LeBron James hit a game-deciding shot in his Los Angeles Lakers’ must-win triumph over the Golden State Warriors last night. The shot was a deep, high-pressure three made as the shot clock expired, stunning enough that it made the limited Staples Center crowd sound like a full-capacity rager when it went down. The shot itself, though, is not what everyone will remember about the game. How he discussed it afterwards, and seemingly framed it moments beforehand—more than the actual shot’s inclusion within James’ historically elite basketball-playing résumé—will be greater discussion fodder for many.
Fully 36 years old and nursing a high ankle sprain, James is into year two of his elder title contention phase with the Lakers, and his tendency to grandly narrativize everything he accomplishes has kicked into as high of a gear as we’ve ever seen from a player. Perhaps infected by the storytelling fevers of Tinseltown, he is now the narrator of his own hagiography, making sure to show the audience every peril along his way to further glory. Before the game against the Warriors, this was manifest in his insistence that they were going up against the rightful 2021 MVP in Steph Curry—implicitly dismissing the inevitable winner of the award, Nikola Jokic, who, we might surmise, LeBron might have spoken more highly of if his Denver Nuggets were more clearly upon the Lakers’ warpath.
During the game, we saw LeBron’s generous provision of sports documentary material with his Eye Poke Incident. After a hard foul near the basket from Draymond Green, James fell to the floor and writhed for quite a while. Officials reviewed the play and declined to upgrade Green’s contact to flagrant status, but this wouldn’t be the last we heard about it. During his post-game interview, James brought up the occasion several times, saying that he saw “three rims” when he took his big shot, and suggesting that he may play his next game with a pirate-style eye patch over his affected pupil.
It’s hard for anyone but LeBron to say exactly how badly his eye was hit or how much his vision was impacted by the foul. Anyone who’s played enough basketball at any level knows it’s something that happens, though, and that crunch time of an unprecedented playoff game is about the worst time for it to happen. It’s always not news to almost anyone that Green, specifically, does things like this as a defender. But for those without this basic knowledge, LeBron was sure to provide the Wikipedia stub in real time; both with his body and his words. This expository mode of LeBron’s has gotten so over the top that it’s hard to begrudge, and much more fun to embrace. It somehow makes him seem even greater, even more dominant, when—while he beats you—James explains the whole thing loudly, like an executive producer on set, exacting and demanding in his vision.
The week prior, this feel for the theatrical was visible in a Lakers game that LeBron didn’t even play in. Wearing a conspicuous turquoise sweatsuit while he paced up and down the court frantically, the best player in the sport was de-facto coaching his team as he rested his battered ankle. He was somehow even more noticeable from the sidelines than opposing coach Tom Thibodeau of the New York Knicks, who is long famous for barking defensive reminders so loudly that they are an obstacle for game-ops stadium producers with access to top-of-the-line sound technology. James, however—in that outfit, and with that demonstrative of motion—was more the spectacle for the night.
On a basketball level, this is about as interesting as watching LeBron has ever been. At no time in his career has he had this serious of an injury at this inopportune of a moment. If he manages to gut through it and win another championship, reality could actually catch up to the grandeur of his self-mythologizing. But for now, it is fascinating to see how he manages a game without his typically extraordinary physical advantages. Against the Warriors, he was in manager mode, distributing deftly and banking more on the reputation of his gravity than the actuality of it as he penetrated the defense gingerly, usually passing out before challenging its sharpest teeth. Over the course of the game, he seemed to gain more comfort, and get gradually closer to the rim, but there’s certainly still something very fragile and precipitous about this kind of winning.
The Phoenix Suns are up next for James and the Lakers, and with them comes the challenges presented by one of LeBron’s best friends, and also one of his only real peers in the art of telling a story about a game he’s playing as it unfolds: Chris Paul. Historical comparisons for what we’re about to see might be hard to come by. One example that comes to mind is a mid-90’s Sunday afternoon classic in which Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, then close friends and obviously having gone out together the night before, talked loving trash to each other so noticeably that it took center stage away from the basketball being played. And regardless of how the basketball plays out between the Lakers and Suns, James and Paul, like those two legends, are definitely about to vie for rhetorical control of a series in as entertaining of a fashion as anyone can.