Winning in the NBA is never routine. It’s best to remind yourself of that every once and a while, regardless of how successful the team you root for is. The second you take it for granted, it can vanish as quickly as a 4th quarter lead when Quinn Cook, Alex Caruso, Troy Daniels, Kyle Kuzma, and Dwight Howard are putting the clamps on you defensively and turning those stops into quick baskets on the other end. More on them later, though.
The Lakers beat the Bulls 118-112 Tuesday night. The game moved the Lakers to 3-0 on their 3 game road trip and was their 6th straight win overall. Times are good. For the players, for the coaches, for the fans.
It didn’t look like it would be this way, though.
This is a perfect trap game and I’ll be very interested to see what the team’s motivation level is over the course of the full 48 minutes. I could easily see this game being one where the Lakers go at half or three-quarter speed for most of the game, hoping to deliver a knockout blow by going hard for a single 5-8 minute stretch.
That may very well work, but if that’s how it goes the Lakers could just as easily lose. On Monday night the undefeated 76ers lost to a frisky and competitive Suns team in Phoenix and the Blazers lost to an injury ravaged Warriors team in San Francisco. If you don’t play hard and play well for long enough stretches in this league, any team can beat you. The Lakers would be wise to remember this when trying to close out this road trip in Chicago.
That passage above was from my game preview. I’m not always that prescient, but heading into the game the circumstances really were ripe for an uneven performance from the Lakers. Calling it uneven, though, isn’t really the right descriptor. No, you see, the Lakers were just bad. Or, at least, the non-LeBron Lakers were.
The Lakers lost the first quarter by 5 points. And then they lost the 2nd quarter by 12 points, allowing 36 points in the process. The team — excuse me, the non-LeBron members of the team — just looked bad. They had little energy, weren’t making shots, were turning the ball over, and seemed to care little about rebounding or rotating or playing with any sort of precision. This team looked destined to lose. It was just going to be one of those nights.
LeBron, though, kept them within shouting distance. The Lakers may have been down 17 at the half, but LeBron had 16 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists at the intermission. He was playing with purpose — moving the ball, attacking the rim, showing aggressiveness with his jumper, and defending like this game mattered to him. Without him playing this well, the Lakers could have easily been down 25.
I won’t dwell on this too much, but I think it needs to be said so bear with me. Of all that LeBron did this game — and he did plenty, tallying his 3rd straight triple double by the time the final whistle blew — him playing as hard as he did in the first half and through the 3rd quarter when the Lakers first began to push back was the most important.
There are times where leadership is vocal. There are times where leadership is through your box score production. And there are times where leadership is simply showing up and busting your ass by playing hard. LeBron certainly had the production and I’m sure he had some moments of vocal encouragement, but, in this game, him showing he gave a damn at a time when the rest of his team played like a compost bin was exemplary leadership. He didn’t quit when it would have been easy to. And, honestly, whether his teammates say it or not, I think this mattered as much, or more, than his production.
Late in the 3rd quarter and at the start of the 4th quarter, though, LeBron finally had some teammates join the party.
As I mentioned at the top, a key unit was the all-bench group of Cook, Daniels, Caruso, Kuzma, and Dwight. That lineup totally erased the Bulls lead and grabbed the game back for the Lakers. Over a stretch of a little over 3 minutes at the start of the 4th quarter, that 5-man group outscored the Bulls 14-0 and turned a 13 point deficit into a 1-point Lakers lead. This group hustled defensively, played together offensively, and found a rhythm they’d lacked throughout the game to that point. The quickness in which it turned was jarring, but also reminded of other stretches of previous games where the Lakers just seemed to find something that worked and pounded the opponent into submission.
Credit goes to all the players on the floor, but I want to give an extra shout to Kyle Kuzma. Kuz is coming back from injury so there’s a special patience that needs to exist for him that may not apply to guys who’ve had the benefit of a full training camp and all practices that have come since late September. Still, though, watching Kuz turn the ball over, miss shots, and generally play like his wifi connection was lagging out around the rest of his teammates can get frustrating. This was the case in the 1st half and I said as much on twitter — he looked like he needed about a week’s worth of practice time to find his flow.
In that stretch, though, Kuzma played in tune with the rest of the band. He scored 7 of the team’s 14 points during the run and did so on shots coming from all three levels of the floor, a trait indicative of when he’s operating at his best. He remained in rhythm even when LeBron came back in the game, highlighted by a play where LeBron waived off a Dwight attempt to set a ball screen where Bron instead sent his big man to set a pin-down for Kuz who then curled around the screen into an elbow jumper that he buried. This play, to me at least, signified the confidence that Bron had in Kuz and the confidence the latter also had in himself during this run. It truly was great to see.
Down the stretch, then, the Lakers continued to seize control and rode it out for the win. It wasn’t a pretty game, but the rally and poise needed to execute it sure was satisfying. It’s early in the year, but the Lakers are showing some signs of having real fortitude and I cannot get enough of that.
Now, onto my notes…
- Anthony Davis didn’t play well this game. Maybe it was being back in his hometown and all the commitments and personal time that gets devoted to making that work. Maybe it was the fact it was the end of a road trip. Maybe it was just one of those nights. I’ll say this now, but he’s entitled to some of these nights. Through the team’s first 6 games Davis hadn’t scored fewer than 21 points any night. In several games he’d carried the team in the same manner LeBron had to ensure that games which could have gotten away from them early didn’t. He’s been so good to start the year, harping on him for this game feels stupid. Was it rough seeing him outworked and outhustled on several possessions? Yes. Was watching him get in foul trouble for being a step slow frustrating? You bet. Did I once think about anything besides “man, it’s still so great to have AD on this team”? Not a single time. And when Davis sunk a corner three on the play that got LeBron his 10th assist and basically sealed the game, I clapped my ass off.
- Good on Frank Vogel for closing this game with Caruso and Cook in the backcourt. Honestly, they earned it with their stretch of play in the 3rd and 4th quarters and I’m happy Vogel stuck with them rather than just going back to Danny Green or KCP for one or both of them. One way you build up the framework of a team is by rewarding the guys who play well with extra minutes and he did that with those two. I’m happy for both of them to get that chance.
- If not for a minute of play in garbage time, Jared Dudley would have gotten his 3rd straight DNP-CD. I’m fine with Dudley not getting much run overall, particularly when the Lakers have so many frontcourt guys who need minutes. That said, if Troy Daniels isn’t going to make shots, I would not mind seeing Dudley get some minutes as a quasi-wing player should the right matchup for him defensively be there. He’s a good enough shooter to camp out there and a smart enough ball mover and team defender to make things work in a lot of circumstances. It’s something I’ll be watching for over the next week or so.
- I thought the Lakers missed Avery Bradley’s intensity and point of attack defense this game. If nothing else, Bradley plays hard and I thought the Lakers needed more of that early in this game.
- One more shout out to LeBron. First Laker to get 3 straight triple doubles since Magic Johnson. What a player.
That’s it for this one, ya’ll. The Lakers are 6-1 and finding their way.