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At 31, LeBron James is dunking over ideas that he's getting old

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LeBron Dunking Like He's Young Again (2:45)

LeBron James says he feels like he's in his 'early 20's' again and it's showing on the court this year. (2:45)

It was late in the second quarter in one of the NBA's true circle-the-schedule nights that everyone in the league tunes in to watch -- the final time LeBron James would play against Kobe Bryant -- when it happened.

An out-of-control Tarik Black turned over the ball in the lane, right into the hands of Channing Frye, who, in one motion, corralled the rock and fired an outlet pass to J.R. Smith, already leaking out past the 3-point line toward center court.

As soon as James, also positioned in the paint, saw the ball leave Frye's fingertips, he pivoted toward the opposite basket, put his head down and broke into an all-out sprint.

Smith caught the pass just past the Los Angeles Lakers' midcourt logo with no defender in front of him. He had an open invitation to attack the rim and score an easy bucket. But because James covered so much ground in so little time, Smith managed to spot the Cleveland Cavaliers' star in his periphery and had another idea in mind.

Smith took two slow, looping dribbles with his right hand, allowing James time to catch up, then threw an alley-oop off the backboard once James neared the free throw line.

Only there was one problem: James was filling the lane to the right side of the rim; Smith's pass kissed off the glass on the left side of the rim.

Once James read the carom, he darted to his left and reached above his head to catch the ball cleanly with his left hand. While still in the air, with his body's momentum catapulting him away from the rim, James reached back to stuff the ball cleanly through the hoop.

Staples Center erupted in cheers. James floated to the floor and held his left hand, palm up, in front of his face as if to examine the instrument that just facilitated such an impressive play.

After the game, all the talk in the Cavs' locker room was about James' dunk ... and Smith's errant pass. Jim Poorten, who is responsible for game coverage on the league's social media accounts, even handed James his phone to show him a photo of just how far he had to go to track down Smith's feed.

At 31 years old and in his 13th season, plays like that weren't supposed to be happening for James anymore. Last season, before taking a two-week sabbatical in January to rehab his lower back and balky left knee, James hinted at his own mortality.

"I got 41,000 minutes in my career, including the playoffs," he said, a number that is now about 46,000. "You [try to] drive that car in the wintertime [and see how it feels]."

The theme of his athletic decline carried over into this season when James missed all but two of the Cavs' seven exhibition games while recovering from an anti-inflammatory injection in his lower back.

Yet here James is, heading into the playoffs some six months later, after putting together a renaissance season above the rim. What gives?

"My body just feels great, that's all," James told ESPN.com on the Cavs' final road trip of the season. "I'm happy and proud of the work that I put in and that's just the byproduct of it. To be able to still be bouncing the way I'm bouncing and jumping the way I'm jumping -- with all the minutes and all the games I've played over the years -- I mean, it's rewarding to know when you put in work and be able to get success."

Success is one thing. James' season, from a dunk perspective especially, was spectacular.

James finished ninth in the league in total dunks with 111 in 76 games. Out of the top 10 dunkers, he was one of only four wing players along with Kevin Durant, Jabari Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He was also, not surprisingly, the elder statesman of the group. Dwight Howard was the only other name on the list over 30 and he plays in the post. The other nine players besides James were an average age of 24.3 with 5.3 seasons experience in the league.

Last season, albeit in seven fewer games, James had 23 fewer dunks, and was 16th in the league in total slams. This season, James led the league in fast-break dunks with 59 and also grew his half-court total from 39 (42nd in the league) to 52 (32nd in the league).

In other words, there is some "Tuck Everlasting" stuff going on.

"I take pride in the fact that I put a lot of work into my game and to my body and obviously I know how many minutes I have on my body in my career and how many games I've played," James told ESPN.com. "And for me to feel like I'm in my 20s again, early 20s, it's a great feeling."


James' alley-oop against the Lakers was damn impressive, but his teammates are still split on what his best dunk of the season was. In fact, James seemed to one-up himself time and again as the season wore on, making it difficult to crown one dunk the champ because the votes would inevitably have to be revisited.

There was his two-handed, double-pump reverse at Barclays Center in late March against the Brooklyn Nets that came against a set, half-court defense. "Oh my God," Smith recalled. "It was ridiculous. Oh my goodness."

There was the complete annihilation of former teammate Lou Amundson in his following game at Madison Square Garden, a two-handed dunk after going right through Amundson to get to the goal that was punctuated by James picking up a technical foul for staring down the Knicks' forward in the aftermath.

There was the breakaway dunk in Atlanta about a week later, James splaying his legs out as he went airborne in perfect mimicry of the Air Jordan "Jumpman" logo. When James was shown a screen grab after the game of what he looked like in midair, he simply recited lyrics by Drake: "Jumpman, Jumpman, Jumpman them boys up to something."

James passed on ranking them. "I don't know," he said. "It's not one over the other. I'm just jumping and I'm trusting the Man above to let me land safely."

Much like the dunk against the Lakers, Smith has set up a variety of vertical displays for James, trying to push him to his limit and make those landings difficult.

"I mean, he'll probably go down as the greatest athlete ever," Smith said. "To be 31 and still doing the things he's doing, jumping ... his dunks have been outrageous.

"Last year, we really couldn't get to it as much as we wanted to on fast breaks. But lately, he's been jumping to the moon. People call me the worst best lob thrower on the team, but I purposely do it because I want to see what he can do. And I believe he looks at it like that too, because he looks at it as a challenge."

Richard Jefferson is one of those people who doubts Smith's passing touch. "J.R. swears he throws good lobs," Jefferson said. "But they're quite terrible, actually."


James' longtime trainer, Mike Mancias, said the dunks aren't nearly as important of a sign James' preparedness for the postseason as all the rest of the parts of his body that have to act in chorus with one another to make the dunks happen.

"I think he's been doing the right things in the weight room, getting treatment in the training room and he's just really bought into the big plan that we're on," Mancias told ESPN.com late in the season. "Right now we're doing everything from watching his minutes to sitting out games and his body feels great because he's bought into it. This is an accumulation of everything."

Even still, it's one thing to buy into a training regimen and make incremental progress to slow the signs of aging. It's another to go from comparing yourself to an old jalopy one season and then saying you feel 10 years younger the next.

"I think he's got one year under his belt with this new group," Mancias explained. "Last year, he didn't know what to expect. So I think what's dramatic is between the ears as well."

It's a curious comment by Mancias, as it was left open ended. What has freed James' mind this season, allowing the rest of him to follow up toward the rafters with every leap and bound? Is it just the familiarity that comes with settling into a fresh situation? Is it the swap of Tyronn Lue for David Blatt as head coach? Is it motivation derived by from what Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors are doing in the West?

Whatever it is, a focused James seems to have permeated the entire Cavs team as they prepare for their postseason run.

"We're better all across the board," James Jones said when asked about Cleveland's chances going into the playoffs this year versus last year. "Physically, mentally."


If anyone can appreciate James' rebirth in the Cavs' locker room it's the 35-year-old Jefferson, who has extended his career by embracing year-round yoga, dietary discipline and strength exercises.

"It's impressive, man," Jefferson said. "I know how difficult it is for me to still be able to do things at 35 and still be able to run and jump. Every day it's a constant battle -- lifting, running, staying in shape, body fat low, eating right. Like, it's a constant battle just to eke out the little bit that I have. And so for him to be doing that at such a high level is very impressive."

It's no wonder that age is just a number when it comes to James.

Tristan Thompson, who at 25 years old and in his fifth season, fits the average age and experience of all the other dunkers who joined James in the league's top 10 this season, was shocked to hear James' total.

"I still lead the team in dunks, so it doesn't even matter," Thompson said when asked who on the team could compete with James in a dunk contest.

After being informed that James was in the top 10 and he was not, Thompson replied, "He has more dunks than me?"

Indeed, he does. It's OK with Thompson. He is waiting to see more from James.

"It's that time of the year," Thompson said. "The playoffs are coming around. And if you remember last year, when we played Boston [in Game 3], he did a windmill on a fast break. So I guess he's got his legs and that's what we need. So, shoot, I'm enjoying it on the bench. I'm going crazy."


For years, it drove fans crazy that James wouldn't bring his aerial act to All-Star Weekend and compete in the dunk contest.

The only other player on the Cavs, teammates said, that could challenge James in a setting like that would be Smith. "J.R. could still jump like that if he had to," Thompson said. "Maybe Swish is the only one. He's like a creative dunker, too. Probably those two."

However, Smith rejected the thought.

"Honestly, and trust me, I'm a very confident person, but I think he would get me just off of the height he gets above the rim alone," Smith said. "Just off height alone, the way he jumps and his launch pad is ridiculous, I would probably give it to him."

As tantalizing as James' turn-back-the-clock dunks have been this season, don't expect him to throw his hat in the ring with the likes of Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon.

"It was a tremendous dunk contest this year," James told ESPN.com. "We save that for the young boys, for sure. I've never been really a dunk-contest guy.

"I did it in the McDonald's [high school All-American] game, part of the reason because it was in my backyard. It was in Cleveland. So, it was fun, but I've always kind of been a guy that's an in-game guy. I don't play much one-on-one basketball either. I'm a five-on-five guy. I don't really get involved in that."

Thankfully there is Smith by James' side, always looking for an opportunity to up the ante for James' next throw down.

"I know that if I can just throw the ball up anywhere," Smith said, "he can go get it."