As bleak as LeBron James’ first season with the Los Angeles Lakers has been, he declared that the final chapter of his career won’t be as rocky as Year 1 in L.A.
“Obviously, I would love for the team to be in the postseason,” James said after the Lakers’ 123-107 win over the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday. “Even if I’m not a part of it, the postseason I’ve always loved. But right now, it’s not the hand I was dealt, so you play the hand that you were dealt until the dealer shuffles the cards and you’re dealt another hand and can do that.”
With 15 games to play, L.A. trails the Utah Jazz by 6½ games for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. James’ personal streaks of 13 straight postseason appearances and eight straight NBA Finals berths are all but finished. But because he signed a four-year contract with the Lakers last summer, there will be more hands to be played in L.A.
“Definitely, I’ll be watching it if we’re not in there, and it looks like our chances are slim to none after each and every game, and so many teams in the West are playing well,” James said. “So you try to get better, but this won’t be the last time I’ll be in the postseason.”
Tuesday’s win snapped a five-game losing streak for the Lakers. James turned in a vintage performance, putting up 36 points on 15-for-23 shooting, including several highlight-worthy dunks, to go with 10 rebounds, four assists and two steals in 33 minutes.
Despite the Lakers’ plan to scale back James’ minutes for the remainder of the season — with the 32-minute range being a guidepost — coach Luke Walton was prepared to sub James back into the game with three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and his team up by 10, sending him to the scorer’s table to check in.
If the lead dwindled into single digits, James was prepared to close things out and bring his minutes total to 36 or more, if an overtime session were needed.
“He was going back in,” Walton said. “He understood that depending on how that one or two baskets went while he was at the scorer’s table, he was going to finish that game out for us. And he wants to. But when we went on the run, we put him back to the bench.”
James said that Tuesday’s game — relatively meaningless, as it was against a Bulls team that came into the night 30 games under .500 — was a testament to his overall approach to the game.
“I don’t talk about [being professional]. That’s what I live,” James said. “You guys ask me questions, I answer questions, but I live being professional. I live playing every game like it’s my last. No matter what’s going on. You finish out strong. That’s just who I am.”
In the absence of a postseason run by the Lakers (31-36), James said his team can use the rest of its trip with games against playoff-bound teams in Toronto, Detroit and Milwaukee as a kind of playoff proxy.
“We’re still playing playoff teams,” James said. “For our young guys to be able to play playoff teams on the road, it’s very key for their development still. We have an opportunity on this road trip. We go into Toronto our next game. We go into Detroit, who’s a playoff team. We go into Milwaukee at the end of the trip. All playoff teams, all good teams. Those games will be like playoff games, if we want them to be. They’ll get an opportunity to learn, and I get an opportunity to play with them, so we can take that out of it for sure.”
In Game No. 67 of Year No. 16 for James, the four-time MVP gave the visiting fans a show worth the price of admission, taking one outlet pass off the bounce from Kyle Kuzma and finishing with a two-handed, double-clutch reverse dunk. James grabbed a pass off the backboard from Josh Hart that he slammed home and punctuated with a shimmy on the baseline when he landed.
Did James feel particularly bouncy on this Windy City night?
“I always feel bouncy,” he said.
In a season that has fallen flat, it was a possible preview of what James might still have in store for his Lakers tenure.
“That’s what he does,” Walton said. “He got out in transition a few times on those. But he wants to win. He’s one of the all-time great winners that our game has ever seen. I know that [missing the playoffs] hasn’t happened to him since early, early, early in his career. So he’s frustrated with it too, and he’s continuing to battle out there, and he did a really nice job of helping us get a win tonight.”