Ramona ShelburneESPN Senior Writer7 minute read
LOS ANGELES — Earlier this month, LeBron James sat down in the interview room inside Crypto.com Arena and told the world what motivates him to play in the NBA.
“If my mind is going, then my body will be like, ‘OK, what do we do?'” James said after Game 3 of the Los Angeles Lakers’ first-round win over the Memphis Grizzlies.
The topic that precipitated the response was the idea of staying in the league long enough to play alongside his eldest son, Bronny, who had committed to USC earlier in the day on May 6.
Publicly, James had been very clear about his feelings about retirement. Contractually, he has two years and $97.1 million remaining. But spiritually, he showed the first signs of doubt on Monday night after the Lakers’ season ended despite an incredible effort from James in Game 4 on both sides of the court in a 113-111 loss to the Denver Nuggets in of the Western Conference Finals.
“We’ll see what happens in the future,” James said. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I have a lot to think about, to be honest. I have a lot to think about, to be honest. Just for me personally to get ahead with the game of basketball.”
When asked to clarify by ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, James confirmed he was talking about “if I want to keep playing”.
It was an amazing feeling following what had been an all-time performance from James until Nuggets goalkeeper Jamal Murray knocked the ball out of his hands on the final play of the game to secure the game. sweep and Denver’s first-place finish for the NBA Finals. James had 40 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists and nearly put the Lakers past a team he said was the best he and Anthony Davis had faced in their four years together in Los Angeles.
Perhaps it was the disappointment of the moment to speak. James had played all four seconds of Monday’s game, defending both Nikola Jokic and Murray for long stretches. The longest view in sport is the way back to where your season just ended.
Perhaps it was a leverage play to pressure Vice President of Basketball Operations Rob Pelinka to retain some of the key players who had emerged for the Lakers in that unlikely playoff series or to pursue future free agent Kyrie Irving, who just happened to be there on Monday night (and sitting under the same basket where James couldn’t get that last shot).
Perhaps it was nostalgia to see his friend Carmelo Anthony retire earlier on Monday, with a video James had helped him record a week before.
Only James knows what precipitated those retirement thoughts. But he said it out loud, and so the NBA world will be waiting impatiently until he talks about it again.
The Nuggets had left the arena just as the full weight of what they had just done was landing. Qualifying for the first NBA Finals in team history was still pervasive.
But sending James into the offseason with his basketball future in mind? This is something no one could see coming.
Not after James scored the most points in a quarter (23) and a half (31) of his playoff career to give the Lakers a 15-point halftime lead.
“After coaching him for five years in Cleveland, he understood the time he was with their team, with his back firmly against the wall,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said of James’ performance in the game 4.
“In that first half he showed why he was one of the best players of all time. (James) literally got his team on his back and just attacked us.”
But the Nuggets responded to James’ best shot in the third quarter, erasing the Lakers lead with a 34-14 run as Jokic pushed the pace at every opportunity.
“It’s all about him,” Malone told ESPN. “He’s like a points centre. That’s who he is. That’s what he’s been and that’s where we’re at our best.”
Jokic and the nuggets should be the center of attention after their brilliant play in this series. But there are nine days left until Game 1 of the NBA Finals with a giant question now looming after James’ farewell statements.
Malone might quibble with the focus shifting to the Lakers, as he did after Game 1 of this series. He will definitely use it as motivation for his team in the future.
“I think you’re just happy to have won a match,” Jokic said. “You beat a very, very good team. Every game, but the first game was so close. Anyone could have won it, and we just found a way to win the game. Especially when we were down 15, to come back and win the game, it was probably just happiness. I think it’s the emotions.”
After scoring what turned out to be the winning basket, Jokic entered a tunnel of some sort, sat on a bench in the makeshift weight room that had been set up for the visiting team and underwent a workout lower body punishment.
Jokic has been lifting weights after every game he’s been able to play in the last four seasons, knowing that the only way to earn real respect in this league is to be the last man standing at the end of the season.
It’s like that for all the greats of all time. He won two MVP awards. On Monday night, he won the Magic Johnson Western Conference Finals MVP award after his record eighth NBA playoff triple-double with 30 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists in 45 minutes. But the individual rewards start to weigh heavily on the head after a while.
“Nothing,” Jokic said when asked by ESPN’s Lisa Salters what it meant to be named Conference Finals MVP during the on-court trophy presentation.
An hour later, Jokic even went out of his way to say that Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid deserved regular season MVP this season and that it was “nasty” for anyone to say he didn’t. hadn’t done it.
Part of that is a genuine respect and empathy Jokic has for the predicament Embiid finds himself in after Philadelphia’s disheartening second-round loss in the playoffs.
Jokic has been in that position himself — with critics questioning the MVP awards he’s won that haven’t been backed by playoff success.
This is how it is for players like James and Jokic when a season ends before a championship.
“I don’t like to say it’s been a successful year because I’m only playing to win championships at this point in my career,” James said.
Now he will decide whether to continue playing while Jokic and the Nuggets play for their first championship.