When Stephan Silas and the Rockets last saw LeBron James, it was in mid-January in Los Angeles. The Lakers were on shaky ground, five games below .500, and in real trouble.
But that night against Houston, James put the Lakers on his back, scoring 48 points in his most dominant offensive game of the season.
Sunday, when the Rockets saw James again, it couldn’t have been more different.
They saw him crash the glass. They saw him throw perfect lead passes to Austin Reaves. They saw him respond to a missed transition layup with a thunderous dunk on his next touch.
It was just as Silas feared pregame: This was the Lakers as their best version.
James was able to play his best role — a little of all of them — as he orchestrated a dominant 134-109 win for the Lakers.
The luxury to let James to approach the game with surgical precision came from Anthony Davis, who again dominated and continued to make good on his word to “get back” at teams that had taken wins from the Lakers.
Against the Chicago Bulls, he scored 38. Against the Minnesota Timberwolves, he did the same. And Sunday, against a Houston defense without a prayer against him, Davis dropped 40, needing only 20 shots and just more than 30 minutes to dominate.
“When AD comes out and does what AD did tonight and these last three games … he’s been phenomenal,” Reaves said. “And if he continues to do this, we’ll be a problem.”
The Lakers have won three straight games and 10 of their last 14 as they’ve climbed from 11th to the seventh spot in the Western Conference with one week left in the regular season.
D’Angelo Russell did not play in the second half because of a sore left foot, but the injury didn’t require x-rays. Lakers coach Darvin Ham called Russell’s exit “precautionary.”
“We just want to put ourselves in position to be able to compete for a championship,” James said. “But it’s a journey and obviously we don’t have as much chemistry as a lot of other teams trying to compete for a championship or that have aspirations to win a championship, but I like what we’ve been building over the last month or so.”
It has James to operate the way he did Sunday, an all-around game that never looked like much of a challenge.
“He had a triple-double tonight and it was like effortless,” Ham said. “Not forcing anything. Not having to play him a crazy ton of minutes, it’s a testament to how deep we are now, and different guys being able to step up.”
James had 18 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists in less than 30 minutes with nine of those assists coming in the first half.
The Lakers finished Sunday with a season-high 35 assists, a big number considering the team is still openly talking about the chemistry it needs to still build.
“It’s a much more fun brand of basketball to play when the ball is hopping and moving. People making quick decisions, not dribbling two, three extra dribbles, or holding it for two, three, four extra seconds. You’re looking. You’re reading what the defense is trying to take away, what they’re willing to give you, and you make the right play,” Ham said. “And the next guy has to do the same thing. Make quick decisions, and make the right reads, and play with pace, and the ball gets spread around.”
Rui Hachimura benefited from the pace of the game, playing with a noticeable increase in aggression at the rim on both ends. He finished with 20 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots — just the second player since 1983 to have those numbers off the bench in less than 25 minutes.
“Just a physical presence on both sides of the ball, man,” Ham said. “Just his ability to score at all three levels, his ability to guard different people, it’s huge. It’s a huge asset for us.”
On Sunday, it was hard not to notice just how complete the Lakers looked — a contrast that was undoubtedly highlighted by the backdrop of the woeful Rockets. Still, like Reaves said, the Lakers look as if they might be a problem instead of being a team overrun by them.
“Great rhythm. Feeling good. Feeling like I’m back to myself before the injury,” Davis said. “But we’re all playing well. The guys are making it easy for me, letting me have a lot of space at the top, and then when I don’t, finding the guys and making the right plays. And guys are making shots.
“Everybody, our whole team is in a great rhythm. and we’re playing Lakers basketball, fun basketball. And it’s fun and exciting to watch.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.