Kyle Kuzma stood at the scorer’s table before tip-off Friday, the former Laker ready to take on his old team for the first time since being traded last summer.
The setting was the same but so much has changed since he left.
He headed onto the court and was met by LeBron James. The former teammates, who won a championship together, embraced. Then it was nothing but quick handshakes for the other four Lakers on the floor.
It wasn’t bad blood — Kuzma had never played a second with any of them.
But as far as constants go, even in the face of chaos, you could do a lot worse than James, who again was sensational in a 122-109 victory over Washington.
After his sixth three-point shot of the game, all the Wizards could do was call time out to try to take cover from an avalanche of points. As players from both teams headed for the huddles, James prowled up and down the sidelines while the Crypto.com Arena crowd roared.
He put fingers to the side of his head to signal that he just went crazy. Minutes later, he left the court while fans chanted “M-V-P!”
James scored 50 points — the second time he’s done that in a week, following last Saturday’s 56-point effort against Golden State.
“I just feel really good,” James said.
Both came in the Lakers’ only two wins since the All-Star break — two magical performances that have helped ease the sting from a slog of a season that would be easily forgettable if it wasn’t so disappointing.
Kuzma’s presence was a reminder of what the Lakers once were, in contrast to what they are now.
If you wanted to avert your eyes from the Lakers’ record (29-37) or the inconsistent effort and shoddy execution, the pregame handshake was as good a reminder as any. Things really have changed since the Lakers won their last title in 2020, the roster turning all the way over. Only three players have stayed: James, Talen Horton-Tucker and the injured Anthony Davis. Two others, Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard, left and came back.
It doesn’t help that the player the Lakers got for Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope still is struggling to find consistency. Russell Westbrook followed up a 30-point game in Houston with just five against his old team.
Westbrook was just two for 11 from the field, fans booing after a missed layup in the first half, though they later cheered when Westbrook moved into 11th on the NBA’s all-time assist leaderboard. He finished with nine assists and one turnover.
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With the crowd in a lull, the Lakers’ early nine-point lead long erased, James put them on his back and led a throwback surge, showcasing every piece of his offensive arsenal.
“Laker faithful knows when bad basketball is being played and when good basketball is being played,” James said.
He reminded them of the latter.
He soared for a dunk like he had swiped Ja Morant’s calves. He owned the mid-range like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. And, for good measure, he stepped back to Stephen Curry range and drilled a deep triple.
It all came during a 19-point third quarter in which he scored a dozen straight to put the Lakers back in control of the game — a win he would seal in the fourth quarter with 14 more points, including a turnaround over Kuzma that rained down from high in the air.
The shot was so tough that all Kuzma could do after it splashed through the net was look at James and laugh.
“The league’s never seen a player at this stage of his career doing what he’s doing,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of James. “…It’s just unbelievable.”
And with James on fire, his teammates fed off the energy. Horton-Tucker slammed home a dunk on Kuzma, Malik Monk scored 21 on 12 shots, and Austin Reaves slashed from the corners, the Lakers out-scoring Washington by 20 in the second half.
“It felt good because it was an all-around team effort,” James said.
Kuzma led the Wizards with 23 points and Caldwell-Pope was quiet, the Lakers holding him to four. The Lakers honored the two with a video tribute at the first timeout in the first quarter.
“They’ll always be family,” Vogel said before the game. “We won a championship together.”
Just like the game began, it ended with Kuzma and James embracing near midcourt.
It was, as Vogel said, “an epic performance.”
And it’s a reminder that even with so much changing, the Lakers still can count on James delivering something memorable. For one night, that was good enough.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism