June 21, 2024

LOS ANGELES — Halfway through overtime in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 130-125 win over the LA Clippers on Wednesday — with LeBron James‘ playing time already nearing the 40-minute mark — Austin Reaves had a decision to make.

Storming up the court on a fastbreak, having just stolen the ball from Kawhi Leonard, Reaves could try to finish at the basket himself or involve his 38-year-old teammate.

“At no point after I got that ball did I think I was going to shoot it,” Reaves said. “I saw him and I was going to pass it the whole way.”

It wasn’t just any pass. Reaves threw an alley-oop over his shoulder, and the hard-charging James dunked it home to put the Lakers up by five with 2:12 to go. It prompted the Clippers to call a timeout and sent the crowd into a tizzy.

“I have a sense that I can just throw it anywhere and he’ll go get it,” Reaves said of James. “That’s the crazy part with how long he’s been playing.”

Added James, after finishing with 35 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists in 42 minutes: “I’m just happy I’m still able to go get it at this point in my career. I mean, he trusted me to go get it, so I wanted to go up there.”

The dunk capped a dominant finish to the game for the four-time MVP, who was instrumental in the Lakers snapping an 11-game losing streak against the Clippers by scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, going 6-for-8 from the field in doing so.

“I mean, he took over,” Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell said of James.

The win lifted the Lakers’ record to 3-2, and James continued coming up clutch in late-game situations. He has scored 51 points (10.2 points per game) in the fourth quarter and overtime this season, shooting a blistering 21-for-31 from the field (68%).

“If we keep the game close, I feel like in the fourth quarter, that’s when I’m at my best,” James said. “If the game is close, I can make plays to help us win the ballgame, no matter who is out on the floor for us.”

While L.A. has been hit by the injury bug early, with Taurean Prince (left knee soreness) becoming a late scratch Wednesday and joining Rui Hachimura (concussion protocol), Gabe Vincent (left knee swelling) and Jarred Vanderbilt (left heel bursitis) on the mend, James has picked up the slack.

“He’s been phenomenal down the stretch,” said Anthony Davis, who had another strong outing in his own right with 27 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks. “I think [the coaching staff is] kind of banking minutes early on and then letting [James] just kind of flow throughout the fourth quarter.”

Indeed, the caveat that accompanies the late-game brilliance has been James routinely breezing through the team’s playing time guideline of limiting him to 28-30 minutes per game.

Through five games, James has averaged 35.6 minutes, a slight uptick from the 35.5 he played last season. As Lakers coach Darvin Ham has more options available to him, he will pare down James’ playing time, as was the goal, to keep him as fresh as possible for the playoffs.

For now, the team is content finding its footing by having James taking them home.

“He doesn’t prepare to just be available and be another body on the floor,” Ham said. “He prepares to be at a high, high level. Not only available, but available and elite. So kudos to him.”

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