When the Lakers ruled out LeBron James for his annual trip to Brooklyn, it was, in a lot of ways, a statement on The King’s priorities:
Madison Square Garden, the place James long ago dubbed his favorite arena, is that priority. As an opponent, of course. He turned down a couple of opportunities to call it home, most notably during James’ 2010 free agency extravaganza. If you believe Charles Oakley, who wrote about an exchange with James in 2014, the reason is James Dolan.
Now James is playing at MSG on Tuesday for the first time in over three years, resting for Monday’s Brooklyn game to ensure spry legs for his Midtown return. It’s James’ longest absence from MSG, by far, since he was drafted in 2003. You also have to wonder, given James’ age, whether it’ll be his last appearance.
The world, after all, is unpredictable. James missed his last two annual trips because of an injury and a suspension. In between, a pandemic happened and James won his fourth championship inside a biosecure bubble in Disney World.
“If I could have 82 regular-season games in the Garden, I would because it’s the Mecca of basketball,” James once said.
Still, James has been relatively average at MSG in recent years. At least by his megastar standards. It’s now been 14 years since James’ 52-point gem in 2009, and he’s since failed to score over 33 points in 18 appearances at the Garden.
But there’s an opportunity for something special Tuesday. A chance to conjure memories of Michael Jordan’s unexpected double-nickel while wearing No. 45. At 38 years old, James is continuing a dominance that defies Father Time. The Lakers may stink with a 23-27 record before the Brooklyn game, but James is less culpable than his teammates (ahem, Russell Westbrook). James is averaging over 30 points with 8.5 rebounds and 7.1 assists, all while chasing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record.
On ticketmaster.com, the cheapest seats at MSG were near the roof for over $250 as of Monday evening. It was double the price for any seat over the next four home games. Only the Warriors, the defending champs, are a bigger draw.
But James’ popularity remains unmatched in the NBA. He was the top All-Star vote-getter among fans, by far, surpassing every player in the Western Conference – even Steph Curry – by over 1 million. His Lakers jersey was No. 1 in sales through the season’s first half, according to the NBA. It’s a testament to his longevity and greatness, but also problematic when James rests on the first game of a back-to-back like Monday in Brooklyn.
The folks in Brooklyn didn’t pay to see Troy Brown Jr. and Dennis Schroder.
But MSG takes precedence in James’ view, and perhaps a victory against the Knicks felt easier after watching their stinkbomb against the Nets on Saturday.
James, entering his favorite NBA place, will be motivated after getting hosed by the referees in Saturday’s defeat to the Celtics. He won’t break Jabbar’s record at MSG, but he’ll be plenty rested to put a big dent in the 117 points remaining.