The Lakers launched their New Year’s Eve festivities early, storming out to a sure-footed, straight-shooting start against Portland on Friday and carrying that momentum through a game that could end up being more significant than merely a laugher that heightened the holiday vibe.
LeBron James’ successful three-point shot on the first possession of the game should have told the depleted Trail Blazers — who rank among the NBA’s worst defensive teams — they were going to be in for a long night at Crypto.com Arena. And they were, with James scoring a season-high 43 points and pulling down 14 rebounds in a 139-106 runaway, the Lakers’ biggest margin of victory this season.
“We felt like we grew over the last few games even though we haven’t been collecting the wins, and I think we were motivated to come out and get that ‘W’ and execute at a very high level,” said coach Frank Vogel, who returned after missing six games while ill with COVID.
They were efficient and decisive, achieving a flurry of notable feats that included James’ seventh consecutive game with at least 30 points. They also committed a season-low seven turnovers. Russell Westbrook recorded his fourth straight triple-double (15 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists) as the Lakers edged above .500 at home (11-10).
For the Lakers, the most significant impact of their win on Friday would be if it sets a pattern for the five-game homestand that continues Sunday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, who routed the Lakers in two previous meetings this season.
The Lakers have yet to put together a sizeable winning streak, and as long as Anthony Davis is recovering from the knee injury he suffered on Dec. 17 their lineup will change depending on matchups. As long as James continues to thrive while playing center, they’re giving themselves a chance to do more than tread water while Davis heals.
James thrived again in their demolition of Portland, but what made the game a potential launching point for a strong run was the return of Austin Reaves and Trevor Ariza from the league’s health and safety protocols and the grittiness of Stanley Johnson. Together they infused a sense that things are getting better for the Lakers (18-19) in this COVID-muddled season, that reinforcements and fresh energy have arrived and they’re regaining a sliver of their defensive identity they forged during their 2020 championship season.
“Over the last five games we’ve continued to add another piece of our nucleus back. One game here, another game here,” James said. “We’re getting all our guys back. They know our system. They know what we want to do.
“We’re getting our glue guys back. Our glue guys like Austin Reaves, Avery Bradley, Trevor Ariza, all our guys that kind of like, they do the dirty work for us, and that’s something we was missing when those guys were in protocol. Our dirty-work guys. Our glue guys. And now they continue to come back in. Now we added another dirty-work player and glue guy in Stanley Johnson.”
Johnson, who signed a 10-day contract on a hardship exemption on Christmas Eve, started against Portland and had 10 points, three rebounds and two assists. He also was plus-25 in just over 23 minutes’ work.
“He’s picked up our system really fast, and part of it is because he was with South Bay and that gave him a cheat sheet, which we needed,” James said, referring to the Lakers’ G-league affiliate. “And he brought in some toughness at the wing position. And also some defensive toughness as well.
“That’s where we hang our hats at over the last three years, is the defensive side of the floor. A guy that’s hungry. Obviously trying to earn a roster spot you could tell he’s hungry and playing great basketball since the Christmas Day game, the road trip, Houston, Memphis and [Friday] once again, and hopefully he continues it.”
Vogel is another active member of the Stanley Johnson fan club. “What we saw in Stanley is just a little bit more footspeed with the Dame Lillard double-teams. It wasn’t a Jusuf Nurkic out there that could really impose his size on us,” Vogel said.
“The thing about Stanley is I like the physicality he has. He’s not just a quicker guy, but he’s strong as hell, too.”
There’s a lot of wait and see with the Lakers this season, but at least they’ve gotten their support players on the path toward establishing some degree of consistency. “It’s big for us,” Westbrook said. “We had a lot of those guys out and we need everybody on this current roster, as you can see, and tonight was a good night to be able to get guys back into a little bit of a rhythm defensively. It was good.”
The Lakers might catch a break on Sunday. Karl-Anthony Towns, who scored 29 points against them in a 107-23 Minnesota win on Nov. 12 and 28 points in a 110-92 Timberwolves victory on Dec. 17 at Minneapolis, was in the NBA’s health and safety protocols as of Friday and missed his team’s game against Utah. Former Laker D’Angelo Russell also was in the protocols and missed Minnesota’s last two games.
Asked what had made Minnesota so successful against the Lakers — and how they can stop Towns — Vogel said he hadn’t yet plotted his strategy or lineup. “We don’t even know if he’s in,” Vogel said. “But he’s one of those guys that obviously he has the size and he has the perimeter game that makes those decisions difficult. I haven’t put a lot of thought into how we’ll go yet. But it’s going to be on a game-to- game basis.”
That could work, as long as James continues to shoulder the scoring burden and the glue guys hold the rest of the lineup together.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.