LOS ANGELES — Over the last few weeks, Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James has received immense criticism about his defense, with clips circulating through social media seemingly showing the star out of place on a few defensive possessions.
There are those suggesting he’s on the decline and no longer able to generate the necessary energy to dominate on that end. James, who anchored the Lakers’ 125-119 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday with a key defensive stop down the stretch that forced a turnover and subsequently nailed a 3-pointer to seal it, welcomes the challenge of teams targeting him defensively.
“I mean, every team has the right if they want to single me out defensively. Come on with it,” James told Yahoo Sports. “Hey, listen, come on with it. Every team has the right to be like, ‘Oh, ’Bron’s over there.’ Hey, just come on with it. … We’ll see what happens.”
The Lakers held a three-point lead against the Pelicans (27-36) with 1:12 remaining in the game. New Orleans point guard Jrue Holiday had Brandon Ingram draped on him, but used a screen set by Julius Randle to get the switch on James.
Holiday sized up James near the top of the key before passing the ball to Darius Miller and then receiving it back. Holiday then began his dribble attack and changed directions multiple times, but James smothered him step for step.
Holiday tried to elude James with a double crossover to the right and ended up making contact with the 6-foot-8 James and lost control of the ball, with Lakers guard Reggie Bullock coming away with it.
And on the other end with Holiday guarding him, James drove into a congested area of the court and momentarily had the ball stripped from him. But he recovered and stepped behind the arc, pump-faked and hit an off-balance, one-legged 3-pointer from the right corner.
It gave the Lakers a six-point lead with 31 seconds left that sealed the game.
“You’re playing against the best player in basketball,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “At some stage he’s going to do something to help his team get over the hump, and that’s what he did with the shot in the corner.”
And for those condemning James’ defense, the 15-time All-Star had a very specific message.
“I really don’t care. Criticism doesn’t bother me,” James told Yahoo Sports after posting 33 points, 10 assists, six rebounds, two steals and a block in 37 minutes. “I love to play the game and my teammates know what I do for them and that’s all that matters. … The only thing motivating me is how I can try to help my teammates be successful and trying to win ball games.
“So if [teams are] switching out on me with a guard and me having to try to get a stop, I mean, guys, they’re going to score. These are NBA players. I just try to make it tough on them. I tried to make it tough on Julius [Randle] all night, and obviously he was a monster [with a game-high 35 points], but I tried to make it tough on Jrue as well. To be able to get that stop for our team and then be able to make that shot for our team, that’s motivating for me. That’s all that matters to me.”
Holiday applauded James for what he’s capable of doing on the defensive end at 34 years old and in his 16th season.
“He’s kind of a freak of nature where he can do whatever he wants,” Holiday told Yahoo Sports of James’ defense. “He can guard one through five. It just takes effort, that’s all it really is. I think for him athletically, he can move and he can stay in front of anybody. Yeah, there are quicker guys, but if he gets beat, he can meet you at the rim. … Offensively, he puts it on his shoulders, so from that point, you kind of have to find ways to preserve energy and I feel like sometimes he does that on defense, which I don’t blame him.”
With the win, the Lakers are 30-31 and three games back of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. A team led by James has advanced to the postseason 13 consecutive seasons.
If he fails to make it 14, the scrutiny would only intensify with opinions suggesting he might not be the game’s best player. But for now, James isn’t passing the torch — he’s only passing to teammates.
“[Expletive], it’s going to happen someday,” he told Yahoo Sports. “[Expletive], MJ had to pass that thing, didn’t he? We’ll see.”
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