On second attempt, Lakers make solid first impression
Behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Los Angeles passes an early season test against solid Utah squad
LOS ANGELES — With microphone in hand, Danny Green created a kinda-sorta slogan for the 2019-20 Lakers by uttering a kinda-sorta ringing endorsement.
“We’ll do better than last year,” he promised the first home crowd of the season.
Well, considering last year was just shy of a disaster by almost every metric, the bar seems knee high. And to be honest, the Friday sellout crowd at Staples Center would’ve been fine if the Lakers just did better than the last game, a 10-point loss to the Clippers a few nights earlier that wounded the pride of Laker Nation.
At least the Lakers got a second chance to make a first impression, and they made the most of that, with a solid victory over Utah where the Lakers flashed the twin factors they’ll need this season to thrive: Generous doses of LeBron James and Anthony Davis along with punishing defense.
The Jazz are one of those Western Conference teams that, on paper, should win 50-plus games and cause trouble when the playoffs begin. So they were a legitimate early-season test, which the Lakers aced. The outcome was essentially decided midway through the fourth quarter, when LeBron and Davis were resting comfortably on the bench, and the 95-86 victory was wrapping up.
By then, the two future Hall of Famers had connected on a series of pick-and-rolls that completely flummoxed the Jazz, and this film will certainly send a chill through any future opponent putting together a scouting report. It’s a weapon the Lakers would be foolish not to employ; Davis and LeBron are matchup nightmares singularly. Together, they’re a recurring nightmare.
“It was a tough cover for Utah,” Davis said.
Seriously: How exactly do you defend this? Either Davis or LeBron rolling to the rim make for a handful, and both are solid enough mid-range shooters to give that combination an effective second option.
LeBron scored 32 points with 10 assists and seven rebounds, while Davis was good for 21 points, seven rebounds and five blocks. And the good news for the Lakers is Davis and LeBron are just getting to know each other’s tendencies and preferences, meaning, this chemistry should only sharpen and cause more problems.
There was something else, too, that the Lakers showcased against Utah: Using Davis at center. It’s not a position he craves, and in a perfect basketball world, he’d never see more than a few possessions in the middle. Davis likes to roam free instead of being chained to the paint.
But coming out of the halftime break, the Lakers were slumbering and coach Frank Vogel pulled that emergency cord and the results were positive, even against Rudy Gobert, perhaps the league’s best rim protector.
“If it makes sense, then I don’t mind doing it,” Davis said.
The center spot is a curiosity for the Lakers; neither JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard are in their prime, nor do they bring an offensive component. Which means, on occasion, Vogel will nudge Davis over from power forward.
“We don’t want to go through that full time because we want to keep Anthony fresh,” Vogel said, “but we have that option in our back pocket. He was all for it and wanted to do it.”
It’s all a work in progress for the Lakers mainly because of all the new pieces in the rotation, and also because the Lakers aren’t yet whole. Rajon Rondo remains on the mend and his role as an optional ball handler next to LeBron is crucial, if only to relieve LeBron from those duties for generous stretches. There’s no timetable for Rondo’s return although a possible projection is another week.
Same for Kyle Kuzma, who hasn’t played in a game since suffering a stress reaction in his left foot at the FIBA World Cup in August. Obviously Kuzma’s value to the Lakers is paramount; he’s the third wheel and the borderline All-Star who brings outside shooting and is capable of making teams pay for doubling on LeBron and Davis.
In due time, the Lakers will be fully stocked and equipped to make good on doing better than last year, provided of course both LeBron and Davis remain upright and don’t reach for a body part at some point this season.
Until then, they hope to keep playing the inspired defense that confused the Jazz, who were buried under 23 turnovers. When the Lakers can win a game easily despite shooting below 40%, as they did Friday, then it’s a good defensive day.
“That’s who we are,”said LeBron, “or at least we want to be that every night.”
Davis conceded the Lakers were faulty in the season opener against the Clippers, who shot 52% and cruised on the strength of their leading scorers connecting on mid-range jumpers and their bench.
“Kawhi (Leonard) and Lou Will kind of hurt us,” said Davis. “We want to be defensive oriented. The more we can punch guys in the mouth defensively it’ll help us offensively.”
And so the Lakers in their second year with LeBron and first year with Davis are carving out their identity. It started with a loss, rebounded with a win, and will go forth on the strength of their two stars and assorted role players while Rondo and Kuzma are out.
This should be enough to sustain a club that has already forgotten what last year was like. At least until Green addressed the crowd and felt it necessary to use last season as a launching pad.
You might say the Lakers are already over it by now.
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