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After LeBron James’ critiques, Lakers’ role players look to grow their game

CHARLOTTE — LeBron James made himself the main topic of conversation on Friday night by virtue of his play: A 47-point game on his birthday was bound to steal the show.

But that didn’t mean the now-38-year-old didn’t want to share the love.

Just two nights removed from making a not-so-subtle critique of the Lakers’ roster and positioning in the Western Conference standings, James doled out praise for his teammates after a 130-121 win over the Atlanta Hawks. There’s at least one thing he likes more than a great individual performance: winning.

“Seeing Russ (Westbrook) make those plays, getting that layup in a close game with the left, Thomas Bryant running the floor after that steal by Russ and getting the layup in transition, Dennis (Schröder) hitting the baseline jumper in a close one,” James recounted. “Juan (Toscano-Anderson) was so key for us tonight. JTA was huge for us tonight with AR struggling. It was just good because it was a full team effort.”

Maybe a little praise was welcome after James heaped the pressure.

The Lakers were largely celebratory after their needed victory – just the second in their last seven games – and James’ birthday celebration in Atlanta helped lighten the mood. Players and staff could grab cookie cake on their way out of the door. But players also had to acknowledge hearing James’ message loud and clear about not being satisfied: “I don’t want to finish my career playing at this level from a team aspect,” he said Wednesday.

Embedded in that sentiment is plenty of subtext: James has been playing at an All-NBA level lately even while the team has been crashing. Since Anthony Davis was hurt against Denver, James has been averaging 33.5 points, 7 rebounds and 7.1 assists while shooting 58% from the field. He’s often looked visibly exhausted, almost nightly battling back from huge deficits.

The question that has permeated the discourse around the Lakers: Why can’t the cast around him do more? That happens to be a frequent topic about James’ teams.

Toscano-Anderson, who spent his last few seasons with future Hall of Famers at Golden State, said he found James’ words in line with what the team wants to achieve.

“I actually appreciate the pressure, I like the pressure,” Toscano-Anderson said. “I know what championship basketball looks like, I know what high-level basketball looks like. That’s what they expect. … You gotta step up to the plate. It’s a man’s game.”

The kind of pressure James can put on his teammates has definitely shown during his time with the Lakers, most notably in 2019 when James was known to favor a trade for Davis. The team finished 9-16 after the trade deadline. Last season, similarly, after the Lakers didn’t make a deadline move, the team finished 6-18. In both seasons, the Lakers wound up firing their head coach.

As a rookie head coach, Darvin Ham has now been thrown in that fire. Though he has championship experience as a player and an assistant coach, he acknowledged that he’s faced “different circumstances” that have forced him to make uncomfortable pivots – such as Davis’ injury pushing him toward smaller lineups. But Ham said he didn’t arrive in L.A. with the idea that the Lakers were necessarily going to shake up the roster midseason; he’s tried to make the most out of the team he’s got now.

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“I didn’t come here with any preconceived notions,” he said. “I came into it ready to do my damn job and make sure that everybody understood the way we wanted to play basketball and what our identity is going to be. And I’ve said those three words in my opening press day, all the way through: compete, be together, hold yourself accountable. And it’s just trying to do that and do that day-in and day-out.”

One of the best performers amid Davis’ injury has been Bryant, who despite his defensive shortcomings has squeezed out 15.2 points and 9.1 rebounds per game in his last nine appearances. He’s been pulled late in games for defensive-minded substitutions, but was able to finish out the win against Atlanta.

His postgame sentiments read like a mission statement for the role players around James in the coming weeks.

“It shows our resiliency,” Bryant said. “It shows perseverance and how guys need to fight each and every time out there. I thought we did a great job out in Miami but unfortunately we lost that one. So I’m glad that all of us picked each other up to get this win for us today and for Bron.”

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