It’s not that the four quarters and overtime in the Lakers’ 127-115 win weren’t exciting — the basketball was pretty good, the two teams flying up and down the court, hitting big shots and making plays at and above the rim.
It’s that so much of the basketball involving the Lakers right now requires imagination, the long-term goals still so reachable that it’s best to wonder how things would work against Utah if LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court in uniforms instead of on the sideline in streetwear.
Utah was just as incomplete of a version of itself Saturday, guard Donovan Mitchell sitting because of a freshly sprained ankle. The Jazz also sat center Rudy Gobert and point guard Mike Conley Jr. with the team playing in the second game on back-to-back days.
But even though neither team was at its best — the versions that have them so feared come the Western Conference playoffs in a month — you could pick up on the slivers of progress the battered Lakers have made minus their stars, imagining the ways things will look once they’re combined with Davis first and eventually James.
Take Dennis Schroder, the Lakers point guard, who spent much of the early stretch of the season trying to find his place on the court with his new teammates. He dominated Saturday, taking advantage of the Jazz’s Gobert-absent defense and icing Utah’s hottest player, Jordan Clarkson, down the stretch to help force overtime.
Take the team’s response to adversity, a blown lead as the result of a 15-0 Utah run in the fourth quarter that had the Lakers looking like possible losers on an afternoon when they largely outplayed the depleted Jazz. Instead of crumbling, they refocused, Schroder sending the game into overtime in the final seconds after Clarkson got loose to hit a go-ahead three.
The Lakers responded by outscoring Utah 17-5 in overtime.
Watch Andre Drummond work, jumping into passing lanes to get steals and lead fastbreaks, finally connecting with teammates for lob dunks. See Kentavious Caldwell-Pope step into open shots and sprint into transition without hesitation, recapturing the threat he was last year in the bubble and at the start of this season.
Those three players, all expected to remain in the starting lineup once Davis and James come back, combined to score 77 points Saturday in the win over the Jazz.
While Davis likely won’t play when the teams meet again Monday, he’s very close to a return. James will follow, energizing the team as they hit the final lap of the regular-season marathon.
“Getting healthy at the right time, it’s perfect for us, man,” Lakers forward Markieff Morris said. “We’re just … it’s a crazy season. Back-to-back nights, days off in between, without our best two players. … We’ve held it down for the most part. Now we’re getting them back fully healthy.”
It’s not considered some grand mystery around the NBA — the Lakers, if healthy, are going to be the favorites in the West, the silver linings they found in playing big chunks of the season without Davis and James about to come to fruition.
Of everything that happened in the win Saturday, Schroder’s performance stands out, the lightning-fast guard blowing through the defense for layups on his way to a 25-point, eight-assist, six-rebound game — probably his best performance in a victory this season.
And it happened with the guard still fighting through a handful of injuries, including an infected foot caused by a cut between his toes.
“I’ve been playing that [way] my whole career. I’m like that. I’m built like that,” Schroder said. “It don’t matter what situation I’m in, I’m going to do the same thing.”
On Saturday, that meant Schroder being the competitive spirit that kept the Lakers in it as regulation wrapped, opening the door for their impressive overtime.
“I think he’s very comfortable in our system with this year’s teammates, with his teammates,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “I think he’s very comfortable and that’s one of the silver linings with ‘Bron and A.D. being out.”
If the Lakers can add games like this from their complementary starters once their stars are back, they’ll be right in position.
“We’ve got championship DNA … That DNA, we just use it every game. Some games, we’re going to lose. The fact of the matter is, we’ve got to continue to play hard,” Morris said. “We know what’s coming, preparing ourselves for the playoffs. We know it’s time. And we know from here on out, everything counts.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.