While the Los Angeles Lakers naturally intend to lean on LeBron James, the team is also mindful of not allowing that to become a crutch or potentially doing so to the extent that it becomes detrimental to the 33-year-old.
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Head coach Luke Walton has regularly discussed the need to monitor James’ minutes, and Thursday’s win against the Denver Nuggets was the epitome of that. After Denver closed the third quarter on a 14-6 run to take a slim lead into the fourth, James remained on the court.
“I felt like we needed him to start that quarter just to make sure Denver didn’t build a lead on us,” Walton explained after his team handed the Nuggets their first loss. “We wanted to make sure we continued to play the way we were going.”
James checked out with 6:55 remaining and the Lakers trailing by six. Lance Stephenson was then instrumental in sparking a rally, singlehandedly rattling off eight consecutive points. Josh Hart sunk two free throws to tie the game, with James re-entering at that time.
Stephenson immediately found him with an outlet pass for a go-ahead slam dunk. The Lakers never trailed again, and James recorded his first triple-double with the team. “That’s a LeBron game. He’s really good. I don’t think there’s a statement game to be made,” Walton said.
“He’s been great for us. Even the games we lost, he’s still putting up incredible numbers. We’re in these games and have a chance to win, we just weren’t getting any stops defensively. He definitely turned it up a little bit tonight but that’s just a LeBron game.”
James’ play has come with the Lakers maintaining the third-fastest pace in the NBA. With that comes particularly attention from Walton in managing James. “If we’re going to play fast, I need to find stretches to get him some breaks throughout the season,” he said.
“Obviously, if this is the playoffs, we probably leave him in and let him go. It was just get him some rest knowing we’re going to finish the game with him and need him fresh.”