SAN FRANCISCO — In one of the quiet moments of Saturday’s game, when LeBron James and Anthony Davis were both on the bench, they conferred about their new-look group, that has changed over six players last month.
The two stars’ conclusion, according to Davis: “We’re gonna be really good.”
What Davis called a good roster on paper made most of its debut, minus James, against the defending champions and managed to pull out a 109-103 win, snapping a three-game losing streak.
Dennis Schröder, the pint-sized guard who has stood out time and again in short-handed games, led the way with 26 points. But tmost of the intrigue came from the newcomers: D’Angelo Russell had 15 points, six assists and five rebounds, Jarred Vanderbilt had 12 points and eight rebounds, and Malik Beasley had four points in their first games as Lakers (or in Russell’s case, his first game in his L.A. comeback).
For a relatively new group, the Lakers had some surprising cohesion coming down the stretch. Russell knocked down back-to-back shots in the midrange, then Rui Hachimura – with only a few weeks of a headstart on his new teammates – hit a 3-pointer. Davis got a critical blocked shot in the closing minutes, turning into a Hachimura jumper on the other end.
No one was more brilliant down the stretch (once again) than Schröder, who drove in for a layup against Klay Thompson with 1:117 left, sealed the win at the free-throw line. He turned in a 7-for-12 shooting performance from the field and a 9-for-11 night at the foul line. His continued presence in the starting lineup is a reflection of his relationship with Coach Darvin Ham, who trusts him implicitly from their time together in Atlanta.
While the Lakers were without their franchise player, the Warriors were without theirs. Steph Curry, who is expected to miss significant time with a leg injury, sat out, leaving Jordan Poole (29 points) and Klay Thompson (15 points) as the main threats.
The Lakers trailed by as much as eight, but a 34-26 advantage in the third quarter flipped it. Vanderbilt figured prominently in that period, scoring 8 of his points and going 3 for 3 from the field as well as hitting Wenyen Gabriel for easy pocket passes.
“I’m so thankful that we got him, man,” Ham said, shaking his head. “You saw his energy.”
The only prep the newcomers got were courtside seats to Thursday’s game against Milwaukee, a brief Friday practice before a flight to the Bay Area, and an hour-and-a-half working session at the University of San Francisco with the coaching staff. Ham said he tried to get them acclimated to their offensive and defensive schemes, but he also acknowledged that he would rely heavily on pick-and-roll actions, especially for Russell, the only newcomer inserted into the starting lineup.
But Russell’s constant communication throughout the game gave Davis and James confidence that the group is going to blend quickly – which the Lakers need to jump from 13th place in the West to the postseason. During halftime, Davis said the trio were literally drawing up plays on the whiteboard of the visiting locker room, envisioning what it will be like when they all hit the floor together.
“I think it’s gonna be an experience,” said Russell, who played in his first game as a Laker since April 2017. “Obviously what they have going works. So for me to fit with them, I gotta figure out where I can fit.”
At the moment, it’s not precisely clear when James will be back on the floor. He missed his second straight game with what the team called left ankle soreness, but which has been largely described by Lakers personnel as pain in his foot. ABC sideline reporter Lisa Salters reported that James could miss the Lakers’ Monday game in Portland. When asked if James might sit out until after the All-Star break, coach Darvin Ham struck down the idea: “I don’t think he’ll allow us to do that.”
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Without James on the floor, Russell got his first two baskets in his second stint with the Lakers on pick-and-roll drives playing with Davis, finishing acrobatic shots that showcased his touch. But there were miscommunications, too, marked by seven turnovers between Davis and Russell against the Warriors.
For much of the night, the offense was stymied along with the Lakers’ leading available option: Davis was flustered in his post-ups by the steady defense of Kevon Looney and Draymond Green. He missed his first five shots, and by halftime he had only four points. From his MVP-level form to start the season, his midrange jumpshot touch has yet to return from his 20-game injury layoff.
But after a few calls that didn’t go his way, Davis decided to direct his frustration elsewhere. He finished 5 for 19 from the field with 16 rebounds and three blocks.
“I just wanted to go out and get every rebound and block every shot,” Davis said, “and my mindset just shifted.”
Schröder – who has produced a number of big games in shorthanded situations – brought some firepower, scoring 13 points in the first half alone and helping the team shake off a 1-for-10 shooting start from behind the arc.
In his own second stint with the Lakers, Schröder had encouraging words for the new group.
“We told them we know what they bring to the table,” he said. “Everybody watches the NBA, watches other games, and I think if they do what they did over their career, we’ll be fine.”