The Lakers were all but dead in the water heading into the fourth quarter. Facing the superior Clippers, they found themselves playing catch-up ball from the second period onward, and the 19-point deficit that stared at them made the last 12 minutes look like a formality. Even the 19,370-strong capacity crowd, split in allegiance between the co-tenants of the Arena, had a sense of the inevitable. Nothing the purple and gold did appeared to affect the juggernaut that faced them.

And then LeBron James happened. The elder statesman of the National Basketball Association evidently had other plans and took it upon himself to will a change of fate, and the Lakers were wise enough to ride on his coattails until the end. It helped, of course, that he had paced himself — posting decent numbers in the 25 minutes he was hitherto on the court to set up his 19-point barrage in the final canto. And it wasn’t simply that he outscored the Clippers all by himself when the final buzzer sounded. It was that he orchestrated the proceedings like no other marquee name before him — and undoubtedly like no other long after he has hung up his jersey.

It’s fair to contend that no other player has the coin to simply decide to take matters into his own hands. The pace-and-space era of today has become so sophisticated that all hands on deck — even those on the bench — are necessary to frame victory. For James, however, the game can still be broken down to its basics. And, when he is at his best, there can be no arguing against the results. Yesterday, his stubbornness was on full display. He elephant-walked his way to a half-court drawl that had him actively seeking out mismatches and letting the defense dictate his choices.

Indeed, James toyed with the coverages thrown at him by the Clippers. The latter first allowed him to get his way and set up one-on-one forays versus big men, leading him to can three-point shots with regularity. Against smaller defenders, he would keep his dribble and drive to the hoop. And when double teams came his way, he would pass to the open man for even more treys. In short, he was predictable. That he also happened to be successful underscored his genius — knowing precisely when to shuffle the pieces on the board, and then make moves, to his liking and timing.

Granted, a lot of other things tilted in the Lakers’ favor yesterday. Certainly, they would not have been able to forge a comeback had their defense not been stout — and, accordingly, had the Clippers not folded big time. Neither was expected, and yet both happened. That said, there can be no discounting the extent of the effort they poured to forge the triumph. When the battlesmoke cleared, they deserved to be on the better end of the final score.

James does not have a lot more of the same magic in his bag. Father Time is beckoning. And even at his best in recent memory, he has occasionally bowed to the type of fatigue that plagues those already long in the tooth. If there’s one thing that has not diminished, however, it’s his desire to win. The Lakers got one yesterday because of him. How many more times they can say the same is anybody’s guess. Meanwhile, they’re only too glad to latch on to him in the belief that there’s only one way for him to forge his exit: in a blaze of glory.


Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.