“I came here to put this team and put this franchise back where they needed to be,” said James, whose first season in Los Angeles was derailed by a hamstring injury that limited him to 55 games. “The league is not what it is if the Lakers are not winning. And that was one of my responsibilities, one of my goals when I came here.
“Last year, wasn’t able to fulfill that. Hurt me to my heart to go down on December 25th with the groin injury that I had — knock on wood.”
On Friday, James put together the kind of performance the Lakers envisioned when they signed him during the summer of 2018. He had 37 points, 8 assists and 8 rebounds while also taking on the task of guarding reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo for pivotal stretches.
Though the Bucks’ star had 32 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists, he managed only eight of his points on 3-for-6 shooting when James was the primary defender on him.
The Lakers (48-13) avenged a 111-104 loss in Milwaukee on Dec. 19 in the marquee showdown between the two best teams in the NBA. On Sunday, the Lakers will try to beat another title contender for the first time this season when they square off against their Staples Center hallway rivals — the Clippers (43-19). The Clippers are surging, having won six straight games and are at full strength with a healthy roster. They beat the Lakers in the season opener without Paul George and again in their highly-anticipated Christmas night showdown as well.
The third meeting between the two Los Angeles teams was postponed after Kobe Bryant’s death, setting up Sunday’s encounter as their third matchup this season.
“We know how well they’ve been playing as of late,” James said. “They’re at full strength. We’re at full strength. And we look forward to the challenge to see how we can match up with them again. So, you know, the first game, we kind of threw that game out the window. It’s the first game of the season. Who were we? Who were they? They had way more returning guys than we did [at that point]. We were still trying to figure out ourselves.
“And then the Christmas Day game, we didn’t play to our capabilities. We played great in the first half and then the second half we let it kind of get away from us. So we just look forward to see if we can continue to play good basketball, no matter win, lose or draw.”