ATLANTA – Coming into a Friday night showdown with the Hawks on his 38th birthday, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James told his teammates he had a gift in store for them. He was going to score 40 points to get them back on track after L.A. had lost five of its past six.
Showing that age is just a number to aim and outdo in the box score, James proved prophetic, finishing with 47 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in a 130-121 come-from-behind victory over Atlanta.
“I’ve been scoring 30 and it hasn’t worked so … try 40,” James said. “And we got a win.
For most of the night, after shaking off a 1-for-5 start, it was mesmerizing. James finished by going 18-for-27 from the field and helped L.A. surge back from a 15-point first-half deficit to complete its largest comeback win of the season.
“The dude is nothing short of phenomenal, amazing,” said Lakers coach Darvin Ham. “But it’s something I expect. Like, it doesn’t blow me away. It’s just something I expect from him. It’s just like, ‘Damn! Carry on.'”
James didn’t just put himself out there by predicting the 40-point outburst. The performance came two days after he lamented his predicament with the waffling Lakers, saying, “I want to win and give myself a chance to win and still compete for championships.” Many viewed it as James applying pressure on L.A.’s front office to make trades to improve the roster.
Rather than his message hurting his teammates, it instead appeared to have struck a chord.
“To see that performance from him, you just don’t want to take greatness for granted like that,” said Thomas Bryant, who continued his strong play filling in for the injured Anthony Davis, finishing with 19 points and 17 rebounds.
Ham said it led to an increased focus across the board. Six Lakers scored in double digits against Atlanta.
“I don’t think anyone took that as a slight,” Ham said. “I think they took it as, ‘You know what? He’s right. We need to pick up our stuff up and really try to apply it in unison, all pulling in the same direction and go compete our butts off.”
After putting the final touches on his birthday bash, scoring 16 points on 5-for-7 shooting in the fourth quarter, he took off his gold, No. 6 uniform, autographed it and gave it to rapper 2 Chainz, who was sitting courtside.
James’ wife, Savannah, and mother, Gloria, were also present at the game to witness James score the second-most points he’s ever had on his birthday, just missing the 48 he put up when he turned 25 back in 2009.
“They’ve been with me since before this 20-year campaign started,” James said of his family. “They’re the rock to everything I do.”
Russell Westbrook, who had 14 points and 11 assists and authored a crucial sequence in the final minute when he had a layup, a steal and an assist on a Bryant layup in the span of eight seconds to lift L.A.’s lead from three to seven, broke out an old marketing slogan of James’ to describe the night.
“Just good to be able to witness it,” Westbrook said.
James improved to 5-4 all time in games played on his birthday, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. It was the third most points ever scored by a player age 38 or older, trailing Jamal Crawford and Michael Jordan, who each had 51 points.
James passed Jordan for the longest span between a player’s first and last 40-point game, dominating the Hawks 18 years and 278 days after he first topped the 40-point plateau while playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In the visitor’s locker room at State Farm Arena, Lakers staffers enjoyed slices of a chocolate-chip cookie cake with the message, “HBD to the man in the arena,” written on top in brown and white icing.
“I feel better than [he felt at] 18,” James said. “I didn’t know what I could become at 18. But I just knew if I continued to put in the work, I continued to be true to the game, then I could be one of the greatest players to ever play this game. I just always believed that. …
“There are times when I’m on the floor where I do feel like a kid again. That’s for sure.”