Since LeBron James and his buddies flew to Virginia last season to watch Zion Williamson play for Duke, every self-respecting basketball fan looked forward to the night James and Williamson would reunite on an NBA floor.
You wondered what James’ motivation might be, whether he’d be extra jacked to show the kid who was boss. And you pondered whether Williamson might feel somewhat intimidated.
“Satisfaction for me always comes in a win, no matter how well I’m playing,” James said.
The time finally came on Tuesday in Los Angeles and neither one was in the mood to back down. James was fabulous, scoring a season-high 40 points to lead the Lakers to a 118-109 win at Staples Center. And Williamson scored 29.
“Terrific night,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Simplest way to put it is he (James) shot the ball well from the perimeter.”
In the process, James (who is 35) became the oldest player to score 40 at Staples since the late Kobe Bryant famously ended his career there is 2016 with 60. By the way, the Lakers are 18-0 this season when James scores at least 30.
“They’ve got the best player in basketball in my opinion,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said of James.
We shouldn’t have been surprised about the level of James’ game. He’s usually prime time against the league’s young stars. In two games against Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks, he’s scored 74 points with 28 rebounds. And when the Lakers played against Atlanta and Tre Young earlier this season, The King racked up 33 points.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, James has played against fellow first-round picks 356 times in his career and is plus-297 in those games.
“He’s an incredible player,” said Williamson, whose aggressiveness to the rim got him to the free throw line 19 times. “I mean, he handled business.”
Williamson, who missed the first two Lakers-Pelicans games this season while recovering from knee surgery, was 8-of-18 from the field to help him to his fifth straight 25-point game. He has scored at least 20 points in 11 of his 13 games, including nine consecutive.
“He’s (Williamson) playing exceptional basketball,” James said. “I think every game he’s going to get better and better, just having that experience. I think today’s game is a perfect fit for his game. The high pace, the way they play, it fits his game. The speed, running up and down and playing at that speed, they move the ball.
“They try to get it up the court, and it reminds me of the Phoenix Suns back when Steve Nash was running it in that first eight seconds. So it works perfectly. And our game is such, so many possessions now and there’s so much space, that it’s perfect for our game. So he’s doing exceptionally well with that.”
Vogel was also impressed with Williamson.
“I was crazy impressed with him when I watched him on tape, and my reaction is not any different in person,” Vogel said. “He’s spectacular. He’s a dynamic athlete. Even with our length and the terrific rim protection and size that we have, he was still able to get to the rim and score 29 points on us. He got 29 points. It’s incredible what he’s doing at such a young age so early in his career.”
Aside from James vs. Williamson, any game between the Pelicans and Lakers is going to generate interest because of the deal they made sending Anthony Davis to Los Angeles for three players.
“He’s (Williamson) a force,” Lakers guard Alex Caruso told The Athletic. “You don’t really get to understand it until you’re court side or on the floor with him. Just how shifty he is, and everyone knows how strong and explosive he is.”
There’s always the possibility the teams could meet in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. The Lakers, who have won six straight, are first overall with a five-game lead over the second-place Denver Nuggets. The Pelicans are 10th, 3 ½ games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for eighth place.
“You can imagine it, but I’m not that far down the line, obviously, you know how I am, I just kind of stay in the moment,” Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram told The Athletic. “But they’ve been playing some really good basketball and they’re fighting … for a position and we’re continuing to fight where we are as well.
“We’ll just see what happens at the end of that road, but it’s too far out to categorize what it could be.”