he did have eight assists, four of them in the pivotal fourth quarter. Three set up shots by Carmelo Anthony, who made his NBA debut (with Denver) the same night James debuted with Cleveland. The first of those passes set up Anthony for the three-point shot that put the Lakers ahead for good at 93-91 with seven minutes and 23 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The other assist was on a cutting layup by Anthony Davis.
Asked about the benefits of adding Anthony as a floor spacer and catch-and-shoot specialist, James was enthusiastic. “A threat. He is a sniper, what we call in our league guys that don’t need much airspace to get it off because of his quick trigger,” James said. “It creates so much space for myself, Russ [Westbrook] and AD to work our pick-and-roll magic when you have guys like Melo and guys that space the floor and keep guys honest on the perimeter.”
The crowd was thrilled by the connection between Anthony and James, envisioning them leading the Lakers back to the top of the NBA heap. Before that can happen, the Lakers must regain their identity as a diligent defensive team. If they can pull that off the possibilities will be intriguing, like the possibilities were for that nervous kid who played his first NBA game 18 years ago and is still showing everyone how it’s done.