LeBron James scores season-high 47 on 38th birthday as Lakers top Hawks

ATLANTA — LeBron James might be frustrated. He might be inching closer to the twilight of his career without a clear path to another title.

But at age 38, he is not giving up.

That sentiment was never more clear on Friday night than the third quarter, when James dashed down the court for an outlet pass that was tipped. He caught up to it but missed a look at the rim, then tumbled over. But like a shot, James was on his feet, pouncing on the offensive rebound and putting it back against a leaping Onyeka Okongwu.

He somersaulted back onto his feet, pounding his chest in front of the Atlanta crowd – which showered him with cheers. There was only one appropriate human reaction: awe.

James is still at the top of his game, and on his 38th birthday, he showed it in no uncertain terms, putting together what is so far his best performance of the season with 47 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in a 130-121 victory over the Hawks.

He had called his own shot to his teammates, getting a little nervous after starting 1 for 5 from the field, but then making 17 of his next 22 shots, sensing his group needed more from him than even the 34.5 points he’s been averaging since Anthony Davis got hurt.

“I’ve been scoring 30 and it hasn’t worked so … try 40,” he deadpanned. “And we got a win.”

The performance came two days after James aired his frustration that he doesn’t want to finish his career without competing for championships – which the 13th-place Lakers (15-21) are nowhere near doing at the moment. But after talking the talk, James showed he can still walk the walk. It was the second-most points James has ever scored on his birthday. He had 48 points back in 2009 when he turned 25.

He also had help, most notably in the closing moments. Russell Westbrook scored a left-handed layup with 1:03 remaining, then managed to prod out a steal against Dejounte Murray for a fast break that he finished by dishing to Thomas Bryant just eight seconds later. Dennis Schröder also notched a last-minute jumper, then grabbed a steal on the next play, helping the worst-performing clutch team in the NBA get over the hump on the road.

Bryant had 19 points and a season-high 17 rebounds, and Westbrook had 14 points and 11 assists, leading six Lakers in total who scored in double-figures. Little-used and often-injured forward Juan Toscano-Anderson stepped up in the closing lineup, finishing 3 for 3 from the field with a plus-13 rating. The group effort helped the Lakers erase an early 15-point deficit and overcome 49 combined points from Atlanta’s Murray and Trae Young.

Lakers coach Darvin Ham pointed to the performances down the roster as a sign that James’ teammates, instead of being crushed by the implied criticism of the roster, rose to the challenge.

“I don’t think anyone took that as a slight. I think they took it as, ‘You know what? He’s right,’” Ham said. “And so, those words rung very, very clear. Loud and clear.”

But it was hard to look away from James as he rampaged through the Hawks’ defense, throwing down dunks, running for and-ones and difficult fadeaway jumpers, and burying deep 3-pointers.

James, who began the day ranked ninth in the league in scoring (27.8 ppg), had 16 points in the second quarter, 13 in the third and 16 in the fourth. He ended his night with a pair of free throws as the road crowd, dotted with purple-and-gold jerseys, chanted “M-V-P! M-V-P!”

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There were a number of factors motivating him, James said, including the friendly crowd in Atlanta (the host team wished him a happy birthday on the jumbotron in the first quarter). His mother, Gloria, and his wife, Savannah, were also in attendance, which was a bit of a special occasion with his birthday on the road. James said he was motivated by facing Young and Murray, who made shots to push the Lakers down the stretch.

But at least a portion of James’ competitiveness seems derived from beating himself, from besting Father Time (a joke he’s made in his commercials) and getting a little more daylight out of a career that others might believe is at its sunset.

When a reporter asked if James felt like he was 18 again, James retorted: He feels better now than he did then.

“I didn’t know what I could become at 18,” he said. “But I just knew if I continued to put in the work, I continued to be true to the game, then I could be one of the greatest players to ever play this game. I just always believed that. So, there are times when I’m on the floor where I do feel like a kid again. That’s for sure.”

47 PTS
10 REB
Lakers W

LeBron showed out on his 38th birthday.

— NBA (@NBA) December 31, 2022

“I called it before the game so I had to make it happen. After starting 1-for-5 I didn’t know it was going to happen.” @KingJames with @LakersReporter on his 47-point performance against Atlanta.

— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) December 31, 2022

Darvin Ham on LeBron’s season-high performance and his takeaways from tonight’s win.

— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) December 31, 2022

“You just don’t want to take greatness for granted like that.” @nolimittb31 on LeBron James.

— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) December 31, 2022

“Hopefully we can gain some momentum as we go into the New Year.” @russwest44 on tonight’s win over the Hawks.

— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) December 31, 2022

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