SALT LAKE CITY — Twenty years into his heralded time in the NBA, LeBron James didn’t mince words when asked about the challenge ahead for the Los Angeles Lakers in order to secure a postseason spot.
“It’s 23 of the most important games of my career, for a regular season,” James said Sunday before playing in a record-tying 19th All-Star Game. “It’s the type of mindset that I have, and I hope the guys will have, coming back off the break.”
After four NBA championships, 10 trips to the Finals and personal achievements galore, including his recent ascension as league’s all-time leading scorer, putting such an emphasis on this late stretch could come off as hyperbole.
James explained his stance, revealing that the urgency didn’t start over the All-Star break but at the end of last season, when Los Angeles failed to qualify for the postseason — just the fourth time in his first 19 seasons that his team didn’t make it there.
“I want to make a push to make the playoffs,” James said. “I don’t want to see myself not being part of the postseason for two years straight. It’s just not part of my DNA. We’re sitting up here talking about the [scoring] record and things of that nature, and that’s all cool, but I’m more passionate about trying to make the postseason and give ourselves a chance to compete for another Larry O’Brien Trophy. That’s just who I am. That’s what I’m cut from.”
And if the Lakers can qualify for the postseason, then what?
“I’ve always been confident in any club that I’ve been on once we got into the playoffs that we can compete with anyone, and I feel no different now,” James said. “With the roster the way we’re shaped up right now, if we can finish off this regular season on the right foot, then we can compete versus anyone in the Western Conference, if not the whole league. … If we can punch our ticket, we can compete versus anyone.”
James, 38, is enjoying a strong individual season, averaging 30 points on 50.8% shooting, 8.4 rebounds and 7.0 assists. But Los Angeles has been inconsistent, taking a 27-32 record into the break and sitting 13th in the Western Conference — two games out of the final play-in spot and 3½ games out of the sixth seed, which would guarantee the Lakers a first-round berth.
On Sunday, James finished with 13 points, four assists and a rebound in 14 minutes. Team Giannis outlasted Team LeBron 184-175.
James has missed 14 games so far this season, including a recent three-game stretch because of left foot and ankle plain, but he plans on being on the court as much as possible for the playoff pursuit.
“I hope I can figure out a way to just make sure that I’m available on the floor every single night for these 23 games to give us a chance,” James said, speaking to reporters for the first time all weekend after being excused Saturday for personal reasons. “Give our group a chance to be able to compete every night and give ourselves a chance to win every night so we can give ourselves a chance to get into the postseason.”
James said the four days off his left foot since the Lakers’ 120-102 win over the New Orleans Pelicans before the break “has helped, not having to stress it.” He vowed to “not go too crazy” in the All-Star Game so he will be as healthy as can be for the Lakers’ next game, on Thursday against the Golden State Warriors, who are 2½ games ahead of L.A. in the standings.
James’ night at the All-Star Game ended at halftime because of a right hand contusion, according to the Lakers. James hit his hand on the rim in the first half. The hand injury is not considered serious, and the plan was to limit James’ minutes in the second half regardless. He finished with 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting and four assists.
“The most important thing for me right now is to maintain my health and be available to my teammates after this break, because we have to make a strong push if we want to do anything special,” he said.
The Lakers looked pretty special in the Pelicans game, with James joining Los Angeles’ five new faces — D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, Mo Bamba and Davon Reed — for the first time. The Lakers clicked from the opening tip and gave a glimpse of what their new group can be capable of.
“I love what we were able to accomplish the other day,” James said. “The worst thing for us is that we had to go on a break. I would have loved if we could have played Friday and got a couple of games under our belt, because it’s the first time our whole group was together from top to bottom.
“But it is what it is. We all take advantage of it. We all take advantage of the rest.”
Because it will be go time soon enough.
“It’s going to take a lot of commitment, which is OK,” James said. “That’s what it should be about. We’re professionals. What else do we have to do? Make sure the family is good when you leave the house. You have people helping you around the house. Y’all good? Let’s commit to this. Let’s commit to this and go from there.”