Lakers star LeBron James tries again Monday that he can defy time

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (6) reacts after making a basket and drawing a foul during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets, Monday, Jan. 16, 2023, in Los Angeles.  (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Lakers forward LeBron James points to spectators after making a basket and drawing a foul against the Rockets during the first half Monday night at Crypto.com Arena. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

When did the Lakers‘LeBron James first feel old?

James had just scored 48 points in a 140-132 victory over the Houston Rockets against 19-year-old Jabari Smith Jr. and 22-year-old Kenyon Martin Jr. with both of their fathers in attendance — former NBA players whom James played against.

Could it have been the time James played the Memphis Grizzlies and saw Ziaire Williams on their team just two years after he played with his son, Bronny, at Chatsworth Sierra Canyon High?

Or maybe it was tussling with Golden State’s Gary Payton II last year, a moment that triggered memories of being at big Gary Payton’s home in Las Vegas, where he watched little GPII jump into the pool off the landscaped grounds.

“There’s been too many of them,” he told The Times.

The sore ankles, the aching body, the bruises that take longer to heal, and the chairs that are all a little harder to get out of — it all reminds James that he, in NBA terms, is old.

Nights like Monday, though, cement it.

The same player who could barrel through a defense on back-to-back plays, yelling at the crowd that he’s “a bad mother—, could use the same expletive in a totally different way in the locker room — marveling at how tired he was as he made his way toward the showers.

On the court, though, there were no signs of fatigue — an effortlessly efficient performance with James’ full skillset showcased. He scored above the rim and below it. He sniped from three-point range and swished jumpers from the mid-range. He sank all but one of his 12 free throws from him.

The 48 points were a season best for James, coming on the second night of back-to-back games with the Lakers needing to snap a three-game losing streak before another tough stretch of games begin.

The night before, against Philadelphia, the Lakers were 19 points better than the 76ers in James’ 35 minutes. They still lost by one point.

Despite being listed as “questionable” Monday because of a nagging sore ankle that’s been a season-long issue, James didn’t want to rest.

“I was extremely exhausted today, extremely tired. Body was sore from the battle that we had yesterday versus Philly,” he admitted. “I guess once I stepped on the floor for warmups and the crowd fills in, it’s my job to go out and play the best way I can. Obviously I’m not going to be perfect. I’m not going to make every shot. But I just try to lock in on the job at hand.

“And I could have very easily taken tonight off, but I don’t feel like the momentum of our ballclub could use me taking a night off like tonight. I don’t feel like I wanted to sit on that loss with Philly last night. I wanted to kind of get that out of my tastebuds and see if we could win a ballgame tonight.”

The Lakers were again plus-19 points better with James on the court against the Rockets, a microphone attached to his jersey catching Jabari Smith Jr. telling James that his dad was on the Sacramento Kings during James’ first night in the NBA in 2003.

“He was kind of mad because he said I made him feel old,” Smith said. “I knew I was going to tell him that, just something my dad had told me. I didn’t really know. That’s just a great stat.”

After the game, James went and found Jabari Smith Sr., who was sitting courtside next to the Rockets bench, and embraced him.

“It made me feel extremely old when Junior told me that,” James said. “I think he even said it, like, ‘You probably feel old,’ or something in that context. … I’ve just been extremely blessed to be able to play this game and to be able to touch multiple generations. Thats not the only [connection]. Kenyon Martin Jr. was out on the floor as well, I played against his dad. Gary Trent Sr., I played obviously with his son di lui, now in Toronto. Gary Payton and his son of him.

“So, it’s just a unique thing that I’ve been able to withstand the test of time for as long as I’ve been playing, to be able to compete now versus father and son combinations.”

James hasn’t just survived 20 seasons of the NBA — he’s thrived. Monday was his third 40-point game of the season. They’ve all come since he celebrated his 38th birthday in Atlanta with 47 points against the Hawks.

Monday was the eighth time James scored 40 since turning 35 — second only to Michael Jordan, who did it 12 times.

“I think it’s historic, man, on a lot of different levels,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “For him to be at this point in his career and still able to produce at the level in which he’s producing, I just think all of us just really being able to witness it, be a part of it, it shows his competitive spirit and his no-quit mentality.”

James is now just 316 points from breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record.

Lakers forward LeBron James dribbles the ball up court ahead of Kenyon Martin Jr.

LeBron James dribbles the ball up court ahead of Rockets forward Kenyon Martin Jr. on Monday, one of the many sons of former players the Lakers forward now faces during his 20th NBA season. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Now that he’s facing the sons of players he used to leap around and over, he’s showing off the mental edge that helps negate some of the physical degradation.

“I knew at a very young age that I had the ability to read the game before the game was even being played or possessed. Being able to read plays ahead of time,” he said Monday. “… I always knew that at any part of my game, as far as athleticism, would start to go down, that I could still out-think a lot of my competition. And as my athleticism goes down a little bit, I knew I could expand my game up. Early on, it was a lot of just speed and jumping and then figuring it out.

“And [as] you get smarter and smarter, you say, ‘Teams know they can key on these things, so how can I make sure that I am unguardable and can always put myself in position where I do what I want to do and not what the defense wants method.'”

He found that space Monday — with multiple generations of NBA talent there to attest to it.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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