LOS ANGELES -- For LeBron James, operating in chaos has never been an impediment -- it's a professional preference. So it came as no surprise on Wednesday when he declared that he "loves being uncomfortable," that it's the essence of his being. A seven-week sprint to the postseason from the 10th spot with no control over the performance of your rivals? Delightful.
Fortunately for James, Thursday night's meeting with the Houston Rockets offered all kinds of discomfort from the opening tip. James Harden happily obliged in the second quarter when he stepped back one-on-one against James, then blew by him on the Rockets' opening possession of the second half. By the time the Lakers looked up five minutes into the third quarter, they were trailing by 19 points.
But even with the deficit mounting, James appeared a far cry from the isolated, brooding superstar sitting an unhealthy distance from his teammates on the bench in Indianapolis before the All-Star break during the worst loss of his career. James was engaged -- "activated" as he said Wednesday -- and wholly invested as the Lakers mounted one of the most impressive comebacks of their season. He was demonstrative with teammates, quick to acknowledge heady plays and offering encouragement after tough beats.
Gradually, a half-court offense that was afflicted with rigor mortis for the first 30 minutes Thursday night came to life, as defensive stops opened up the floor, with James at the controls. The Lakers would mount a 51-27 extended run en route to a 111-106 win at Staples Center that brings their record to 29-29. James finished with 29 points (11-for-23 from the field), 11 points and 6 assists.
James is accustomed to dragging his team by the scruff of its neck into the playoffs, but this season presents a degree of difficulty he has never previously encountered. The safety net that existed in the Eastern Conference during his 15-year reign as its resident bully? Not applicable in the West. Second-tier teams in the Western Conference don't fight for seeding -- they fight for survival.
Along with the geographical inconvenience with which he must grapple, James is also confronting another unfamiliar obstacle, one that he has appeared miraculously impervious to, even as he crossed the career 50,000-minute mark (regular season and playoffs) during his latter days in Cleveland: LeBron James is in his 35th year of life, and everyone -- even LeBron -- is subject to the vagaries of age. The body becomes more vulnerable to peculiar new maladies like groin strains, and recovery, all of a sudden, seems impossibly slow. Morning is never again a pain-free state of being. Exceptional, generational talents can still summon their best performance on demand, but doing so requires a little bit more.
But with more than a week's rest apart from his 27 minutes during Sunday's scrimmage in Charlotte, James seemed physically and mentally recharged. It was evident when he checked back into the game with just under nine minutes left and the Lakers trailing by four, stepping on the floor with a measured focus and authority. Moments later, after four Lakers points were taken off the board during an official review midway through the fourth quarter turning a Lakers lead into a deficit, James motioned to teammates with a nod and a calming gesture.
Ninety seconds later, James would unleash a vicious tomahawk jam after blowing by Clint Capela on the perimeter, leaving Eric Gordon to put up futile resistance at the rim. From there, James and Brandon Ingram would virtually alternate buckets. The lone exception was a vintage, overhead, two-handed kickout on the move from James to Lakers newbie Reggie Bullock for an open 3-pointer (credit Ingram for screening Chris Paul, preventing the close out) to put the Lakers in control with 91 seconds left.
Given the strength of the opponent, Harden's dominance in recent weeks and Ingram's contributions (27 points and 13 rebounds), the win Thursday was a welcome relief from the narrative carousel that has consumed the team since L'Affaire Davis. Maybe the precarious nature of the Lakers' playoff prospects can concentrate attention -- the team's, the media's, the league's -- on the floor, where the Lakers' season will be rendered a success or a failure.
Because aside from the dwindling buyout market, the transactional portion of the season has gone dark. For the next seven weeks, there will be no trades, no free-agent acquisitions, no pitch meetings and, given the late date, probably no firings. All that's left for the Lakers and LeBron James is to spare themselves the embarrassment of performing exit interviews before Easter. Thursday night was a demonstration that LeBron is, indeed, activated and sufficiently comfortable in his discomfort.