Starting at the center for not only the first time of his 19-year career, but for what he said was the first time in his life, LeBron James got a 132-123 victory for the Los Angeles Lakers over the Houston Rockets. The win cracked a five-game losing streak for an LA team that entered the season with title talk before a series of setbacks took hold.
“I was a thin, ragged kid when I was growing up, but I was never one of the biggest guys or in the middle position,” said 6-foot-9, 250-pound James, who took the opening tip Tuesday against Houston’s 6. -9 center, Christian Wood. “I’ve always played on the wing or somehow handled the ball.”
The Lakers had already experimented with James as No. 5 this season – he memorably closed out a game that subdued Domantas Sabonis on the sidelines in an overtime win in Indiana just before Thanksgiving – but had not yet gone for it full time.
But when Anthony Davis was on the sidelines for another month due to a sprained knee, Dwight Howard still got wind back after a stay in the health and safety records and DeAndre Jordan offers uneven production all season, Lakers acting head coach David Fizdale decided to give it a sample.
“LeBron’s plus-minus on the 5’s is so ridiculous right now,” said Fizdale, who fills in while Frank Vogel is in minutes, afterwards. “To have guys out with COVID and that sort of thing, I just took a bet and said, ‘You know, I think it’s tonight tonight where I have to start him at 5’.”
In 1,332 regular-season starts before the Houston win, James had never started at center, but LA’s desperation, combined with the positionless trend the league has been heading toward, in part because of how James’ Miami Heat team played, created the opportunity.
“I think I’ve put an honor over the course of my career in being able to play five positions,” James said. “Or at least know all five positions. Knowing the commands. So tonight … encouraged me to start at the center and I was just trying to be in a hell of a lot of games.”
He finished with 32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, earning his third triple-double of the season. And he made some history (in addition to moonlight at 5 for the first time) by becoming the first player in the league’s history of 35 years or more to score 30 points or more in five games in a row.
James, who turns 37 on Thursday, beat Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and Elgin Baylor, who all scored four games in a row when they were in that age group.
“I just feel like I’m in a really good offensive zone right now,” James said.
Helping with the lineup change was a rare training session on the field held by the team Monday before they set off for the Houston-Memphis back-to-back road trip. The session allowed Fizdale to test James in the middle.
“It was good just to practice, get on the floor,” said Russell Westbrook, who also finished with a triple-double with 24 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. “We have not been able to do that for a long time … And we have seen some of that [pay off] tonight, exactly how we played in sprints throughout the match. “
The 19-year-old veteran Carmelo Anthony, who entered the NBA at the same time as James played the same small forward position, also played the 5th against the Rockets at times when James was sitting.
“It’s the development of the game,” said Anthony, who had 24 points and nine rebounds from the bench. “You have 5s playing on the perimeter now. You have to adapt and you have to adjust and you have to stay sharp, because if you do not, you will be left behind.”
Fizdale, who said Vogel gave him his blessing to try James at 5 if he wanted to, did not commit to it being a constant strategy going forward. LA will continue to have small-ball lineups, but there are still strong, big men on opposing teams to contend with, and that’s what Howard and Jordan are there for.
But for one night, his instinct worked. And James, already linked to the Laker greats of all time by bringing a championship to the franchise, can now say he played the position that Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal did when they replayed purple and gold.
“I just told the team … ‘I do not think you’re aware of what this guy just did,'” Fizdale said. “He just played the 5th in four quarters and dominated the position and played it while playing point guard while playing [forward], he just … Oh, my god, this guy is incredible.
“I can not help it, man. We are all, we are very lucky as basketball people to be able to see what we see right now, out of this man, and it’s just beautiful.”