Dillon Brooks did more than poke a bear, he jabbed a finger into the face of an entire city.
Three days after James absorbed some of the most pointed personal insults of his polarizing career, Crypto.com Arena came alive Saturday with swift response and scintillating revenge.
The fans booed the Memphis Grizzlies’ trash-talking Brooks into oblivion. They cheered the offended James into a lather. They wouldn’t sit down and they wouldn’t shut up, and by the time they caught their breath, their Lakers had sprinted to the greatest playoff first quarter in franchise history, streaking to a 35-9 lead and eventually rolling to a 111-101 victory to take a two-games-to-one lead in the first-round playoff series.
“It was amazing,” said James, who was so emotionally drained he yawned his way through the postgame interview. “It was amazing.”
The winner of Game 3 in a tied series advances 73% of the time. But if the Crypto.com Arena crowd remains 100% invested, and the Lakers continue to 100% feed off of that, this one feels about 100% over.
The Grizzlies have no consistent answer for Anthony Davis, no consistent match for the Lakers’ depth and now, a giant fat lip applied to the reckless mouth of one overmatched Brooks.
While James claimed he wasn’t intent on making a statement — “I’ve been doing this too long; I’ve made enough statements” — he nonetheless made a boldfaced one with 25 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Brooks, meanwhile, was so flummoxed, he missed 10 of 13 shots before being ejected in the first minute of the second half for swatting James in the groin.
It was a cheap shot consistent with the verbal sucker punches Brooks had earlier hurled in James’ direction. The low blows occurred Wednesday night, after Memphis’ victory in Game 2, during Brooks’ locker room interview.
First, he called James “old.”
Second, he said James has never impressed him, claiming, “I poke bears. I don’t respect no one until they come and give me 40.”
Third, he said James’ skills were declining: “He’s not at the same level as he was when he was on Cleveland, when he [was] winning championships in Miami. I wish I got to see that. You know what I mean? It would have been a harder task.”
Understand that nothing irritates James more than chatter about his age. He is a 38-year-old with the body of one much younger. He reportedly spends more than $1 million a year to keep himself fit. He is quick to lash back at the perception that he is slowly losing his greatness. Four years ago, he even came up with a hashtag #WashedKing to deride critics who would challenge him.
One can easily imagine he was reasonably peeved at Brooks’ comments. This was confirmed when he cut Friday’s media session short when asked about it.
“I don’t want to talk much more. Tomorrow is going to be a great game,” James said. “I’m not here for the bulls—. I’m ready to play and that’s it. All right?
No argument here. He then took the court Saturday and, as promised, proceeded to passionately separate himself from all traces of the B.S.
The crowd had set the tone by loudly cheering each of Brooks’ misses during pregame warmups, then, once the game started, booing him every time he touched the ball. They threw in the occasional “Brooks you suck” chant, making the atmosphere ripe for James to respond.
No statements? Decide for yourself.
Less than 30 seconds into the game, James soared over Brooks for a runner. Then he found Austin Reaves for a layup. Then he hit a fadeaway jumper. In the first two minutes, James already had four points, two rebounds and one assist, and the arena was rocking with ferocious delight.
As for Brooks? He missed his first five shots, didn’t score his first basket until midway through the second quarter, and generally spent his brief time on the court jacking up silly shots and playing distracted defense.
The Lakers fed off the emotion seeping from the first full-house home playoff crowd in 10 years. They continued to hold off the Grizzlies even as Ja Morant was scoring 22 straight points in the fourth quarter and cutting the lead to nine. Reaves made a couple of big shots, D’Angelo Russell made a big shot and Davis — with 31 points and 17 rebounds — stayed up long enough to make sure the Lakers never stumbled.
“When you get out there and you feel the energy and things are going the way we want them to go with our crowd … it’s beautiful,” Reaves said.
James, meanwhile, continued to dazzle long after Brooks disappeared, wowing the screeching fans at one point with a follow-up dunk and a reverse dunk in a span of a couple of minutes.
Then, afterward, he predictably went dull, claiming the night wasn’t about him vs. Brooks.
“I don’t really get caught up in any comments like that,” James said, adding, “At the end of the day my focus is to my teammates and us trying to figure out a way how we can beat the Memphis Grizzles, not how I can try to beat an individual on their team. If anybody knows me, they should know that’s what I’ve always been about. That’s all that matters.”
Yet he was seen engaged in a fervent pregame conversation with Brooks, and, four hours later, near the end of his postgame news conference, he acknowledged he was fighting the urge to publicly fire back.
“This is not my first rodeo, I’ve had this throughout my career with certain individuals,” he said. “It’s easy. It’s literally easy if you want to … I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to do this.”
Oh, but he had already done this, time and again, in a game that revealed a new and deeper layer of connection between a city and its global superstar. After five years of mostly lukewarm affection, it became clear Saturday that Los Angeles has LeBron James’ back.
The night ended with Brooks being approached in the Grizzlies’ locker room by ESPN’s Tim MacMahon with an interview request.
“I ain’t talking,” Brooks told MacMahon.
This story originally appeared on LA Times