Zion bested by LeBron’s 40, but earns his praise

    Baxter Holmes (@Baxter) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print, focusing on the NBA. He has covered the Lakers, the Celtics and previously worked for The Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times.

LOS ANGELES — After treating the crowd at Staples Center to a season-high 40 points in his first matchup against star rookie Zion Williamson, LeBron James strolled to the bench in the final moments of the Lakers’ 118-109 win over the Pelicans and enjoyed a treat of his own: some Red Vines candy.

James snacked away while nearby fans shouted “Taco Tuesday” at the Lakers superstar who has made that slogan part of his lexicon. But on Tuesday, James served up yet another reminder this season that when the 17-season veteran faces promising young players who are hailed as future stars, he tends to still have the upper hand.

In a November matchup against Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic, James scored 39 points (his second most this season) to go along with 16 assists and 12 rebounds. In a January matchup against Doncic, James dropped 35 points and 16 rebounds. And against Atlanta’s Trae Young in November, James piled up 33 points and 12 assists.

“He’s an incredible player,” Williamson, who scored 29, said of James. “I mean, he handled business.”

James has faced a fellow No. 1 overall pick 356 times — and had the scoring advantage in 297 of those games, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It looked as if James had some extra fire for the matchup, as he tallied 17 fast-break points, his most with the Lakers and tied for the third most in his career.

“Satisfaction for me always comes in a win, no matter how well I’m playing,” said James, who at 35 also became the oldest player with a 40-point game at Staples Center since the late Kobe Bryant scored 60 in his final NBA game at age 37 in 2016.

But James had plenty of praise for the 19-year-old Williamson, the top pick in the 2019 draft whom James called “very explosive” and “very quick for his size.”

“He’s 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.”

Williamson made 8 of 18 shots from the field and notched his fifth straight 25-point game, tied with Doncic (2018-19) and Carmelo Anthony (2003-04) for the longest streak by a teenager in NBA history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

He also made a career-high 13 free throws on 19 attempts from the line.

“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,” James said. “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.”

Williamson bullied his way to the basket on several occasions, though his shot was blocked five times Tuesday, the most blocked attempts in his young career.

“It was fun. He’s a great player. He’s got a quick first step, very explosive,” said Lakers star Anthony Davis, who had 21 points and 14 rebounds. “Second jump is unbelievable. There was some times we tried to foul him when he got by us and had an easy layup or dunk and he made free throws, so he’s going to continue to get better and better. Obviously, this is his first year, they’re fighting for a spot, but as time goes on, he gets more experience with the game, he’ll be fine.”

Said Lakers coach Frank Vogel: “In terms of Zion, I was crazy impressed with him when I watched him on tape, and my reaction is not any different in person. 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.”

The Lakers are 18-0 when James scores 30 points this season. According to Elias, that figure breaks a tie for the most wins without a loss in 30-point games to start a season in NBA history.

“He’s delivering special performances for us all season,” Vogel said. “We don’t take it for granted. We are where we are in large part of what he does on a night-in, night-out basis.”

ESPN’s Dave McMenamin and Andrew Lopez contributed to this report.

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