LeBron follows AD’s lead in final, earns IST MVP

  • Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff WriterDec 10, 2023, 03:18 AM ET

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    • Lakers and NBA reporter for ESPN.
    • Covered the Lakers and NBA for ESPNLosAngeles.com from 2009-14, the Cavaliers from 2014-18 for ESPN.com and the NBA for NBA.com from 2005-09.

LAS VEGAS — LeBron James sat at the podium, barely damp after speeding through a postgame champagne celebration after winning MVP of the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament on Saturday. He placed the trophy on his left. Sitting to his right was the person who made the hardware possible and someone who, quite frankly, outplayed him in Saturday’s 123-109 championship win over the Indiana Pacers.

Despite 41 points, 20 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 blocks from Anthony Davis — forcing Indiana’s Myles Turner to foul out while defending the Los Angeles Lakers big man’s relentless attacks to the paint — James and Davis had no problem with the pecking order.

“I know who I am, he knows who he is,” James told ESPN when asked about his partnership with Davis that’s in its fifth season — longer than he teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami or with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland. “So, there’s no friction. We’re not trying to compete with one another on the court or on a lifestyle basis. He knows who he is, I know who I am.

“The only thing we’re trying to do is hold each other accountable when we get to work and try to be the best we can be for each other, and when one is not going well, try to pick each other up. There’s no jealousy. There’s not a jealous bone in our bodies. We’re never jealous of one another. Ever.”

While James continues to push the limits of a player’s capabilities in his 21st season — putting up 24 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals in the clincher — it hasn’t come at the expense of Davis’ development.

If anything, James has done his best to prop Davis up, calling the 30-year old the “face of the franchise” to ESPN at the outset of training camp and continuing to put the 12-year veteran in positions to succeed.

Davis said that carried over to Las Vegas, where James and the Lakers fed Davis early and often — he went 6-for-10 in the first quarter, only the second time this season when he attempted 10 or more shots in a quarter — and kept going to him all night.

“He’ll say things like, ‘Let’s get AD going.’ Or, ‘Run this for AD,'” Davis said. “He’s doing a good job of making sure that I get my touches to have an opportunity to take over ballgames like tonight. So, he’s been in my corner through the ups and downs and the indifferent. He’s always been a guy who I can count on, who I can lean on for advice, or he just knows.

“He just knows me. … I just had that look tonight and he said, ‘I’m going to follow your lead.’ And he was able to, and the team was able to allow me be the guy and just feed off of it.”

Lakers backup center Christian Wood, who signed with L.A. on a veteran minimum contract in part because of Davis’ recruiting efforts, said Davis called his shot.

“I think AD, he was at Level 1 and took it to Level 3,” Wood told ESPN. “He told me before the game, ‘This is Game 7 for me, I’m going to show you what a Game 7 is like.’ I’ve never been in one before. I said, ‘All right, show me.’ And he went out there and he got 40 and 20. That’s incredible.”

The win was the Lakers’ 12th in their past 16 games, and they’ve climbed to No. 5 in the Western Conference standings.

The Lakers weren’t shy about their motivation to win the tournament beyond the competition. The $500,000 cash prize for every player on the winning team was something that James prioritized, recognizing it represented an opportunity that was a far cry from his tough upbringing in Akron, Ohio.

“We played for bragging rights,” James told ESPN of his childhood pickup games. “I didn’t have money to play for cash growing up.”

James said he woke up Saturday morning determined to finish the job against the Pacers.

“I’m going for it,” he said. “Yeah, why not? Why not? One game? Me and one game, I’m going for it. For sure.”

It was another feather in the cap for James and Davis, who teamed to win a title in 2020 in their first season together and have now claimed the first in-season tournament crown.

Davis said he knows that his beefed up résumé won’t make him impervious to future criticism. He attracts scrutiny, seemingly no matter what he does.

James’ confidence in him, his team’s continued belief in him, have allowed him to develop a thicker skin.

“The ‘I-don’t-give-a-f—ness?’ Yes. I have,” Davis told ESPN when asked about his outlook. “And I don’t [care]. As long as my team is winning and I’m with my guys in the locker room, that’s all I care about. Anybody else’s opinions don’t matter to me. I genuinely mean that. I don’t care.”