The greatest testament to all that LeBron James has done in his NBA career is that being the first player to reach the 40,000-point plateau was … cool. And, considering the circumstances under which it transpired, also bittersweet.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an extraordinary watermark. It is a by-product of all that James has done to keep himself fit and free of major injury over 21 seasons. That’s a lot of freakin’ points, especially for a player who entered the league more renowned for his court vision and passing, and someone whose career shooting percentages are all respectable-but-by-no-means-extraordinary (50.5 FG, 34.7 3P, 73.5 FT).

But one of his greatest accomplishments ever? No chance. This might not even be in his top five. Winning titles with three different franchises, winning back-to-back titles, reaching eight consecutive NBA finals, upsetting the 73-win Golden State Warriors, sparking the age of player empowerment and surpassing Jabbar are all easily ahead of it in my book. 

The Los Angeles Lakers and everyone in Arena seemed to agree. When the historic moment happened Saturday night, everyone stood in anticipation, made the requisite video recording on their phones, applauded — and then got back to hoping James and the Lakers could avoid falling back into 10th place in the Western Conference. (They couldn’t.)

James slipped in bro hugs with Lynn Merritt, the Nike executive credited with landing James, and Maverick Carter, his business manager and life-long friend. At the next stoppage in play, the crowd rose for another ovation as legendary P.A. announcer Lawrence Tanter made note of the milestone and James waved to family and friends in the stands.

For what it’s worth, he was also the first player in NBA history to reach 39,000 points, but I’m pretty sure the average fan couldn’t tell you when he did it or against whom. (Earlier this season: Nov. 21, 2023, vs. Utah Jazz, first quarter.) And, let’s face it, when it comes to scoring, every one of James’ last 1,630 points has, technically, been record-setting since he passed Jabbar for the all-time career scoring record. As will every point James scores going forward. The distinction of 40K really isn’t much more than it looks spectacular on a graphic. (See above!)

How he reached the milestone was particularly fitting, in that it reflected exactly why age is having little impact on his ability to be a top-20 scorer or his status as the Lakers’ best option when they really need a basket. Whatever he’s lost in speed and explosiveness has been easily compensated by how he has expanded his scoring repertoire and his acute understanding of how to exploit defenses in today’s NBA.

He started the second quarter needing four points to reach 40K, and he clearly didn’t want to waste any more time getting there, taking the Lakers’ first three shots. (The Nuggets‘ starting big men, Nikola Jokic and Aaron Gordon, being on the bench might’ve had something to do with that.) Finding himself being guarded by 6’6″, 180-pound Justin Holiday, James whipped the ball to D’Angelo Russell at the top of the three-point arc, lost Holiday with a head fake and then back-cut to the rim, taking Russell’s return pass and scoring on a layup while drawing a foul on Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray. For someone who has spent the majority of his career with the ball in his hands and being a playmaker — his usage rate hasn’t been this low since his rookie year — James’ effectiveness playing off the ball this season has been impressive.

James clanked the bonus free throw, still leaving him two points short, and his three-point attempt on the next possession missed as well. But the next time down the court, James knew exactly what he wanted to do — and did it. Russell swung the ball to James on the right wing, where he was guarded by the Nuggets’ young athletic forward, Peyton Watson.  Could he have scored on Watson? Maybe. But why make the job harder than it has to be? James saw the Nuggets’ least effective defender, Michael Porter Jr., guarding Taurean Prince and nodded to Prince to set a screen, prompting Porter and Watson to switch assignments. 

Once Prince curled to the far side of the court, taking Watson with him, James drove hard right and Porter Jr. stepped over to cut him off. James, fully aware that Jokic was still on the Nuggets’ bench and his replacement, seldom-used Zeke Nnaji, was out of position, spun back left and scored easily on a wrong-footed, left-handed scoop layup off the glass for the landmark bucket. Finishing with his left hand is one of the elements of James’ game that has evolved over the last few years, along with his turnaround midrange jumper, his three-point shooting and his willingness to play bully ball in the post. While he doesn’t have the agility to face up and break opponents down off the dribble the way he once could, it is fair to say his offensive repertoire is more expansive at age 39 than it ever has been.

It just wasn’t expansive enough to bring home a victory against the defending champions. James had 13 of the Lakers’ 25 fourth-quarter points, but it wasn’t nearly enough to offset Murray, Jokic, Porter, Jr. and Justin Holiday all scoring 10 or more points in the period. As with reaching the 40K milestone, James got in his work early, scoring 11 of his points in the first eight minutes of the quarter, leaving it to Denver to close the game on a 16-4 run.

Which is the bittersweet part. The most indelible image I have of all that James has done? It has to be his tear-streaked, emotion-torqued face after winning his first championship with the Miami Heat, unloading the weight from the backlash to The Decision and the humiliation of being upset in the Finals a year earlier by the Dallas Mavericks.

Saturday night’s significance was clearly nowhere close to that. After the buzzer sounded on the Nuggets’ 124-114 win, the Denver players, one by one, congratulated James on his achievement — even Porter, Jr., the victim, who had a special night of his own, going a perfect 10-of-10 for 25 points. The Nuggets then returned to their locker room with a six-game winning streak since the All-Star break and the confident look of a team in the hunt for a second consecutive championship. 

James, meanwhile, smiled appreciatively at the recognition, but there was also a hint of something else as he walked back to his locker room, now 3-3 since the break, clinging to a play-in berth. Disappointment? Resignation? Either one would be understandable. Having spent the majority of his career feeling as the Nuggets do right now, he had to know he was walking away with the night’s consolation prize.

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a weekly podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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