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LeBron James proves in Lakers’ win over Clippers that he can still be one of the NBA’s best defenders

LeBron James made the NBA All-Defensive Team in six consecutive seasons from 2008-14 (five-way squad from the first team, one-time squad from the second team). During his early years with the Heat, James was a one-man wreck crew, the kind of player who could put an opponent in a torture chamber. (Somewhere, Derrick Rose just started shaking.)

In recent years, however, James’s focus on the defensive ending has been inconsistent, to say the least. His last Cavs team was a defensive mess and he received a lot of criticism for his efforts during his first season with the Lakers.

MORE: What Another Championship Would Mean For LeBron’s Legacy

But now, as the Lakers are sitting on top of the Western Conference and chasing a championship in the “bubble of the NBA,” James seems to have rediscovered his passion for destroying an offense with his own hands. Just ask the Clippers.

In the Lakers’ 103-101 win over their LA rivals on Thursday night, James showed the athletics, effort and IQ that made him one of the most terrifying defensive forces the league has ever seen. His most notable stop was last possession when he suppressed Kawhi Leonard and then switched to Paul George, forcing the six-time All-Star to a three-point imbalance.

That wasn’t the first time James Leonard quit. He was also strong on an isolation game earlier in the game and Leonard had no choice but to hoist a fadeaway jumper. No chance.

James’ biggest losses in the past few seasons have come when he’s not on the ball. He often deviated from his assignment and was in no man’s land instead of turning.

Not anymore. James is again an enclosed free safety, a balhawk anticipates passes in advance and attacks with great force.

The numbers support the eye test. Prior to the suspension, James was third in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, a significant jump from 2018-19 when he finished 51st. The Lakers are too third in defensive rating, behind only the Bucks and Raptors, compared to 13th last season.

Clearly, James isn’t the only reason Los Angeles is elite at that end of the floor. He’s not even the best defender on his team. That honor goes to Anthony Davis, who should be an All-Defensive Team roster this year.

But as he proved against a top candidate on Thursday, James can still be an incredible disruptor. If it really matters, you can rest assured that he is directly facing his opponent’s greatest attack threat.

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