LeBron James flexed his arms. He tossed shots aimed high into the sky. He threw faux-uppercuts and slammed home dunks. He begged for life from the Staples Center crowd, his hands above his head asking for more of the cheers he’d created seemingly out of nowhere.
Before the third quarter, Sunday at Staples Center looked like another one of those nights. The kind where you wondered if things would maybe be different if Anthony Davis’ knee wasn’t so sore, if Kendrick Nunn and Trevor Ariza could trade their street clothes for basketball uniforms and if Russell Westbrook just looked more comfortable.
But for everything the Lakers aren’t — and man, is that list long — there’s still one thing that 29 other teams are envious of.
They’re the team that gets to employ James. And he’s the player that led them to a 106-94 win.
With Staples Center sitting mostly lifeless after another clunker half of basketball where the Lakers look like they’re going nowhere, James pushed them into overdrive, leading the team on a 23-0 run in a quarter where the Magic managed to make only two shots from the field on 23 tries.
“Just an all-around great performance,” James said of the third quarter.
The Magic shot 8.7 percent from the field in the third, the worst an opponent has shot in a quarter against the Lakers since Dec. 14, 1999, when the Clippers went 1 for 18 from the field.
In the third, James scored 14 points and had three assists, giving the Lakers two things they’ve had almost none of this season — momentum and a huge lead. He finished with 30 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. He also had three highlight-reel blocks.
“He’s finding joy with hustle,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “…The effort he’s playing with is inspiring our whole group.”
James has scored at least 30 points in six of his last eight games, a sign that he’s finding rhythm after a stop-and-start-and-stop first quarter of his season.
Even though the team played without Davis for a second-straight game, they left the court with a double-digit, defensively dominant win. Pregame, Lakers coach Frank Vogel offered what amounted to good news for the Lakers’ big man — testing showed no structural damage and Davis will be listed as day-to-day.
The Lakers begin a three-game road trip in Dallas on Wednesday.
Still, for as good as everything felt after a dominant third quarter, a lazy fourth-quarter performance erased a lot of that good will.
After leading by as many as 25, the Lakers saw their lead cut to 10 in the fourth quarter, allowing 25 points in the first eight minutes of the final frame. While it didn’t cost them Sunday, stretches like that have defined huge chunks of the team’s first 28 games, the Lakers unable to finish off lesser teams like the Orlando Magic.
While Vogel said the Magic were better than their five wins this season indicated, advanced statistics have them right at the bottom of the 30-team NBA, their defensive and net ratings worse than everyone else. Add in that they were playing on the second night of a back-to-back in Los Angeles (following a day game with the Clippers) and at the end of a winless five-game road trip.
Orlando has won just once since Nov. 18.
They pushed the Lakers hard in the first half and in the fourth, leading by as many as nine while the Lakers’ offense sputtered. Cole Anthony scored 12 of his 21 in the first half, rookie Franz Wagner scored 20 and Terrance Ross, oft-mentioned as a Lakers’ trade target, scored 15 off the bench.
But no one impacted the game even close to James, who said he came into the game well-rested following an eight-hour night’s rest and a four-hour pregame nap.
With him setting the tone, Westbrook settled in and got shots to fall at the rim that he missed in the first half. He had 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists to offset his five turnovers. And Talen Horton-Tucker affirmed the two-way praise the Lakers have prematurely heaped on him, scoring 19 while making three three-pointers along with a career-best six steals.
But it was James, fittingly, putting the bow on the victory, bailing out a rocky possession with a side-step three that splashed through the net. With the lead safe, the win minutes away, James looked to the courtside fans and blew a kiss.
And this time, he didn’t have to ask for the love to come back.