At first, the dominance was familiar: James streaking across the open court, plowing by a hapless defender for the and-1, slapping his biceps for effect; James coming up with a sudden surge of energy to turn a lazy San Antonio pass into a steal, and then passing the ball to a wide-open teammate on the fast break after pushing it up the court.
And then -- three times -- there was LeBron's latest finishing move: the step-back 3-pointer that he is taking and making at a rate not seen before in his 16-year career.
From 28 feet away, with 7 minutes, 11 seconds to go, to bring L.A. from down four to down one? Good. From 36 feet, with 5:26 remaining, to go from down two to up one? Bang. From 29 feet, with 1:13 left, to double L.A.'s lead from three points to six and salt the win away? Money.
"Once I'm in the gym, I'm in my range," James told ESPN.
"It's not a confidence thing," said James, who shot 29 percent from 3-point territory his rookie season, the jump shot considered the lone weakness in his game when he entered the league. "It's a work-ethic thing. You put in the work, and then you trust it when you get on the floor. I work on it when we got practice. And when you work on stuff and you put the work in, [you get results]. And for me, I put the work in. That's just a byproduct of it."
Much to Antoine Walker's chagrin, making a shot way out there still awards the shooter the same 3 points had he made it two feet closer -- there are no 4s. So, simply, why launch from Orange County when James can surely create a shot from, say, the Hollywood sign?
"We're playing Houston the other night, they got guys pulling up for 35-foot shots," said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. "Just in the regular flow of the game. And that's becoming the norm. There really is no 3-point line. I mean, there is, but where guys are shooting from now, they're shooting out there because people are meeting 3-point shooters at the line. So they're backing up and then, you tell me, how are you going to stop James Harden and Eric Gordon from driving the ball? When you're closing out on them from 33, 34 feet out, it's very difficult."
Indeed, the average 3-point distance in the league this season is 25.14 feet. That's on pace to become the farthest it has been in the past 10 seasons, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. So James isn't the only one loving the long ball.
The NBA 3-point line is 22 feet away from the rim at its closest, in the corners of the court, and 23.75 feet away from the farthest distance out past the top of the key. The distance of James' average 3-point shot this season is 26 feet -- more than 2 feet beyond the longest spot on the line.
So is this just a natural evolution of the pace-and-space game? Or is there something more personal to James' 3-point journey?
DURING JAMES' LAST four seasons in Cleveland, multiple Cavs sources put James' deep 3s in one of two categories: Either it was a sign of him being in a great groove, looking to land a dagger and light up the crowd, or it was just the opposite, LeBron launching from out there almost out of protest by how his teammates were approaching the game, as if to say, "OK, you want to play that way? Fine, I'll just keep bombing from 30."
The result, according to one source: "When he's pissed off, when he makes it, it's a great shot. When he misses it, he's mad anyway, so he doesn't care."
There is a flex that comes with taking a long 3. It's an unspoken declaration: The conventional rules don't apply to me. For James, it's more: I deserve to take these, too.
How far will he go with it?
"I don't think he is trying to be Steph Curry at this point in his career," said a Western Conference scout.
After more than a decade in the NBA with no natural rival, Curry has proven to be the defining foil in James' career.
Beyond beating James to win three of the past four NBA Finals, including the past two years straight, Curry has spearheaded the 3-point explosion that changed the league.
While James will never be a marksman of Curry's caliber -- Curry has never shot less than 41 percent from 3-point territory and is currently hitting 49 percent this season -- James is hitting a respectable 37.1 percent this season (up from a career average of 34.4 percent) on the highest volume of his career. That's better than the likes of J.J. Redick, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant.
"It's not a confidence thing. It's a work ethic thing. You put in the work, and then you trust it when you get on the floor."LeBron James
It's OK that James will never wrest the unofficial title of "Greatest Shooter Ever to Live" from Curry (although he is, surprisingly, second all time in playoff 3-pointers behind only Curry), just as Curry will never receive the same credit for his passing or overall command of a game on both ends like James does.
But James has entered into a realm of respectability from the outside that is a far cry from his reputation.
"He's a much better shooter than I would have anticipated," Lakers coach Luke Walton said. "Like, just watching him day-to-day in practice and the amount of 3s he hits when he goes through his shooting drills, he's very consistent with it in the amount he makes them."
Yet James insists his motivation isn't securing a seat at the lunch table with Curry, Harden, Durant and the rest of the sharp-shooting superstars.
"I've been working on my jump shot for quite a while now and increasing my range every year," James said. "For me personally, it's weird, because I know where the league is going. But at the end of the day, I can go out there and not take a jump shot and still have an effect on the game.
"I just know how to play the game. I'm just very cerebral about the game. But I understand that you got to, at times, keep the defense off-balance, and being able to take a jump shot here, a couple 3s there, keeps them off-balance. But for me personally, no matter where the league is going, if there's a jump shot, 3 craze going on in our league, I can literally not take a jump shot and be fine."
AS DRAMATIC AS some of James' long makes have been -- feast your eyes on this game-winning step-back 3-pointer over Kristaps Porzingis at Madison Square Garden or this moonshot to beat the buzzer in the first half of a preseason game against the Warriors -- there's a feeling that by taking 3s, James is neglecting the rest of his skills that make him special.
"To me, we still want the priority as attacking the paint and penetrating the defense," Walton said. "And then to me, the later we get into the shot clock, then the more OK we become with that type of shot.
"And then, obviously, it differs because he's the focal point. Every defense is loaded up on him, so a player of his caliber, you trust to have the feel of, 'Hey, I'm feeling good. I'm going to take this shot because it's open.' As opposed to try to drive and there's going to be four people waiting on me. But we also want him penetrating that defense more often than settling for a 28-foot 3-pointer."
Yet the prospect of the most physically gifted player of his generation flinging it from the outside is not indefensible. The math is so trumpeted, it's tired at this point: Other than shots at the rim, it's almost always more efficient offensively for an NBA player, at least one with a modicum of shooting ability, to shoot from deep.
But for LeBron James, there's more to it than that.
Consider LeBron's typical season workload: It's not 82 games. It's 100.
It's not October to April. It's October to June.
He has played 10,049 playoff minutes in his career -- the equivalent of three extra seasons of wear.
Letting it fly from downtown? It's less taxing on his 33-year-old frame.
"I think he is preserving his body," the scout told ESPN. "Doesn't want to have everything going to the rim and take a pounding this early in the season. I think those shots will be fewer in the playoffs. Right now, they are easy shots for him to take. Doesn't really have to work for them."
And, just as important, it's engaging the mental challenge side of things for a guy who has already accomplished so much: "I played with Kobe [Bryant], and I remember challenging him one time that he can't shoot off the glass," Walton said. "And for two straight weeks in practice, he shot every single shot off the glass and made a very high percentage of them. I guess that's something [similar] that could be possible [for James]."
It's LeBron's shiny new toy in his stocked toy chest, and the one he's getting a kick out of playing with these days.
"For me, I like to work on my game," James said. "I try to get better and better and do things the following year that I wasn't so good at the previous year. Or bring things to my game that I didn't have the previous year. So, I guess increasing my range is one of them. And being confident and sticking my landing and keeping my follow-through up."
And, surely, he'll keep putting them up.