NEW YORK — LeBron James was flanked by three team security personnel, escorting him off the court Sunday in Detroit when he was ejected for just the second time of his 19-year career.
Not long after, he had another visitor from the team: Los Angeles Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony left the bench to check on James before returning to his teammates to deliver a message: If there was any time for the Lakers to start looking like the team they all believed they are destined to become, no better time than the present.
“I just felt like we needed to all come together, we needed to believe in the bigger picture,” Anthony said on a videoconference call Monday. “And I think at that moment, the way I was just able to grab everybody’s attention in that moment, we were looking for something like that. And last night, it just so happened to be me. Tomorrow, it might be somebody else. But at that moment last night, it was time for something to be said to kind of just get the car rolling. We needed that.”
After the team assembled one of the most accomplished rosters in league history over the summer, it’s been a rocky road for the Lakers with nearly a quarter of the season in the books. They went winless in the preseason, saw a handful of rotation players suffer injuries, endured a confrontation between teammates in just the second game of the season and then came the James-Isaiah Stewart incident in the star’s second game back after an extended absence because of an abdomen strain.
“It’s unfortunate that we had to go through that situation, but we needed something like that to jump-start us,” Anthony explained. “We haven’t been tested like that all season, and that was a major, major test that we passed last night.”
L.A. trailed the Pistons, a team that came into the day seven games below .500, by 12 at the time of the ejection and by 15 to start the fourth quarter before the Lakers stormed back with a 37-17 advantage in the final frame to get the win. Anthony’s message seemed to resonate.
“He was great,” a team source present for the huddle told ESPN. “Poised. Calm. Clear. Kept everyone together. Ultimate vet.”
He helped on the court, too, scoring 18 on 5-for-8 shooting and adding two rebounds and two blocks. The Lakers outscored the Pistons by 13 in the 30 minutes he played.
“Melo has been great for us,” coach Frank Vogel said Sunday after the game. “I can’t say that strongly enough. He really has been a champion for all the causes of what we’re trying to get done. The defensive commitment and buy-in, to trying to play for each other. … He was the one that spoke up, along with others, to say that we can’t let this turn out to be a loss. Like, we got to rally around this. So, credit to him.”
It was a reminder that 37-year-old Anthony, who joined the Lakers on a veteran’s minimum contract, still carries a certain gravitas, even if he isn’t the superstar he once was.
“Why did I speak up? That’s just, that’s who I am,” Anthony said. “It’s a part of what I do, who I am. … I’m a guy who, I don’t say much, but when it’s time for me to speak up, it just happens, it’s natural. It wasn’t something that was premeditated. It was just at that moment, gather everybody up together. We understood, and we saw what was happening. And I said this [Sunday] night, the game could’ve went, it could’ve been worse.”
The Lakers are hoping the worst is over when it comes to the altercation. Vogel said Monday afternoon that the NBA’s investigation into the incident was still open and that any further discipline stemming from the run-in had yet to be determined.
“They do the interviews, they talk to all of the parties involved and then they make their decision,” Vogel said. “They’re still in that part of the process.”
When asked how the Lakers would handle potentially missing James for their game Tuesday against the New York Knicks should he be suspended, Anthony did not want to consider not having his teammate on the court for L.A.’s lone trip of the season to Madison Square Garden.
“Well, we’re not going to put that energy out there,” he replied. “So we’re not going to even put that energy there.”