LOS ANGELES – LeBron James spent four days in L.A., playing games against the Clippers and Lakers, and everywhere he turned was met with talk of his pending free agency and the Lakers known interest in snagging him. There were billboards and seemingly endless talk radio banter.
On Sunday, however, the four-time MVP received the most impressive recruiting pitch yet. Playing in front of a sellout Staples Center crowd, including curious celebrities who came out of years of hiding to welcome James, the Lakers blew out James and the Cavs 127-113.
Julius Randle led the Lakers (30-36) with a career-high 36 points and 14 rebounds, while Isaiah Thomas, traded from Cleveland to the Lakers a month earlier, scored 20 off the bench.
While the Lakers inevitable pursuit of James dominated the narrative surrounding the Lakers, Luke Walton said he did not believe it impacted the way his team approached the matchup.
“We’re playing on national TV on a Sunday,” Walton said. “We’ve got the nice white uniforms on today. The focus should be about our team trying to beat their team and doing it on national TV.”
Some would say the Lakers were really playing for an audience of one.
James finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists before taking an early seat with 6:24 left in the game after the Lakers lead grew to a game-high 21 points.
James created plenty of memorable moments before checking out on Sunday. He made his first 3-pointer over Lonzo Ball, then barreled through Kyle Kuzma to score in the paint. Later in the first half, he got Julius Randle to bite on a Magic-esque pass fake before finding a cutte Ante Zizic for a dunk.
It was James’ 30th, and possibly final, game against the Lakers. Entering Sunday, he had averaged 27.8 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists against L.A.
While James was the draw, Randle was the star. Since moving into the starting lineup in December, Randle has played the best basketball of his career, and Sunday was the acme of that stretch.
He played 38 minutes, and was a bruising presence.
For the Lakers, it was their sixth win in the last eight games and one of their most impressive. It raises questions, however, about the viability of the Cavaliers (38-28) as a championship contender. And, of course, a failure to send James to his seventh straight NBA Finals would likely work in the favor of teams trying to woo James.
Including the Lakers.
But on Sunday, the Lakers looked less like a team trying to impress James, and more like one trying to send a message through force and dominance.
“I don’t think you get to this level by trying to impress other players,” Walton said before the game.
But with games like that, it’s a natural byproduct of their success.