Lakers: Russell Westbrook, Talen Horton-Tucker, Avery Bradley, Carmelo Anthony (?), Anthony Davis
Knicks: Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, R.J. Barrett, Julius Randle, Nerlens Noel
Injuries & Suspensions
Lakers: Austin Reaves (doubtful); LeBron James (out – suspended); Trevor Ariza (out); Kendrick Nunn (out)
Knicks: Derrick Rose (questionable); Taj Gibson (questionable); Mitchell Robinson (out)
How’s THAT for a change of pace? Eventually.
For an overwhelming majority of Sunday night in Detroit, the Lakers looked every bit as disjointed, discombobulated and disappointing as they have all season. More so, perhaps.
It shouldn’t shock you to learn that the root of the Lakers’ issues lay at the defensive end. After an uninspiring but decent enough opening quarter, the Lakers mixed things up and engaged “peak Q3 mode” to start the second quarter. In as shambolic a period as we’ve seen this season (that’s saying something), the Pistons – who came into the game with the NBA’s worst offensive rating (since “improved” to 28th) – hung a whopping 42 on the Lakers, with Jeremy Grant (14; 5-of-7, 4-of-4 on 3s) and Hamidou Diallo (5-of-6, 11 points) having their way.
One might, in the interest of positivity, choose to focus on a nominally strong offensive showing, which saw the Lakers make 51% of their shots and score 61 points, while only demanding 26 from their superstar trio. This was less a function of some well-orchestrated “spread the wealth” strategy, and more a function of an inexplicable unwillingness to thoroughly dominate inferior competition, though it must be said that Russell Westbrook played a solid half, scoring ten points (on 3-of-6 shooting) and dishing out three assists, with only a single turnover.
Unfortunately, the other headliners left a lot to be desired. LeBron, perhaps trying to slowly ramp back up to full speed in his second game back after missing eight, was largely (as much as Bron can be) anonymous in 18 minutes. He took five shots, made three, and wound up the half with seven points and five assists. AD, meanwhile, made four of ten shots, for nine points, and grabbed four rebounds. Not what you want from your foundational superstars.
Papering over the cracks was Dwight Howard, who led the way with 13 points, including a pair of 3-pointers that kept the Lakers from what would have been a not-fluky double-digit deficit to a bottom-four team. Really not what you want.
At the end of the first half, the entire enterprise felt doomed.
The third quarter did nothing to dispel that notion. The first “business as usual” 2:42 featured business unfolding very much as usual, with the Pistons, again, showing greater intensity and effort, and extending their lead.
With 9:18 left in the third, Jerami Grant made a free throw for his 21st point of the night, to put the Pistons up twelve. While boxing out, LeBron and Detroit big man Isaiah Stewart got tangled up in what (apparently) was called an offensive foul on Stewart. Chances are you’re aware of what happened next.
A massively frustrated LeBron tries to free himself up by violently pulling his arm away, but winds up clocking Stewart in the face and opening up a boxing-style cut over his eye. At this point, the evening lost its damn mind.
LeBron attempts to speak with Stewart, who’s in the market for an entirely different type of interaction with Bron – or any other Laker. After three attempted bull rushes, some solid defense from DeAndre Jordan and Cade Cunningham doing his best mid-90s Deion Sanders impression – all while Russ looked emphatically like he’s open to a meeting on Stewart’s terms (and, apparently, gets T’d up) – then Stewart takes to the tunnel at top speed, apparently for a partial lap around the building, to the Lakers’ tunnel at the other end of the floor. Meanwhile, LeBron was assessed a flagrant-2 and ejected, and has since been suspended for tonight’s game in New York.
There’s been a lot of conversation in the day-plus since about intent and whether LeBron’s blow was advertent or not. Unless he chooses to tell us, we’re not getting a definitive answer there. Abundantly clear are the facts: LeBron, fist closed, ripped his arm away pretty aggressively, in a spot where a shot flush to someone’s head was a distinct possibility. Whether it was actually intended as a punch or simply an angry and frustrated Bron effectively throwing his hands up and saying “f^&k it”, he wasn’t overly invested in ensuring that no one took a shot to the head. A game seems fair enough. Anyway, moving on…
The remainder of the game lingers like a hazy account of a deeply inebriated night. If the Lakers go on any kind of sustained run, the incident will be framed as the spark that ignited their competitive fire. And, who knows? Maybe it was. In the moment, however, it was yet another indignity, add to a growing pile, in a season that’s, thus far, played out like a super-slow-mo train wreck.
After LeBron’s departure, the remaining Lakers spent game’s the next nine minutes exuding a “we were told this would be easier” vibe, and prompting some dark contemplations. By the last possession of the quarter, the Pistons’ lead was 17, and the Lakers had been comprehensively spanked (going back to Friday in Boston) in five of their last six quarters. I wished that Chick Hearn was around to lay into this crew, as only Chick could.
In the final twelve minutes… at long last, the 2021-22 Lakers looked actually, markedly better than an opponent. Within five minutes – behind 13 from Russ, six from Carmelo, and an acrobatic layup from THT – what had seemed like a garbage time formality was a one-possession game. It was immediate and relentless, and quickly took on a feeling of inevitability. This was the kind of thing that good teams – not just “good” teams, but teams with real ambitions, teams that you trust – do.
From there, the show belonged to AD, who, over the last seven minutes, took (and made) five shots (plus a pair of free throws) for 12 points, grabbed three rebounds, dished out three assists, had two steals (one, with three seconds left and a three-point lead, that sealed the game) and two blocks, one at the 3-point, one at the rim, both against Cunningham, in an unreal five-second sequence.
When all was said and done, somehow, someway, the funereal tone of an hour earlier was forgotten. Hell, the Lakers had not only emerged victorious, they’d made a run at covering 7.5. It was, of course, the perfectly unhinged ending to a fever dream.
Of course, the sober eye will assess this as yet another too-close-for-comfort win against lesser competition. One might point out that, against one of the NBA’s worst teams – who, in the absence of mayhem, and even for a spell after it, was confiscating the Lakers’ lunch money – the Lakers required 10.5% of the 3-pointers that Dwight Howard’s hit in 17-plus NBA seasons to win by a single point.
The joy and excitement of this comeback are very real. plus, every turnaround has to start somewhere. Plus, the Lakers’ last five trips to Detroit had yielded only defeat, by an average of nearly 15 points. Consider: the Lakers’ last Motor City win prominently featuring Carlos Boozer, Jeremy Lin and Wes Johnson, with Jordan Hill (22 and 13) and Nick Young (19 points) leading the way, Ed Davis grabbing eleven rebounds and Kobe posting an unfortunate 12-point, 13-assist, 10-turnover triple-double. So, y’know, beggars and choosers and whatnot. On top of all of that, no one around here is in a position to disown any wins right now. I mean…
What’s more, the fourth quarter performances from Russ and AD – aggressive, assertive and commanding – offer a template. There are the circumstances under which a team’s superstars must step up. In such a moment of need, Anthony Davis and Russ were imperious. Sure, every AD game won’t be 30, 10, 6-5-4 (though you watch that fourth quarter and wonder “WHY THE HELL NOT??”). And no, not every near-triple-double from Russ (26, 9, and 10 assists) will feature near-50% shooting and an over-3:1 A/T ratio. The game won’t always come together so perfectly, and just about all NBA opposition is better than the Pistons, but players as great as these two need no invitation to dominate.
Tonight, the Lakers take the floor at Madison Square Garden, with at least a hope of salvaging a winning record on the season’s first big road trip (the fifth and final game is tomorrow night in Indiana), and building on Sunday’s emotional high. As has been the case all season, they’ll be undermanned on the wings, without Trevor Ariza and Kendrick Nunn, freshly-upgraded-to-doubtful Austin Reaves and again, LeBron.
We (the broad basketball world) spend a lot of time dissecting rotations, schemes and X-factors. That stuff’s important, but only really when a team’s superstars play like superstars. Over the past two games, the Lakers have played arguably their two best quarters of the season – the first in Boston, and the fourth in Detroit. There is a common thread between those two quarters: Anthony Davis playing as though there’s not a man in the building with a prayer of stopping him. In just about every building on Earth, he’s right. Every game needs to reflect this.
Alongside him, Russ, who’s never had an issue expressing himself thusly, has got to channel Sunday’s fourth quarter performance, when he not only struck that perfect balance between efficiency and aggressiveness, but did so as a devastating pick-and-roll partner to AD. Until someone demonstrates an ability to consistently stop that, it should probably be front-and-center in the game plan.
If Frank Vogel wants to mix things up, it’s not the worst thing to have Carmelo – he of the 46% 3-point percentage and well-timed leadership – on hand. You don’t suppose he’d like to put on one more show for the MSG faithful, do you?
Where you can watch: 4:30 pm start time on TNT.