LeBron James vs. Denver
LeBron James dunks against the Denver Nuggets on Oct. 25, 2018.
(J Alexander Diaz/Los Angeles Lakers)

Lance, Lonzo and LeBron: Captains of the Comeback

by Joey Ramirez
Digital Reporter

It wasn’t looking good for the Lakers, as the undefeated Denver Nuggets opened up an eight-point lead with less than six minutes remaining.

But the Lakers weren’t about to pack it in. In fact, despite playing on the second night of a back-to-back, L.A. surged ahead with a 15-2 run that led into a 121-114 comeback victory.


The Spark
With LeBron James resting on the bench, Lance Stephenson took it upon himself to get the Lakers’ offense going.

Stephenson — who was the driving force behind L.A.’s win the night before — got started by drilling a 3-pointer after his defender went underneath the handoff.

That clearly gave him some rhythm, as he came right back down the court with some trademark Lance flare. He used a between-the-legs crossover to create separation from his defender.

And despite hitting just 4-of-12 from 3-point range to start the year, he drained a step-back triple.

“I just felt like my clutch badge came on,” Stephenson laughed.

But he still wasn’t done.

Denver tried to overwhelm Stephenson by blitzing him on the pick-and-roll, but that just gave him an opportunity to put his slashing talents to use.

As Nuggets center Nikola Jokic scrambled back to protect the paint, Stephenson took advantage of him turning his back to the play, getting downhill for the easy layup and bringing the Lakers within two points with 4:30 left.

“His tenacity, his competitive nature just kinda brought us back into that game,” James said.

The Defender
The Nuggets shot just 3-of-10 over the game’s final six minutes — a finish that saw them record more turnovers (four) than made baskets.

So much of this had to do with the mayhem created by sophomore point guard Lonzo Ball, who gave the Lakers something of everything with 12 points, eight assists, six rebounds and a game-turning five steals.

“He has some of the quickest hands that this league has,” LeBron said. “And I think a lot of people always try to discredit what he can do offensively. They never give him enough credit for what he can do defensively.”

Ball has been causing defensive chaos since he entered the league. As a rookie last year, he would have been among the NBA’s top 10 in steals if he had played enough games to qualify.

Walton felt that Ball — who also had four deflections and recovered four loose balls against Denver — started making huge defensive plays starting with his second-half decision to pick up Jamal Murray the entire length of the floor.

“From that point on, on defense, he was causing havoc, getting his hands on balls, reading plays, coming in and rebounding,” Walton said. “He’s a big-time game-changer for us when he’s playing aggressively like that.”

But perhaps his most impressive defensive play was simply a contested shot. Up by three with just over two minutes left, Ball found himself switched onto 6’10”, 250-pound Nikola Jokic in the post.

Despite giving up four inches and 45 pounds to the current Western Conference Player of the Week, Ball — who added significant muscle to his frame over the offseason — was able to influence a miss.

And then Ball caught Jokic on the other end, when the Nuggets had him guard Lonzo instead of LeBron, who had shifted to center.

The reassignment didn’t work out for the big man, who was unable to close out on Ball’s favorite shot: the step-back 3-pointer (which he hit a sizzling 12-of-18 last year).

The Closer
When it comes to comebacks, it definitely helps to have the world’s best player on your side.

As would be expected, LeBron was a key part of the Lakers rallying back, as he checked in with just under four minutes left to fill the center spot.

James — who scored half of the Lakers’ 20 fast-break points on the night — immediately feasted in transition, receiving a bullet pass from Stephenson for a dunk that gave L.A. the lead it would never surrender.

“Obviously that small lineup that we were able to get to — because they got stops — showed how dynamic they could be on the offensive end,” Walton said. “Running with the spacing and skill set of that group.”

Of course, on a night when James recorded his first triple-double as a Laker, he also showed off his ability to distribute.

He has developed nice chemistry with Kyle Kuzma, who has been the recipient of 13 of James’ assists this season — six more than the next-closest teammate.

And when LeBron drew four defenders on his way to the hoop in the final two minutes, he spied Kuzma making a smart cut down the baseline.

But what were the Nuggets supposed to do? If they didn’t send help, they risked allowing the league’s best driver to get to the cup one-on-one, which he did just a minute later.

James — who had 28 points and shot 9-of-12 from inside the arc — rejected a screen, drove to his right and powered past former All-Defensive selection Paul Millsap to put the game on ice.

“That’s a LeBron game,” Walton laughed. “He’s really good. I don’t think there’s a statement game to be made. … He definitely turned it up tonight, but that’s just a LeBron game.”

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