LOS ANGELES – These are the type of games the Lakers have to win, period.
They persevered Sunday against Golden State after the first unit took a 15-point first-quarter lead, thanks to a 28-5 run, and the second unit gave most of it back. They withstood everything thrown at them the rest of the way by a revitalized Warriors club that got Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala back Sunday, Curry following an 11-game absence due to a leg injury with a 27-point afternoon.
And the Lakers held off the Warriors to win, 113-104, to creep within a half-game of 10th-place New Orleans and the final play-in spot in the Western Conference. They have 17 games left, the return of LeBron James is still somewhere in the distance (and that of D’Angelo Russell is closer), but the guys in uniform right now have to keep the Lakers in position to get there.
And maybe they learned something from Friday night’s uninspired and uninspiring 110-102 loss to Minnesota, at the start of a five-game homestand.
“I feel like every day that we go into practice, like the next day after a game, we look at the standings and we talk about it as a team,” the Lakers’ Troy Brown Jr. said. “We understand the goal that we’re trying to get to and (that) we can’t afford to lose games.
“And so that’s why last game just felt crucial. I feel like we needed that. If we win that and then we win this today, you know, we’re sitting good. But you can’t live in the past … End of the day, like I keep saying, the game waits for nobody and nobody’s gonna feel sorry for us. And so we got to move on to the next game and still figure it out.”
It is Anthony Davis’ team right now. He had 38 points Friday night against the Timberwolves, and topped it Sunday with 39 points (14 for 25 shooting from all over the floor and 10 of 13 free throws), eight rebounds, six assists and two blocked shots.
“He’s playing pain-free, in a really great rhythm,” coach Darvin Ham said. “He’s smiling. He’s fighting through a lot – hits to the face, to the arms, scratches, everything. He’s battling through it all. And I just feel like he’s just in a great, great place right now.”
(Ham didn’t even mention the possession where Curry was guarding Davis on a mismatch during one first half possession and basically locked arms with him. If this were the NFL, there might be multiple flags for holding. Here? No call.)
Davis talked about his responsibility to be aggressive offensively while also being conscious of getting other players involved. He also talked about how he and his teammates felt they “let one go” against the Timberwolves, and I asked him if there was a danger of players trying to do too much or take on too much responsibility with so much on the line, only to tie themselves into knots.
“No,” he said. “Guys are playing for each other. Obviously you’re going to have mistakes throughout the course of the game, times where maybe you should drive the basketball and not shoot it, times where you should shoot it and not drive or might have a turnover here and there. But next play mentality, you know., You can’t dwell on the last play, especially in the position we’re in. (If) you’re going to make a mistake, make sure you (play) to the best of your ability, as hard as you can. At the end of the day. I mean, get back and get a stop.
“…But we want everybody to be aggressive. We don’t want anybody to feel like they have to defer to anyone.”
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There was little deference Sunday. Austin Reaves stepped up with 16 points and eight assists in his 27:39 of playing time, while aggressively defending Curry at the other end. Jarred Vanderbilt finished with 13 rebounds and four assists. Dennis Schröder had six assists in an otherwise rough day (4 for 13 from the field, 11 points and a minus-6 when he was in the game).
And Brown played a season-high 41:11 and had 14 points, including 4 for 7 from 3-point territory.
“I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves, honestly,” Reaves said of Brown. “The stats don’t jump out at you, and you’re like, ‘Oh, he had 14, five and three.’ There’s multiple games where he has, you know, seven points, four rebounds, maybe a steal or two, a block or two, but he impacts the game in a billion different ways – usually chasing around a team’s best player (defensively), rebounds the ball well and then the confidence shooting the ball.”
The bottom line is that this is a better, more complementary Lakers roster than it was before the trade deadline. Not to oversell it, but when Russell and then James return, it could have a puncher’s chance in a Western Conference that, aside from first-place Denver, is not that imposing.
The Lakers are a half-game out of the play-in, but they’re also three games out of fifth. Ten of their final 17 are home games, and an 11th is a Clippers home game in downtown L.A. And 12 of the 17 are against teams either in or below the play-in zone, currently including the Clippers.
It’s doable. But they can’t afford many more, if any more, repeats of Friday night.