I have a confession to make. Though those that know me well won’t be surprised. I’m a LeBron hater.
It started well before LeBron James — arguably the best basketball player the NBA has ever seen — became rivals with my favorite squad, the Golden State Warriors. I never vibed with his style of greatness, based largely on powerful, bully-style basketball with, of course, a healthy dose of passing ability and all-around game.
I thought that if he had worked on his craft more intently, he would never, ever lose. But he has lost. A lot. He’s simply too talented to have lost as many NBA Finals as he has. And if the reason he’s lost his share of big games is that he didn’t have enough “help” at times, well, however valid that may or may not be, I don’t vibe with that sentiment coming from a player as great as James, either.
Anyways, what I’m trying to say is that I had a fantastic time watching Warriors rookie Jonathan Kumnga take the challenge of guarding James in the Warriors’ win over the Lakers on Saturday. Kuminga displayed athletic brilliance and veteran moxie; he didn’t back down on defense, guarding James at the game’s outset, and he had an impactful night on offense.
The two also had a very subtle on-court exchange that was quite a sight to see, with the 19-year-old Kuminga drawing the ire of the 37-year-old James. The display probably had a hand in Kuminga being added to the NBA Rising Stars lineup for All-Star weekend.
But back to the subtle exchange of words between Kuminga and James. For most of the game, James and Kuminga barely looked each other in the eye, though it was clear to me that each player knew the spotlight was on them during a nationally televised game.
Then James made a mistake, and Kuminga smiled. That’s all it took for James to change his tone and engage Kuminga directly. Luckily for us, Kuminga told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Ron Kroichick what it was that James said to him.
Then, at one point during Saturday’s Lakers-Warriors game, what looked like a bucket for James became a turnover. He was frustrated. Kuminga smiled. James, 37, noticed this brief display of satisfaction from his opponent, barely half his age, and responded by saying, “OK, that’s how you feel?”
“That was so fun, LeBron saying that to you,” Kuminga said two days later in a Chronicle interview, after the Warriors’ shootaround in Pasadena. “I just smiled and tapped him on the back. And then he said, ‘That’s how you feel?’”San Francisco Chronicle
Kuminga tapped James on the back? That’s hilarious. No wonder James changed tone. I couldn’t find a great clip of the exchange, but here it is below. (I’m nearly 100 percent positive this is the play.) Watch to the end of the video and notice James barking ever so slightly at Kuminga, with Kuminga flashing a smile.
But that wasn’t all. James shot an abysmal 1-for-10 in the fourth quarter, and he made plays like the one below after he spoke up to Kuminga. (The first of the two videos below is the clip I just showed you, but with better clarity. The second video below is a play that took place after the initial exchange. Look at how James just stands there forever in from of Kuminga and then throws the basketball away.)
Call me crazy, and it would be a valid point if you did, but it appeared to me that Kuminga got in James’ head as the game went on. (Though Kuminga got in foul trouble and had to sit late.)
Of course, despite James’ 1-for-10 shooting in the fourth quarter, and a crucial missed field goal in the game’s final seconds, James’ stat line was brilliant, and he actually set an NBA all-time scoring mark during this game.
But to me, this game is typical of James’ career. Awsome stats, unstoppable at times, too easily rattled in the clutch (for a player of his caliber). During this game, in particular, James would have been wise to live in the paint, with the Warriors devoid of any size in the middle of the defense. Somehow, James doesn’t seem capable of controlling a game’s pace, slowing it down when he needs to and using his physicality when it really counts.
I should forget about my LeBron hate, however. This game was all about love. As in, my love for Kuminga.
I loved the draft pick by GM Bob Myers, and the BASH knew that Kuminga would help the Warriors win this season, despite his inexperience. He’s too physically gifted, and the Warriors superstar shooters — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — create too much space on the floor, leaving the lane open for a powerful, skilled slasher such as Kuminga.
Plus, the kid tapped a frustrated LeBron James on the shoulder in the fourth quarter of a razer-close, entertaining game on national TV and lived to tell the tale. Who knows what the future holds for Kuminga — or how any future battles with the great James will go — but it’s clear that his future is bright, and we’re likely in for one hell of a ride in the Bay Area watching him for years to come.